Auction Figures

Early Sunday afternoon, Phoenix. The real world is the same as ever. On the west side, a woman I know comes home from work and finds that someone has tried to break into her house. The two deadbolts on her door stopped the would-be intruder. The gun she keeps in the house to protect herself and her kids is in the pawn.

That's the real world, but I'm not there today. I'm on Indian School Road, heading for Scottsdale. The longer I drive, the farther I get from real life. And when I reach the Ramada Valley Ho Resort, reality disappears completely.

I'm here to attend an auction. But not a regular auction. This is more like an aristocratic yard sale. Our erstwhile governor, the convicted felon, is also the richest bankrupt in town. Having declared bankruptcy, he has to sell off some of his goodies to appease his creditors. Hence today's fun fest.

But anyone who had visions of Fife standing on a lawn, hawking his stuff to passers-by while Ann stands and weeps, is going to be disappointed. He's not here, and the business is being done in a sterile conference room.

The auction has been organized by a company called Gini's Liquidation Sales, Inc., whose name only adds to the ambiance of dark carnival. I can't help but imagine similarly jaunty names for organizations that deal in misery--Frankie's Funeral Services, or Big Tony's Hospice.

In the street outside the conference room, a bunch of Native Americans are picketing. They're members of the American Indian Movement, and they're protesting the sale of what's billed as "prehistoric and contemporary Native American pottery," which they claim belongs to them. A few people are so convinced by their arguments that they change their minds about going to the auction.

Not that it makes any difference; the auction is packed. The crowd is straight out of one of those horror movies from the '50s or '60s where an unfortunate traveler gets stranded in a strange town whose inhabitants turn out to be devil worshipers or robots. Aside from the Native American protesters, a few of whom have come inside, and some of the reporters, everyone is white. They wear the same expression, one of casual, arrogant meanness. When they greet each other, they nod and shake hands--but they don't smile. Driving through Scottsdale, I've often wondered why rich people build such horrible neighborhoods for themselves to live in. If these people here are anything to go by, the answer is clear: They're just like the streets and houses they live in--uniform, tasteless and remote. It feels like I've died and gone to Middle Class Hell.

Gini Topalian, the eponymous owner of the liquidation firm, has the same expression when she comes to the podium. She apologizes for the construction work that's going on outside and that makes parking difficult. She says it was supposed to be finished by now, and she says it in a tone that tells you that the Ramada management is going to catch hell. She describes the auction as a "historic and sad event," and a few of us snigger.

Then she introduces the auctioneer, Dan Nisly (pronounced "Nicely"). He's middle-aged, with a full head of gray-brown hair, artlessly combed back. He smiles constantly. Or, rather, he pulls his lips back from his teeth. With his suit and his eyeglasses and the barracuda grin, he could be the host of a religious TV show like Praise the Lord.

"I'm not used to hobnobbing with the rich and famous," he simpers. "I'm just a country boy at heart. My family was so poor, the pigeons fed us . . ."

Dutiful laughter.
He tells us that the organizers are "sensitive" to the controversy surrounding the sale of the pottery, and says that they only decided to go ahead and sell it because it came from Mexico, not Arizona. The relevance of this isn't clear, since the stuff either belongs to the Indians or it doesn't.

The auction starts with Symington's collection of rare books, most of which bear the Frick seal. Nisly informs us that Henry Clay Frick was a contemporary of Andrew Carnegie's (so was everyone else who lived in America at the time) and that he was a patron of the arts and a collector of fine books. A book that has the Frick seal is a book that came from his library. Nisly admits that the signature hasn't been authenticated, but is quick to add that "We believe it." Some of the reporters laugh out loud. No one else does. It doesn't seem to occur to the good citizens of Scottsdale that we might question the authenticity of rare books being sold by a man who has just been found guilty of fraud.

The books are an eclectic mix. Included are The History of the Anglo Saxons, From the Earliest Period to the Norman Conquest by Sharon Turner, dated 1852; The Pocket Balzac (27 volumes to fit in your pocket) from 1901; The Life and Pontificate of Leo the Tenth by William Roscoe (no date given); and an autobiography by Cellini. Things get hilarious when Nisly tells us about each book. Reading from prepared notes, he declares that Cellini is a writer whose "penetrating self-analysis causes us to get in touch with our own dilemma . . ."

The lowest price paid for a literary item is $175, for Romances of Chivalry Told and Illustrated in Facsimile by John Ashton, dated 1887. The highest price is paid for the Balzac, which goes for a grand.

When the bidding starts, Nisly gives an impressive performance. His speech and manner undergo such a change that primitive people might imagine him possessed. At first he sounds like a performance poet or a manic rapper. Then his words come so fast, and with such cadence as well as rhythm, that he's almost singing. TwoFIFTY, dowehaveTWENTYFIVE, twofiftyseventyFIVE, wehavetwoseventyFIVE, dowe haveTWENTYFIVE, twoseventyfivethreeHUNDRED . . .

He never falters or stumbles. But, surprisingly considering his skill and fluency, he often gets the final prices wrong and has to be corrected.

When the bidding for the pottery starts, Vernon Foster of the American Indian Movement bids a dollar. Nisly accepts the bid with a straight face, then immediately raises the bidding to $200. The pieces are sold for $975 and $1,000. Foster and his companions get up and leave.

In an auction that will raise a total of $19,000, all that remains to be sold is Symington's furniture. The press is more interested in talking to Foster and the other members of AIM, who're holding court outside in the foyer.

When introducing the pottery, Nisly said that the bases had been reconstructed. Foster tells us that this means the items were stolen from a grave. Native Americans break the dead person's pottery precisely to keep it from being stolen. Who would want broken pottery? He says he wants the items to be returned to the earth because the spirits of the owners dwell in them.

Another guy introduces himself as Young Dog, though he hasn't been young in quite a while. His tribe is the Lakota. "Do you know about General Custer?" he asks me. "Well, it was my people that killed him."

If Symington, and the new owners of the pottery, are superstitious, they might have cause for concern, because Young Dog suggests they might not have very long to live. He believes that the spirits reclaim their property.

"It's happened before, many times," he says. "People rob Indian graves, they don't make it to trial. They die first."

Asked what he would like the people who bought the pottery to do, Foster says he'd like them to hand it over to the Native Americans. Realistically, though, he doesn't expect it to happen. It's just about money, he says. "That's how this society is."

But, for whatever reason, both of the men who bought the pottery will decide to do as Foster asks. One of them will say he planned to do it all along.

We haven't heard that news yet. And, if Young Dog's spooky predictions seem otherworldly, we're reminded that this isn't the real world when a well-intentioned, middle-aged white woman comes up to Foster and asks why he bid only a dollar. "If you want it, why didn't you just make a higher bid and buy it?"

Foster explains that he doesn't have that kind of money.
The woman looks at him uncertainly, then smiles and says, "Oh. I see." And it's clear that she doesn't.

Contact Barry Graham at his online address: [email protected]

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Barry Graham