“The sound of the engine is a car-like V8 roar mixed with the burble of water,” says Richard Freebody, managing director of British-based boat brokerage Peter Freebody & Co, of Riva powerboats. He is a straight-talking businessman, but get him onto the appeal of these boats (he currently has two for sale: a Super Florida No 861 for £58,000 and a rare Super Aquarama No 8 for about £300,000) and he waxes poetic.
The similarities between Riva boats and classic sports cars have not been lost on RM Auctions, the world’s largest auction house for investment-quality automobiles with a developing sideline in Rivas. “There’s a market for Riva powerboats within the car collector’s world,” says Peter Wallman, one of the company’s specialists. “They both provide access to the lifestyle of a golden era – clients who already have a Ferrari California Spider and a house on the Riviera want a beautiful wooden Riva to complete the dream.” RM Auctions is also finding that these boats provide first-time buyers with a route into the world of collectable mechanical objects. “The Riva market is not truly exploited yet,” explains Wallman, “so prices are attractive. We sold an entry-level 1963 Ariston in Monaco last year for €112,000 – you couldn’t buy a classic car of equal rarity for that sort of money.”
The Riva family began making boats in Italy’s Sarnico in 1842, but it is founder Pietro Riva’s great-grandson, Carlo Riva, who brought the company international fame. Unlike the previous boats, which had been built for specific activities, Carlo Riva’s creations, the first of which appeared in 1950, were designed solely for pleasure. “Boating as a leisure activity hadn’t existed before then,” says Roberta Dalla Bona, marketing manager of e-store Vintage Seekers (who currently has a 1973 Olympic for sale at about £151,200), “so these boats, with their polished wooden sunbathing decks, were really groundbreaking.”
For two decades, Rivas were a byword for all that was glamorous. Handmade by craftsmen, they were beautiful to look at and were owned by the glitterati – from Brigitte Bardot and Sophia Loren to Prince Rainier III. But, by the mid-1970s, fibreglass was becoming the material of choice for the modern boat owner and mahogany decks started to seem passé.
“The value of classic mahogany Rivas was very low 20 years ago,” says Lia Riva, Carlo’s daughter and president of the Monaco Boat Service, the sole importer of Riva boats in Monaco and France. “But, more recently, people are coming back to these boats because they want items with history that have stood the test of time.”
As proof of this, Lia Riva cites the family’s latest business venture, VintageRiva. Launched in 2011 with the aim of restoring and selling old Rivas, the company has two arms: VintageRiva by Officiana Italiana Design, specialising in the fibreglass boats built after 1969, and VintageRiva Classic, which focuses on the mahogany ones and “represents the romantic soul of the brand”. Lia Riva estimates that of the 4,089 mahogany vessels Carlo Riva built, half are still in use. “We do look for boats, but people generally come to us with one in need of repair. We restore it, using original materials wherever possible, and sell it on with a guarantee, a two-year mooring on the Côte d’Azur and a book of the boat’s full history.”
Meticulous restoration is a lengthy process, so in the past few years VintageRiva Classic has sold only a dozen boats through the Monaco Boat Service in Cannes and St Tropez – including a vintage Aquarama 334 to a royal client for €550,000. “His father owned one,” Lia Riva says, “so he wanted to keep on the tradition.” Another of its clients, a real-estate executive who wishes to remain anonymous, also traces his now decade-long interest back to his boyhood. “My uncle had a Bertram 25 Sport Fisherman and used to tell me stories about Riva and its fabulous world. I fell in love,” he says.
According to Richard Freebody, people are for the most part buying for the joy of ownership rather than investment. But with the price of a restored boat ranging from £100,000 to £500,000, the issue of appreciation is also important.
“These boats do hold their value,” says Nick Thompson, founder of Riva Revival, specialist in the sale, restoration and maintenance of classic Rivas. “In the past 14 years, I have seen a 300 per cent rise in the value of twin-engine models such as the Aquarama, while single-engine boats have doubled in value. I expect that rate of increase to continue.”
One determinant of price is provenance. “Rivas owned by important or famous names fetch the highest prices,” says Wallman. When Gunter Sach’s Super Ariston came up for sale at Sotheby’s last year, it achieved three times its estimate and sold for £385,250.
Between 1950 and 1971 around 15 Riva models were built. Each has its own attributes: the Aquarama, considered to be the queen of the fleet, is a sea-going boat; while the Florida Junior is ideal for waterskiing on lakes. But Dody Jost Koritnik, an architect and professor of fine arts who has been collecting Rivas since he was 19, recommends that first-time buyers seek out an Ariston. “This boat is the quintessence of beauty and will retain its price,” he says. After that, he suggests adding a Tritone or a classic Aquarama. “I have never lost money on a Riva,” he adds. Good news indeed.