The flyer promised excitement.
"SEIZED ASSETS LIQUIDATION AUCTION," it shouted in bold-faced type. "SATURDAY, DECEMBER 6. MARRIOTT HOTEL, PROVIDENCE: PICASSO . . . DALI . . . ROLEX WATCHES, DIAMOND RINGS . . . HANDMADE RUGS."
On the back of the postcard, in small print, there was even a warning: "Armed security on the premises."
As it turned out, however, the event — the Federal Auction Company's stop at the Providence Marriott — was hardly high drama.
The doors of the Sessions Room opened at noon for a preview hour, with entrants registering for bid numbers before perusing the day's offerings. As Christmas jingles piped overhead, heavily bundled patrons shuffled past paintings, tea-tables, coins, and jewelry.
"I saw the 'seized assets' sign and figured I'd come check it out," said Dan Alasha, owner of Cafû Four Twelve in Providence. Alasha, a regular of the local auction scene, explained how Saturday's auction stacked up.
"I've been to property auctions [and] it's pretty intense," he says. "Usually the person's still living there. They come out. They yell. The call the cops sometimes."
"This is much more tame," he says, as Bing Crosby crooned in the background. "There are no dogs here."
After the auction began, Vincent, a collector with his eye on a Fernand Leger print, offered his thoughts. "It's my first one here in Rhode Island," he says (he attends auctions at Sotheby's and Christie's in New York, he explains). "I was surprised that the prices were going down instead of up. I've never been to one of those."
Asked if he was glad he came, Vincent shrugged and offered a mild, "Yeah."
And that — Vincent's timid curiosity, not the urgent excitement of the flyer — was the tenor of the event. Despite Paul, the smartly-dressed auctioneer's heartiest attempts, Providence's Seized Assets Auction never reached the intensity of, say, the auction of the Burton-Taylor Diamond.
No amount of incredulity ("I can't believe I'm saying these numbers."), humor ("This is not Frank Monet. This is THE Claude Monet."), and admonition ("Not bidding on this right now is a huge mistake.") from the man with the microphone could rouse the small crowd's cautious bid-hands. Aside from a chuckle when two handlers juggled a limited-edition Picasso print, they remained mostly silent. Many of the items — a gold Rolex; a Chagall print — went unsold.
As the auction wound down, the batteries on Paul's headset microphone died. But the man pressed on, unplugged, to sing the praises of a "beautiful," 6' x 9' Persian Nain Rug.
"This is not a copy!" he yelled. "This is not a Macy's, machine-made doodad! This is what you buy in Iran! This is all hand-woven! It took a family of weavers two years to make this! It's like a labor of love! Is anybody listening to me anymore?"