No sign of Madoff connection at Lower Merion auction

Posted: January 24, 2011

Infamy has its uses.

That was apparent Sunday afternoon at the Merion Tribute House, where a standing-room-only crowd gathered for an auction of artwork, jewelry, watches, and handmade Persian rugs that, according to advertising, included items from the "Bernie Madoff liquidation."

That's Madoff as in the notorious swindler who lived in baronial splendor thanks to Ponzi-style infusions of other people's money and who is serving a 150-year prison sentence in a North Carolina prison for orchestrating a history-making multibillion-dollar investment scam.

Among the offerings: works by Picasso, Matisse, Miro, Chagall, Rembrandt, Pissarro, Monet, and Cezanne (why bother to visit the Barnes?!), as well as rings, bracelets, necklaces, pendants, and earrings encrusted with diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and emeralds.

But how many of those items actually once belonged to Madoff? There was no list or catalogue, none of the items was so identified during the preauction viewing, and the event organizers (also a mystery) wouldn't specify. In fact, they asked this reporter and a photographer to leave. Auction organizers on-site declined to be interviewed. No one responded to multiple calls Friday at a phone number listed in the ad.

Those who showed up were a mix of art lovers, curiosity seekers, collectors, dealers, stuff addicts, and folks simply looking for a beguiling way to pass the time before the football playoffs.

Jon Hillsberg, 64, and his wife, Nona, 61, who live a couple of blocks away, went to check out what was available. Jon Hillsberg's verdict: "A lot of stuff you see at regular auctions."

"I don't know how much is from Bernie Madoff," he said, "but that fact alone wouldn't make me any more inclined to buy this stuff."

Added his wife: "I've seen many beautiful Pissarros, but they don't look like what I saw here." And for good reason: The painter was not the great Danish impressionist Camille Pissarro, but his grandson H. Claude Pissarro.

Most of Madoff's possessions have already been liquidated in auctions supervised by the U.S. Marshals Service, most recently in November in New York City, an event that netted more than $2 million.

At the Tribute House on Sunday, most of the art consisted of limited-edition prints, etchings, and lithographs, previous owners undisclosed, some signed by the aforementioned big-name artists, and some eventually fetching sums in the teens and low 20s (thousands, that is).

In other words, there were no multimillion-dollar originals, which was why the place wasn't surrounded by a battalion of security guards with semiautomatics. In fact, there wasn't even a Cub Scout troop in sight. In some cases, the ornate gilt frames seemed more impressive and valuable than what they contained.

An ad for the event that ran in The Inquirer featured a photograph of a rambling Tudor-style palatial estate under the line "Bernie Madoff Liquidation." A small-print disclaimer at the bottom of the ad stated "picture of home for promotional purposes only," but the impression gleaned by many who attended the auction was that the domicile pictured was Madoff's (it was not), the extravagant contents of which were about to be shown and sold on a quiet street in, of all places, Lower Merion.

Marilyn Bergman, 64, a psychologist from Narberth, was clearly lured by the Madoff hook. Her logic: Madoff "had more money than God." Ergo, the art he owned would be spectacular.

"It's like a free art gallery," she said of the auction. "It was worth coming."

Her companion, Aviva Moore, 32, a teacher also from Narberth, said: "I don't care who owned it. It's still beautiful art."

For Peggy Marshaleck, 56, and her husband, Joe, also 56, the impetus was "simply to see and admire."

"It's pretty neat stuff," she said. "I wanted to see what kind of people it drew."

What caught her fancy was a one-carat pink diamond ring worth an estimated $250,000 – eminently affordable, she quipped, if they sold their house in Narberth. "He's not biting," she said of her husband.

When Robert Gordon, 57, of Overbrook Farms, saw a postcard advertising the event, his "radar went off."

"It's probably a phony-baloney operation," he thought. "A ripoff."

But after watching the auction for a while, hearing some of the wares described in detail and seeing the prices they commanded, he softened his judgment.

"It's not total junk," he said. "It's a little higher-end than I expected."

The question that impelled Karen Dagenais and her husband to attend was this: "We were wondering if people who got ripped off by Madoff were hoping to raise some money."

After watching the auction unfold, and marveling at the escalating bids, she was moved to declare, "There's no recession in here."

Contact staff writer Art Carey at 215-854-5606 or


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