SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ. -- In your dreams, who would you rather be:
Rhett Butler, cussing out Scarlett O'Hara?
Bond, James Bond?
Steve McQueen, the King of Cool?
Batman, the Caped Crusader?
Or Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle, better known as Fatty?
How you answered may hold the key to understanding why confounding amounts of money were focused on particular cars at six recent auctions centered on this affluent Phoenix suburb. While bidders showered unprecedented amounts on a few cars with celebrity connections, others with ties to actors, politicians and blockbuster movies did not fare nearly as well.
The original Batmobile, which was based on the 1955 Lincoln Futura concept car, sold for a startling $4.62 million at the Barrett-Jackson auction here on Jan. 19. At the same auction, a 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing that had once been owned by Clark Gable, the leading man of "Gone With The Wind," sold for $2.035 million. (All prices include sales commissions.)
Yet Arbuckle's 1919 Pierce-Arrow Model 66 A-4 Tourer, resplendent in purple-blue paint -- the car was special-ordered by the silent-screen comedian, whose career crashed in a sex scandal -- did not sell.
"The Arbuckle Pierce-Arrow is a magnificent automobile, one of the only custom-bodied Pierce-Arrows ever built and a true example of the Golden Age of automotive art and elegance," Craig Jackson, the auction company's chief executive, said.
But that wasn't enough to push the car over its reserve, prompting Mr. Jackson to add, "The Clark Gable Gullwing clearly resonated with our buyers more so than Fatty Arbuckle's vehicle."
Why is that?
"In the collector car world, there is celebrity, and then there is celebrity that matters," Alain Squindo, vice president of RM Auctions, said in a telephone interview last week. "Clark Gable was the King of Hollywood, and Steve McQueen was the King of Cool. People today aren't so sure anymore who Fatty Arbuckle even was."
Arbuckle, who died 80 years ago, was a huge star, literally and figuratively, and one of the best-paid. But his reputation was ruined by accusations of rape and murder in 1921; he was acquitted after two mistrials, and sold the car to pay legal bills.
"Arbuckle's Pierce-Arrow was just about the most important car of its day," said McKeel Hagerty, chief executive of Hagerty Insurance, which specializes in coverage for collectible cars. "But nowadays, that is so many generations ago."
These days, baby boomers move the collector-car market, and many of those with lots of disposable income seem less interested in historical artifacts than in the toys and touchstones of their youth.
"That hits the nail on the head," Mr. Squindo said. "It is stuff that matters to guys -- men of a certain age -- who grew up in that era. How many guys didn't want to be James Bond?"
Perhaps that helps to explain why a 1964 Aston Martin DB5, made famous in "Goldfinger," sold at an RM auction in 2010 for $4.6 million. "That was at a time when any other DB5 in the world would have sold for about one-tenth of that," Mr. Squindo said. Of course, the Bond car was famously equipped with all the gadgets a mid-1960s secret agent might require, including oil sprayers, hidden machine guns and a seat that could eject a passenger.
More grown men may have dreamed of being Bond than Batman. But Rick Champagne, the 53-year-old founder of a Phoenix-area transportation company, made a move worthy of Bruce Wayne by stepping up to pay millions for the original television Batmobile. He told a Speed channel interviewer that he planned to rip out a wall in his living room so he could park the car inside his house.
Yet owners of the many Batmobile replicas and knockoffs should not expect values to rise as they have for DB4s and DB5s.
Mr. Hagerty said that "while all Aston Martins may have doubled in value, thanks to that Bond car, it's very rare that any other cars enjoy the same mystique."
Mr. Squindo cited another example, a 1970 Porsche 911S that RM sold in 2011 for what seemed an astonishing price.
"The only reason bidding on that car skyrocketed to $1.37 million was that it was Steve McQueen's 911," Mr. Squindo said. "It was even painted in an unusual slate gray -- his favorite color.
"The car, like any other 911S you could find, was worth a couple hundred thousand, at best. The McQueen provenance, in that case, was worth over a million."
So how much value did a Clark Gable connection add to a 1955 Mercedes Gullwing? "Perhaps a million," Mr. Squindo said, noting that an exceptional red '55 model sold for $847,000 at RM's Phoenix auction.
"While celebrity provenance can help a car's value," Mr. Squindo said, "it rarely, if ever, can hurt a car."
Sometimes, it just doesn't matter. Consider the 1935 Cadillac V-12 Convertible Sedan that sold at the RM auction in Phoenix for an unremarkable $99,000. The car was originally owned by Harold Lloyd, another star of silent movies, and it made a memorable appearance in last year's Academy Award-winning film, "The Artist."
Gene Osborne, the Colorado cattleman who bought the car, said he really didn't care about the Cadillac's provenance; he told the seller, Jennifer Sparks Bushman, he just wanted a big open car from the '30s that he could drive around his ranch and take to some car shows.
Other cars with various degrees of celebrity pedigrees sold for unpredictable and widely varied prices. The 1941 Lincoln that served as Sonny Corleone's car in "The Godfather" brought $69,000 at Bonhams; a 1941 Packard once owned by Sonja Henie, the figure skater and film star, sold for $176,000 at Gooding & Company; and a customized 1957 Ford Thunderbird with Sinatra provenance (Nancy, not Frank) went for $50,600 at Barrett-Jackson.
Mr. Squindo noted that a 1955 Cadillac Series 75 presidential limousine primarily used by President Dwight D. Eisenhower's wife, Mamie, attracted bids up to $105,000, but failed to sell at the RM auction. "Certainly, fewer of us remember people of that era, like Mamie Eisenhower," he said.
Every adult, however, remembers George W. Bush, and that familiarity no doubt helped to drive up bidding for the former President's 2009 Ford F-150 King Ranch pickup. With Jay Leno presiding, the truck sold for $300,000 at Barrett-Jackson with the proceeds going to charity.
That, according to KBB.com, was about 10 times the value of a comparable nonpresidential F-150.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.