Jul 27, 2023
Motorcycle Museum: National Motorcycle Museum auctioning collection
In the case of motorcycles, Iowan John Parham teetered on the edge between red-hot passion and downright obsession. He founded J&P Cycles, an incredibly successful after-market motorcycle parts
In the case of motorcycles, Iowan John Parham teetered on the edge between red-hot passion and downright obsession.
He founded J&P Cycles, an incredibly successful after-market motorcycle parts business that employed nearly 250 people in his hometown of Anamosa before being sold to a national distributor.
He saved the National Motorcycle Museum from financial ruin and moved its headquarters to Iowa, first in a small spot on Main Street and then to the old Walmart building on the outskirts of town.
And he spent countless hours pouring over motorcycle history, especially enthralled with the early 1900s when gearheads became boardroom visionaries selling machines to the masses.
If John had any time left over after all that working, curating and studying, he was probably out on Iowa’s backroads riding one of the more than 250 motorcycles in his personal collection.
Since John’s death from pulmonary fibrosis in 2017, Jill Parham, his wife and business partner, has been keeping the museum open and his collection of bikes, books and billboards on display. But with the museum’s finances in the red and herself nearing 70 and nursing the itch to retire, Jill is preparing to close the museum for good on Sept. 4 and auction off the inventory in the days following.
“John would probably say, ‘You know, I never expected you to continue to do this the rest of your life. It's time for you to move to a new chapter,’” Jill says. “So it's just time to close it and move on and see if I can do a little traveling and be like everybody else that's retired.”
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Officially known as the John Parham Estate Collection at the National Motorcycle Museum, the more than 6,000 pieces that will be sold next month include tin toys, road signs, oil cans, sculptures, a fully restored 1920s Shell service station and “more than 300 collector-grade, museum-worthy motorcycles,” according to the Mecum Auctions, the house hosting the sale.
“This auction is going to be a very, very rare opportunity to acquire first-class motorcycles and all the memorabilia that goes with,” says Greg Arnold, head of Mecum’s motorcycle division.
Arnold hesitated to put an exact figure on the collection, but says its value was “certainly in the millions.”
The collection is “a cornucopia of everything two-wheeled,” he adds. “Every country is represented, every brand, nearly every model. It’s deep.”
John Parham liked to bet against the odds.
Like when he started a motorcycle parts catalog business in the '70s in the middle of rural Iowa, says Jill, his childhood sweetheart. No one thought that was going to work.
“It was considered a little bit radical,” she says. “We weren't the most loved in town for bringing all those bikers into town at that point in time. And then we became a real big company and the town just loved those bikers coming to town then.
“John was never scared to try anything, never ever scared to try an idea that he had. If it didn't work, he just moved on and tried something else.”
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John had been “possessed by the motorcycle world” since his earliest days, Jill says. His work in motorcycle parts fed his motorcycle collecting hobby and his obsession with the industry’s history served him on the road as much as it did the warehouse.
“He just had such a passion for it, he wanted to share it with everyone,” she adds.
So when the original owners of the National Motorcycle Museum in Sturgis, South Dakota — the motorcycle mecca that hosts the world-famous annual rally — told Parham they didn’t have the funds to keep it afloat, he “couldn't stand to see it go,” Jill says.
In 2001, the Parhams took on the museum’s debt and moved the collection to a storefront in Anamosa. They moved the collection again a decade later to a warehouse on the town’s outer edge, which gave them a lot more space for displays — but also left them with a lot larger heating and cooling bill.
Early on, before J&P sold to Motorsport Aftermarket Group and its core operations moved out of state, the company and museum drew visitors from all over the country and even the world.
The manager of a local Super 8 told the Associated Press in 2004 that the hotel had hosted motorcycle enthusiasts from Japan, Germany, Switzerland, England and a big group from Australia whose motorcycle club stores its North American bikes in Minneapolis.
But in the past decade or so the museum struggled to cover wages and utilities as visitation continued to drop. COVID-19 didn’t help, Jill says.
And even though the museum had up to 500 motorcycles on display in its fattest years, it was still one of at least six motorcycle museums operating in America.
Parham’s collection may not be the biggest or finest that Mecum has ever auctioned, but it represents one of their most broad offerings, Arnold says.
And that wide-ranging assemblage was by design, Jill says. In growing his collection, John took particular care to make sure he had bikes from all different eras, companies and countries of origin.
“There’s a little bit of everything,” she says.
“He always wanted to have all kinds of different makes and models because he wanted people to come in here and look at that motorcycle and say, ‘You know, that was my first bike that I ever started off on when I was 16 years old,’” she says. “And so many people have done that over the years.”
Since announcing the museum’s closure in January, Jill has heard from old customers and friends the world over, and some have made a point to visit in the days before the museum closes. Just last week, the museum welcomed 3,000 visitors — almost half the number they welcomed all of last year.
“It's phenomenal, but it's a bittersweet sadness,” she says.
Although she’s kept 10 bikes back from the sale in memory of her life-long love, closing up has been heart-rending.
As emotional as she will be to see John’s motorcycles go out the door, she knows that the best way to honor him is to make sure his love of bikes is shared widely and in perpetuity.
She’s been praying recently that some of the bikes will go to other museums, as a nod to John’s eternal studying of the industry’s history. And others, like some of the BMWs or Hondas, she wants people to buy in order to ride. They’ve been sitting inside when they actually deserve a country road, she says.
But, really, she hopes the sale attracts an early collector, some guy or girl who is possessed by motorcycles.
Someone just like John.
The National Motorcycle Museum is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily thru Sept. 4. Tickets are $15. Children aged 12 and under get in free with an adult. Visit nationalmcmuseum.org to learn more.
The auction is open to registered bidders only and will include a preview day on Tuesday, Sept. 5. Bidder registration is available online in advance and on-site at the auction starting at $100, and standard, in-person bidding includes admission for two persons to all auction days. For those unable to attend in person, enhanced remote bidding options are also available, including for both online and telephone bidding.
For schedule information, to consign a vehicle or to register as a bidder, visit Mecum.com, or call (262) 275-5050.
The John Parham Estate Collection at the National Motorcycle Museum includes 300 museum-quality motorcycles, but below are some of the best and rarest models scheduled to be auctioned:LISTEN:More: