‘Bernie Madoff’ auction in Aspen draws little interest
ASPEN – The connection to Bernie Madoff at an auction held Wednesday in the St. Regis Aspen ballroom was as thin as the sales that came from the three-hour event.
Advertisements in local and national newspapers say the auction is being held “due to losses caused by Bernie Madoff.” The Wall Street financier was convicted of orchestrating a $65 billion Ponzi scheme and is serving a 150-year prison sentence.
Small print at the bottom of the ad which appeared in the Jan. 3 edition of the Aspen Times Weekly says “items available for auction did not belong to Bernie Madoff but are being offered by victims of the Ponzi scheme to recoup losses.”
But there was no mention of Madoff during the auction, and the commissioned auctioneer, Avi Asher, said he had no idea which items came from Ponzi scheme victims. Asher did say that between 15 and 20 percent of the inventory came from Madoff victims, according to what representatives from the auction company, Atlanta-based East Coast Financial Inc., told him.
Asher said he is a commissioned auctioneer who works on contract and runs auctions throughout the country for East Coast Financial Inc.
Company representatives didn’t return phone calls Wednesday afternoon.
Asher said 100 percent of the proceeds from whatever items were provided by Madoff victims will be given to them.
About two dozen people attended the auction, with only a handful of them bidding and purchasing art and jewelry. The entire ballroom was filled with what auctioneers said was original artwork by Peter Max, Salvador Dali, Norman Rockwell, Marc Chagall and Pablo Picasso.
Asher said Wednesday’s attendance was disappointing, and estimated sales to be between $60,000 and $80,000.
Whether the art pieces were original is unknown, although most works had certificates of authenticity. Whether those certificates were authentic was also unknown.
Molly Morton, a painter, said she came to the auction out of curiosity. She said she thought the paintings were real but that some of the other pieces appeared to be posters.
Asher worked the audience, joking with potential buyers and telling them they were about to get the best deal they’ve ever seen.
But the sales pitch didn’t appear to work as Asher couldn’t convince people to even make a starting bid on many items, including an original Picasso that he started bidding at $20,000, then $10,000 and finally $8,500, which attracted no offers.
No one jumped at the 10.3-karat diamond bracelet that was offered for $5,000, and Asher said “you could choke a horse” with the size of the jewels.
“Nobody cares,” Asher said several times when the deals kept passing audience members by. “I don’t think you realize what’s going on.”
One audience member snatched up a signed Andy Warhol piece for $8,000. The bidding started at $15,000.
Aspen resident Nina Zale, an art aficionado, bought an original Peter Max painting for $1,800. She said she believes it to be real, judging from the paint brush marks.
New York resident John Stanton bought just under $40,000 worth of merchandise, mostly artwork, for his antiques resale store.
He said he learned about the auction while visiting family here. He said it didn’t matter to him whether advertising the Madoff connection was misleading.
“I don’t believe it, and I don’t care,” he said. “I’m just looking for high-quality stuff to resell.”
He added that if the merchandise was not authentic it would be “highly unethical” and the auction company wouldn’t be able to continue operating with that kind of reputation.
San Francisco resident Azita Mujica, who visits Aspen frequently and is a contemporary art collector, bought four pieces of art. She said she believes they are authentic based on what the auctioneers told her.
“The guy was talking sense … I’m pretty sure they are real,” she said. “It was so inexpensive to buy.”
Wednesday’s auction was part of a nationwide tour, the legitimacy of which is being investigated by the U.S. Marshals Service. State agencies in New York and Connecticut also have launched probes into the Madoff auctions, according to published reports.
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