In 2004 I learned about the ugly underbelly of the estate sale and auction industry in Atlanta, Georgia. My client was 92, she needed money to get her teeth worked on, and she decided to hold an estate sale of hundreds of antiques and collectables from a lifetime of travel and collecting. The last years were tough on her and her family. But she had a huge house full of value – $3 million worth according to the auctioneer who came out to appraise what she had.
A large auction event took place, complete with big white tents and tractor trailers and lighting, and food and wine, and publicity. This company, and others in the area, regularly held these events for their clients, and conducted simultaneous auctions on Ebay. When the show was over, buyers hauled the goods away, loadings tractor trailers for several days.
Two weeks later, my client was handed a check for $23,000, representing her share of the profits of the sale after expenses. Her house was empty. And the auctioneer proudly declared the event a huge success.
When questioned, he denied giving an appraisal, or preparing an inventory, or tracking what was taken out of the house in the days after the sale. A clear case of fraud, conversion, essentially commercial looting of the accumulated wealth of years and years.
We pursued the auctioneer and his company and his cronies in federal court. We determined that his cronies were buyers at this auction, getting deals for pennies on the dollar for my client’s things, and then including them in subsequent auctions at other tent events. The auctioneer’s counsel was the most unpleasant fellow I ever encountered in the practice of law. This sub-culture maintained grand stores full of huge architectural pieces, chandeliers, and art, some of it acquired at these auction events and then sold for retail. Everyone wore a smile. Even when handing over $23,000 checks.
After months of nasty litigation, we found out that the inventory sheet we were relying on was suspect – one of the client’s family members was accused of manipulating the inventory sheet and the prices paid at the auction. Despite the fact that the auctioneer couldn’t justify his own sales record or the “profit” tendered to my client, she was left without an adequate remedy due to actions of her own well-meaning family.
That case still burns me. And it changed the way I deal with new clients and their families. And with opposing counsel.
Please, please, please seek the advice of counsel or a professional of some sort, an accountant or a financial planner or a banker, someone who can help with matters of money and property and estates. And don’t let your parents or grandparents get taken advantage of.