It was one of the weirdest scenes in midtown Manhattan yesterday. The lobby of the Sheraton Towers on Seventh Avenue, a few blocks south of Carnegie Hall, was clogged as usual with tourists lugging suitcases and shopping bags. It was a cold, rainy day.
But what was up with all the burly guys standing around and talking into their cuffs, clear curly earpieces tucked behind their ears? They were with the U.S. Marshals Office, under whose auspices the Madoff auction — the first to offer up some of the contents of their three homes — was held. It was an auction, in many ways, like no other: 1,936 online bidders from 20 countries, from Syria to Singapore, Australia to Denmark and a hotel ballroom filled with 500 people of all ages and races: professional dealers, wealthy collectors duking it out and curious locals hoping to snag a bit of affordable history.
Most auctions charge a seller’s and a buyer’s premium, each of 15 percent; it’s how they make their money. Buyers here were spared that, and some said they were comforted to know the money they were spending would repay Madoff’s victims. There was no huge moment when the Madoff material went on the block, just an announcement from the auctioneer, at 1:57 p.m., that this was now his stuff they were selling. All the reporters had marked their catalogues and knew that only the lots 196 to 299 and 301 to 386 were his.
The auction began at 10:00 a.m, selling before the Madoff items an endless parade of narco-bling seized from dozens of other miscreants across the country, like enormous diamond-crusted crosses and Jesuses and really ugly pendants and rings. Although it was worth being there when an 18-carat diamond sold loose for a cool $425,000 — far more than anything belonging to Ruth and Bernie.
Two auctioneers with thick Texas twangs poured out their spiels at lightning speed, moving the merch at 50 lots per hour. There was a serious disconnect between staring up at a screen at a vintage watch going for $65,000 and hearing the runners — male assistants spread throughout the room making sure no bid went un-noticed — bellowing and hooting while they pointed to a bidder. It felt like they were selling heifers, not Cartiers and Rolexes and Hermes gold chains.
The preview was Friday so if you hadn’t showed up then to try things on or check them through your jeweler’s loupe, too late. All there was by Saturday was an image on a screen and mere seconds to jump in and signal your intent. Sometimes a bid started at $40,000 and jumped to $60,000 within seconds. Snooze, you lose!
So, what was hot? His blue satin Mets jacket, of course — sold to an on-line bidder for $14,500. The underbidder, at $14,00 sat right behind me, Al Tapper, a writer who lives a few blocks away from the hotel, an avid collector of one-of-a-kind material. He figured he was bidding against his usual opponent and dropped out without remorse. I spoke to a businessman from San Diego, Chuck Spielman, who said if he was a successful bidder, (he was, at $16,000), on one of Bernie’s watches that he would wear it — but sounded a little embarrassed. “I wouldn’t tell people whose it was,” he said. Tapper said he would never have worn the jacket.
One of the auction’s ironies was that the extremely wealthy — the sort who were casually bidding in increments of $1,000, comfortably starting at $20,000 — are the very crowd who Madoff went after. Those who escaped Madoff’s imprecations were refunding those who didn’t. It’s their friends, neighbors and colleagues, several told me, who were cleaned out. For the dealers, from major sellers like Circa, which re-sells jewelry worldwide, it was just business as usual.
Unlike most fine auctions, where there are lovely objects to sigh over, this was clearly driven by Madoff’s name — beyond his and her jewelry, the household belongings were banal and unimpressive: posters, a silver tea-set, one set of 1777 English silver salt cellars. If they actually had great taste and elegant objects, which is usually the case when people are as wealthy as the Madoffs — you can always buy taste by hiring an art consultant or decorators — it sure didn’t show up in this sale. Four of his powerboats: Bull, Bull (no typo there), Little Bull and Sitting Bull, go on sale this Thursday, Nov. 17 in Fort Lauderdale, as does his 1999 Mercedes with 12,000 miles on it. (954-791-9601 is the phone number, if you’re interested.)
The Madoff stationery and pens went for $2,500 — far above their estimate of $90. Three white polo shirts with a logo designed for Madoff’s three yachts went for $1,300. A life-ring from one of his boats — $7,500.
And his class ring, 1960, from Hofstra, a Long Island commuter college, inscribed BLM — MA, went for $6,000.
I wonder how soon, and at what prices, much of this material is being re-sold. For every buyer who wants to wear one of Bernie’s watches against his own flesh, others clearly planned to profit handsomely from that legendary association. I looked at Ruth’s bags and belts, her boots and shoes and furs ($600 to $1,600 — they went cheap) and thought, no, there’s really not enough money in the world to make me want to wear your things. You slept for decades beside a monster. I don’t need that kind of juju in my home.