YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Los Angeles

To Top Bidder Go Spoils of Crime

Consumers: Treasury Department auctions draw crowds looking for bargains among items seized from criminals or at customs.


Some attended the government auction for business. Some went to make personal purchases. And others were there for the rush--if they could follow the fast-talking auctioneer.

"Thirty-three hundred? 33?" asked the auctioneer standing atop a platform in front of a large warehouse. "Willyougive 34? Willyougive, willyougive, willyougive?"

Every nine weeks, the Department of the Treasury holds public auctions in the EG&G Technical Services Warehouse in Rancho Dominguez to sell off jewelry, cars, electronics and other items seized by customs and from convicted criminals.

About 200 people gathered for the auction Thursday, some of them experienced, others clearly bewildered by the high-speed bidding. The auctioneer was still stuck on $3,300 when he heard from one of his "ring men."

"Yeah!" shouted the ring man, who helps track bids, after he spotted a bidder raising his lime green bidding card.

"Thirty-four hundred," the auctioneer said, recognizing the new bid. "Canyougive 35? Willyougive, willyougive, willyougive?"

In the back of the room, a man nodded.

"Yes!" yelped the ring man. Then nothing. Sold.

In just seconds, Jerry Herskowitz of South Carolina had bought a four-carat emerald and diamond ring. It didn't matter to him that the ring was seized by the IRS from a couple who pleaded guilty to a $42-million Medicare fraud. All that mattered was that his wife was going to be happy.

"I like cars. She loves jewelry," Herskowitz said. "As far as I'm concerned, it's a good deal."

But EG&G Technical Services spokeswoman, Britney Bartlett, said that to get a deal, bidders should keep a clear head.

"People get caught up in bidder frenzy," she said. "They think, 'You could get deals from Uncle Sam for pennies on the dollar.' No, that doesn't happen. You have to do your homework."

Herskowitz does his homework. He travels all over the country buying items from public auctions for his discount retail business and for himself.

"I try not to pay retail for anything," he said, showing off a navy blue sweater, a plaid shirt and gold necklace he wore, all bought at auctions.

Costa Mesa resident Aniko Kenesei was an auction novice and struggled to understand exactly what the auctioneer was saying.

"Don't raise your hand for anything," her mother-in-law, Marie Teglas, warned as Kenesei lifted a hand to her head. "Don't scratch yourself."

Teglas, who was shopping for some machinery for her Orange County deli, said that at auctions, "most of the time, I don't get [anything]. The guys beat me out."

Mercedes-Benzes Draw Heaviest Bidding

The audience was mostly male. They bid on African artifacts, clothing, and sports cards of famous players, including rookie cards of Ken Griffey Jr. and Shaquille O'Neal.

Bartlett said that to ensure that the merchandise doesn't return to its original owners, auction staff run background checks on bid winners.

The heaviest bidding Thursday was for two Mercedes-Benzes forfeited after an IRS investigation led to dozens of arrests for money laundering, tax evasion and methamphetamine manufacturing.

Several people who stood outside the warehouse eyeing the cars wandered in when the auctioneer began the bidding at $10,000. But it was those who sat for hours in rows of metal folding chairs who actually bid. A 1999 Mercedes SL500 sold for $57,500, a 2000 Mercedes S430 for $64,500.

Los Angeles resident George Santana said that he planned to bid on other cars, which included a Chevy Camaro and Toyota 4-Runner, but that he was worried about the previous owners.

"I'm hoping that it doesn't become a problem, and suddenly the owner doesn't show up on my doorstep," he said.

Because of the quality and range of items that government agencies seize, Bartlett said, people keep piling into the auctions every nine weeks.

"We just have a variety of things you can't get anywhere else," she said.

Auctioneer Sean Fraley remembered an auction that put authentic "Planet of the Apes" costumes up for bid. "There's no end to what the government seizes," he said.

Los Angeles Times Articles