Bernie Madoff, the most successful fraudster in US financial history, is in jail. Everything he once owned went on the auction block today. Hunter Walker was there to watch people purchase souvenirs of the American financial collapse.
The U.S. Marshals Service auctioned off 188 items seized from Madoff's many houses after he was arrested for duping his investors out of approximately $65 billion and perpetrating the largest financial fraud in U.S. history. Proceeds from the Madoff auction will benefit a fund for his victims.
Diane works for an organization of bankruptcy attorneys. She said "some of" the members of her group might be Madoff victims "but they would never tell me." Diane was surprised that the "vast majority of the stuff" at the auction "seemed drug dealer-ish." A nearby Marshall cracked: "that's because most of it is." Before and after Madoff's stuff went on sale, 409 items seized from other criminals were auctioned including several pieces of bling such as a necklace emblazoned with the Mercedes logo.
The auction was held in a second floor ballroom at the Sheraton Hotel and Towers in Midtown where buyers sat in a large room under a recessed crystal chandelier. Many of the bidders were jewelry dealers and other auction veterans. Outside the ballroom, I overheard them discussing the theory that the Madoff items would fetch a premium because of their association with the disgraced financier. In addition to these seasoned auction veterans, the Madoff sale attracted first-timers who wanted to witness history in the making.
On stage in the front of the room, a crew from Gaston & Sheehan Auctioneers ran the show. Gaston & Sheehan is based in Pflugerville, Texas and their staffers lent an authentic Old South sheen to the proceedings. The emcee spoke in a rapid-fire auction patter and bid-spotters punctuated the air with shouts of "Yah!" when buyers placed new bids.
Deborah Pointer, the executive producer of Russell Simmon's "Def Poetry Jam" was there to purchase "some African masks" that belonged to the Madoffs for her collection. Mona Berkowitz attended the auction wearing a coat with a fur collar and a pearl necklace. She pointed out that many of the bidders who bought earlier items were "buying thinking it's Madoff and it's not, Madoff was Jewish I don't think he had crucifixes."
Mario Ramirez, who works for the New York Aquarium Service brought an envelope filled with $3,500 cash, intent on purchasing Bernie's personalized New York Mets jacket. Ramizrez said he wanted the jacket because "I'm sure it's going to be worth something in the future, it's the biggest Ponzi scheme in the world and I was there for it." Ramirez said he plans to sell the jacket on eBay after next "season is over 'cause I want to wear it at the stadium." Ramirez said he's not worried about facing backlash while wearing a jacket labeled "Madoff" at Citi Field because "I'm taking my co-workers and they're pretty big guys." Following a bidding war, the jacket eventually went to an online buyer for $14,500. Most of the items at the auction sold for prices well above their estimated value.
Don Kruzer came to the auction with three friends from Washington, D.C. hoping to purchase "stuff for my Lake George summer home" from Bernie Madoff's house in Montauk. Originally, Kruzer came to New York to see James Gandolfini in God of Carnage on Broadway, but he included the Madoff auction in his trip after reading about it in the newspaper.
Kruzer, who works in the healthcare industry, was especially interested in bidding on Madoff's golf clubs and the duck decoys that he used to decorate his house in Long Island. The duck decoys ended up being fiercely bid for at the auction, going for $3,250-$4,750.
Lester Miller ended up purchasing the first Madoff item on sale at the auction, a fourteen carat gold "ocean motif" bracelet adorned with charms depicting a whale lighthouse, anchor, boat, sailfish, and lobster. Miller, a 77 year-old executive who works with a company that makes batteries for cell phone towers was wearing snakeskin loafers with a gold clasp. Miller has seven grandchildren, "six girls and one boy," who he's taking on a cruise from Mexico to Los Angeles next week.
Miller wasn't sure how many items he purchased at the auction or how much he spent, but he says he plans on giving the jewelry he bought at the auction to his grandchildren. Miller says he's "going to tell them" the story of Bernie Madoff "so they can see what happened to him."
With reporting from Sam Petulla
[Photo via Sarah Wali]