NEW YORK – It was about fascination with big money — and the life of a couple at the center of the biggest financial fraud case in U.S. history.
Bernard and Ruth Madoff's belongings fetched as much as 20 times their estimated value at auction Saturday.
Alan Richardson, a Florida dealer, almost got the fallen financier's blue satin New York Mets baseball jacket with his surname stitched on the back, valued at up to $720. The bidder lost — just shy of the $14,500 final price.
Two pairs of Ruth Madoff's diamond dangle earrings sold for $70,000 each, against a pre-sale estimate of no more than $9,800 and $21,400. But the most highly prized item in the sale, Bernard Madoff's Rolex watch, fetched only $65,000, paid by an unknown buyer. The watch was valued between $75,000 and $85,000.
The auction, in the main ballroom of a Manhattan hotel, was organized by the U.S. Marshals Service, which seized the couple's properties — a penthouse on Manhattan's Upper East Side and houses in Montauk, N.Y., and Palm Beach, Fla.
Inside the homes were some of the items on the block Saturday, ordered forfeited as part of Madoff's sentencing after he pleaded guilty in a multibillion-dollar fraud that burned thousands of investors. Proceeds from the auction will be divided among his victims.
The lots ranged from dishes, pens and stationery to decoy ducks, furs and the Rolex, dubbed the Prisoner Watch.
The Swiss chronograph watch was modeled on those made for World War II Allied airmen imprisoned in Germany, who used them to time prison patrols and plan a possible escape. This one graced the wrist of a 71-year-old inmate in a North Carolina prison, serving a 150-year sentence for defrauding investors for decades.
The sale sums up the Madoffs in a nutshell, auction observer Lark Mason said.
"They wanted to show off their lifestyle with big houses, yachts, jewelry," he said. "They didn't buy things they were passionate about — they just wanted more and more."
Excitement filled the ballroom as people participating in the auction, run by Texas-based Gaston & Sheehan, bid for items they could afford without being as rich as Madoff was.
Charlie Blumenkehl raised his hand for a set of Madoff's golf irons, clinching them for $3,600, against a $350-to-$400 estimate.
"I just wanted Bernie's name on the clubs," the New Jersey fund manager said with a laugh, adding, "but I don't want his vibes to be transmitted — my fund is doing better than his."
The nearly 200 lots were an assembly line of conspicuous consumption, fueled by proceeds from the tens of billions of dollars that Madoff's Ponzi scheme cost investors. Some investors were wiped out financially while the Madoffs thrived, buying up watches and jewelry.
Ruth Madoff has not been charged with any crime. But she agreed to give up her possessions in return for a promise that federal prosecutors wouldn't pursue $2.5 million not tied to her husband's fraud. The scandal forced her to move out of the $7 million penthouse where she and her husband lived.
At the auction, a lineup of Rolex and Cartier models filled a giant screen, selling for up to $30,000 each. But the couple's tastes could also be downright common; seven Swatch watches went for $850, against an estimate of $100 to $150.
There was little of great artistic value in the Madoff homes, Mason said.
"They weren't interested in great art," he said.
The auction house charged no premiums. Buyers, some of whom bid by phone from all over the world, were not identified.