Leaving auction

A "forced" auction of paintings, jewelry, and Oriental rugs that purportedly had been owned by Bernie Madoff was held Sunday afternoon at Grey Rock Mansion. Matthew Franco of Baltimore, at left, was one of several potential buyers who left soon after arrival, suspicious of the auction rules that would not reveal the provenance of the items before a final sale, the lack of a catalog, and other practices not customary for auctions. (Baltimore Sun photo by Amy Davis / January 23, 2011)

Grad student Matthew Franco joined scores of others in Pikesville Sunday to check out the "Bernie Madoff Liquidation" and maybe pick up a piece of the famous felon's loot.

But the Madoff merchandise at auction venue Grey Rock Mansion turned out to be just as elusive as the profits that the Ponzi-scheme crook promised investors.

Auction personnel were unable to identify Madoff items for people who stood in line at the historic home. Dozens of would-be bidders took one look at the costume jewelry and purported Picasso prints up for sale and headed back to their cars.

"I'm outraged and I'm sad because I feel people are going to be taken advantage of," said Franco, a student at the Johns Hopkins University.

"They're all gone," said an employee who was asked to identify Madoff items before the auction began. Managers refused to be interviewed by a reporter for The Baltimore Sun or show the auction license required by Baltimore County. A security guard escorted the reporter from the premises.

"This is just run-of-the-mill stuff," said Keith Franz, who lives in Towson and came to look over the merchandise. "I'm curious how they can come into a community and represent that the auction items are Madoff's."

He has company -- and not just in Maryland. Auctions elsewhere have invoked the name of the super-swindler who is serving a 150-year sentence in federal prison, and they've also failed to deliver the goods.

After a purported auction of Madoff items began in Toronto last week, "there was no mention of the financier whose Ponzi scheme defrauded investors of billions," the Toronto Star reported.

In New Mexico, an auction employee told the Albuquerque Journal: "I'm not sure how much of the artwork is really from Madoff."

At sales in Charleston, S.C., and Columbus, Ohio, "it's hard to tell whether any of the merchandise at these auctions was owned by Madoff or those he ruined," Time magazine reported in 2009.

Two weeks ago in Greensboro, N.C., the North Carolina Auctioneer Licensing Board shut down a "Madoff" sale when auctioneers were unable to prove that at least half the merchandise came from the celebrated charlatan, according to the News & Record newspaper.

The U.S. Marshals Service, which conducts Madoff liquidations for the Justice Department, has gotten numerous inquiries about unofficial Madoff auctions and cautions would-be buyers about taking them at face value. The Grey Rock Mansion event was not an official Madoff sale, said Marshals spokeswoman Lynzey Donahue.

"Any auctions outside our own that use the Madoff name are not sanctioned by the U.S. Marshals Service," she said.

Direct-mail pieces and ads in The Sun touted Sunday's event as "including items from the Bernie Madoff Liquidation."

Maryland law prohibits "false" advertising that has the effect "of deceiving or misleading consumers," according to the attorney general's office. But in Maryland, unlike in North Carolina, there is no state board making sure auctions live up to billing.

It's unclear who was behind Sunday's sale. Grey Rock Mansion is the headquarters of Simply Elegant Catering, but Simply Elegant would not disclose the auctioneer's identity.

Bernard Madoff, 72, ran a New York-based investment business that has been described as history's biggest Ponzi scheme, a type of fraud that uses money from new investors to pay "profits" to existing clients. Promising substantial returns with low risk, Madoff took in billions but was finally exposed after numerous customers sought to cash out during the 2008 financial crisis.

Federal officials have been selling Madoff's substantial properties in an effort to partially reimburse his victims. But even the official Madoff auctions have left some observers underwhelmed. One in New York included worn rugs, monogrammed socks, bric-a-brac and "bland dishware" including "a creamer shaped like a cow," according to The New York Times.

At least, however, a purchaser could be confident that the villain himself owned and perhaps poured from the bovine bowl.

At Sunday's auction in Pikesville there was no such assurance.

"At least it gives you something to do on a Sunday afternoon," said Simon Goldseker as he waited to register. Five minutes later, after checking out the wares and seeing no evidence of Madoff, he headed for the parking lot.

jay.hancock@baltsun.com