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Not much call for mystery bling

At a Santa Monica auction of jewelry said to have been seized from drug dealers, bidders leave the really gaudy gear untouched.

August 06, 2004|Michael Ordona | Times Staff Writer

Two slender gentlemen in their 30s took a good long look at one item in the sea of jewelry: an 18-karat gold and stainless steel Quickset Rolex.

"Does it come with the story of where it came from?" asked the taller one, amused.

"No, but you can make it up," responded the shaven-headed young clerk.

At the Four Points Hotel in Santa Monica last week, a company called Flawless held one of its regularly scheduled auctions of jewelry that it bills as having been seized from drug dealers. But because -- as its newspaper ad clearly stated -- it is not affiliated with any government agency, exactly where the cache originated was a bit of a mystery, and Flawless wasn't talking.

Management was skittish about having a reporter on site (and even barred a photographer) "for security reasons," but the event was as low-key as the resale of presumably ill-gotten gains could possibly be.

The items themselves were not the rap video, action movie, oversized testaments to gaudiness one might expect, with a few exceptions: Zippo lighter-sized gold crucifixes lined with nearly 9 carats in diamonds, rings with stones the size of brownies and platinum-and-diamond bracelets as thick as dog collars. But there was nothing so straight up boo-yah that P. Diddy would be trippin'.

An auction by request (meaning that only the items tagged by customers were brought up for bid), the most bodacious of the bling remained untouched in the glass cases. Instead, the items bid upon made up a long line of small rings with gray Tahitian pearls and slim tennis bracelets.

About 40 people came and went, mostly middle-aged with a few seniors and a handful in their 30s. All in all, it seemed a typical garage-sale crowd, except that these bargain hunters roll with considerably more Benjamins than one might expect for a Saturday excursion.

A clean-cut, average-looking couple in their 60s sat quietly, seriously, in shorts and comfortable shoes, while a woman with them sported about an ingot's worth of flashy jewelry in her earrings, watch, necklaces and the bracelets on her wrists and ankles.

The auctioneer, with his vaguely European accent, blue suit, thick-rimmed glasses, flowing gray mane and closely trimmed beard, looked the part of a bad guy in a "Die Hard" movie. But once the auction was underway, he was in his element. He slipped right into the familiar rapid drone and clearly knew something about jewelry, but he was repeatedly stymied by the lack of bidding.

During the first 90 minutes of the event, there were bid raises on only three items of about 20 that sold -- and the bidding never went more than $300 over the opening price. Despite his best efforts to talk up the pirate's treasure on the table (of many items, he'd say, "That's a pretty piece. Very pretty piece."), the small, sedate crowd simply seemed unwilling to compete with each other.

Trying to get a "reasonable" opening bid for a ring with 3.66 carats in diamonds, he complained, "If I had more people here, it would at least open at $7,500." But the first, and only, bid was $3,500. Of an 18-karat ring with a 3-carat solitaire diamond with a suggested opening bid of $15,000, he said, "Color E, it's an incredible price," but it opened and sold for $9,500.

Cajoling one man into raising a bid, he said, "Come on, you only live twice." Then he smiled and said, "Diamonds are forever." But the customer didn't bond with the item, turning his golden eye elsewhere.

The most expensive piece to go in the first 90 minutes was a 14-karat ring with a 5.24-carat solitaire diamond that opened and sold for $25,000. But even that didn't get a murmur out of the crowd. The cheapest was a small gold ring with diamonds and tourmaline, which actually got bid up from $300 to $575. And then the crowd went silent again. The biggest stir came when the male half of the clean-cut couple topped the bidding on a diamond necklace, winning the item. One of the other customers leaned forward to his wife and said, "You've got a good husband there." She half-smiled in response and turned back around.

The day ground on; the same routine for each item, with the same low openings, patrons halting the action with timeouts and lack of bidding.

"This is not stolen merchandise," the auctioneer complained when someone offered an opening bid that was not what he considered reasonable. He paused and added, "That's next week." Another pause. "Just kidding."

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