Local Madoff victims try to recoup their losses

gagostin@bradenton.comOctober 14, 2009 

BRADENTON — Auctioneer Avi Asher lifts a ruby necklace and starts the bid at $81,000.

“This is an investment piece,” Asher says. “Or if you’ve done something really bad.”

The luxury piece of jewelry belonged to someone who is now in bankruptcy or financial distress, possibly even a victim of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme.

The jewelry was part of an auction Tuesday in Bradenton aimed at giving victims of the financial scam a way to recoup some of their losses. Unfortunately, it didn’t sell.

Inside a ballroom at the Courtyard Marriott, artwork by Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso and Peter Max were auctioned along with 5-karat diamonds, Tanzanite gemstones and Rolex watches.

Aside from few buyers, the auction brought plenty of curious residents.

“I came here just to look out of curiosity,” said Palmetto resident Jean Berry. “And it’s been satisfied.”

Of the hundreds of luxury items that filled the hotel’s ballroom, a majority belonged to once-wealthy individuals now in financial distress. A select few, however, belonged to the investors who were bilked out of thousands, even millions of dollars, when they trusted Madoff with their life savings. In June, Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison for defrauding thousands of investors out of an estimated $65 billion through his investment advisory business.

“We’re getting victims trying to sell their belongings who have lost everything,” said Asher, an auctioneer with the Atlanta-based East Coast Financial, which is operating the auctions that will be traveling throughout the United States. “It’s very sad to see.”

East Coast Financial has brought in an estimated $40,000 to $50,000 for victims from two previous auctions in Naples and West Palm Beach, Asher said.

East Coast Financial doesn’t charge a commission rate to victims of the Madoff scheme if they provide paperwork to prove their losses, Asher said, and they recoup the full price of their goods’ sale.

A Peter Max painting sold by a victim went for $2,200, below the $3,000-$6,000 appraisal value the auction company gave the half-dozen paintings.

The auction drew about 20 people, far less than the estimated 70 or so who turned out for East Coast Financial’s auctions in Naples and West Palm Beach earlier this year.

But many like Bradenton resident Dinah Bradley just trickled in and out before the auction began to catch a glimpse at luxury.

“There’s nothing here you couldn’t live without,” Bradley said. “I just hope some of those people get back their original investments. In this economy, that could be a little bit tricky.”

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