Just west of the Galleria, where all the merchandise is new and the prices are fixed in computers, shoppers can enter an altogether different world at a store called Texas Rich and Famous. On a recent winter Saturday, a dozen or so bargain hunters were seated on folding chairs waiting to participate in what is thought to be the oldest form of capitalism: an auction. At auctions, the theory goes, the true market value of an item is determined by the bidders in the room, and not by the seller. And for some items sold at large scale auctions -- such as livestock and used cars and soybean futures -- this theory probably holds true.
But when it comes to jewelry and antiques and furnishings, each bidder holds in his heart, along with the numbered bidding card in his hand, the hope of buying something for less, maybe far less, than retail. An aura of distress hangs over auctions. Often they are prompted by deaths and bankruptcy, and the goods in question have typically been used. Auctions also offer something that no department store can sell: a story.
Texas Rich and Famous is crammed with dozens of wooden bureaus and antique tables, and every horizontal surface is laden with bronzes, vases, crystal bowls and other knickknacks. The walls are hung with oriental rugs and gilt-framed oil paintings. At one end of the store, a large assortment of jewelry is displayed in wooden, glassed cases. At Texas Rich and Famous, bidders are encouraged to select pieces they like, and then those pieces will be put up for auction.
Behind a podium flanked by television monitors for displaying the jewelry stands Marian Voss, the proprietor of Texas Rich and Famous. Wearing an electric-blue, double-breasted suit, his dark hair slicked back, the Romanian-born auctioneer looks and sounds like Bela Lugosi.
The crowd must not be very interested in the furniture or the bronzes or the paintings, for Voss is mostly auctioning jewelry. He picks up an emerald and diamond ring for bid and pronounces it "very very bee-you-ti-ful." He holds it up to his eye and examines it. "The stones alone are worth about ... $4,000," Voss declares. "Wouldn't you say?" He's addressing a young woman advertised as a "G.I.A. certified appraiser" who's standing at the back of the chairs. Yes, she replies, about $4,000.
So what am I offered for this very marvelous ring, Voss asks the crowd. One hundred? Do I hear $150? After only a few bids, Voss knocks down the ring for $400. There's a stir among a group of well-dressed Mexicans at the front of the house. A woman who appears to be in her early 60s turns around in her chair and says to a companion, "There are really some bargains!"
And so it goes for an hour or so. Rolexes are knocked down for a few hundred dollars, an old-fashioned bracelet said to be worth several thousand dollars goes for a tenth of that.
During a break in which they have been encouraged to select something on which to bid, the bidders have time to contemplate the assembled goods and muse upon the origins of the store's name. One clue is found in the anteroom to the spotless restrooms, where hang letters from an agent of a maharajah asking Voss to sell the potentate's art collection. And just before this weekend's sale Voss had advertised that he would be offering goods from a Tanglewood woman desperate for money. She had been beaten by her wealthy husband's bodyguards, the ad noted breathlessly, and her children had been kidnapped to a foreign country. Her name could not be revealed, one assumed, because aside from being rich (if troubled), she was, well, famous.
But if her goods are mixed among the offerings on view here today, they're hard to pick out. There's not really a lot being displayed that seems that Tanglewood-ish. The Remington bronzes that crowd the tabletops are mass reproductions. And the bright, fresh surfaces of the oil paintings seem almost new. It's all a bit puzzling. Can these really be the heirlooms of Houston's well-to-do and desperate?
The asking of that question -- if not the answer -- may be one clue as to why auctions pervade the city's economy. Actually, given that Houston, more than most cities, prides itself on its free-enterprise ethic, it's not surprising that our town throngs with auctions. Every week, week in and week out, auctions command a sizable section of the Post's and the Chronicle's weekend classified ads. They're held all over town, in warehouses and storefronts, in elegant auction houses and flea markets.
Indeed, Houston seems a community designed for the auction aesthetic. It's a place where the notion of boom and bust is an integral part of the urban soul. When you boom, you need the accouterments of the next step up the social ladder quickly; and when you bust, one way you can recoup a bit is to pass on the collected detritus of your former status to the next person in line. Daily, Houston's 400 or so licensed auctioneers sell just about everything imaginable. There are auctioneers for livestock, oil field equipment, barges, restaurant equipment, financial instruments, oil and gas leases and office furniture. There are auctions for used medical equipment to licensed buyers who ship it to foreign countries. There are specialists in liquidating estates and bankrupt businesses. Wholesale auctions of used automobiles determine the so-called "blue book" value against which banks will loan money. And for thrift-shop buyers, every Monday through Friday morning the Salvation Army auctions surplus items that have been donated to it.
Sometimes in the thrill of pursuit, a buyer will bid above the item's typical retail value and the consignor benefits. And sometimes a buyer will get a bargain because neither the seller nor the other bidders know an object's true value. Sometimes the buyer is just plain lucky. Goods are sold "as is," and auctioneers love retelling anecdotes like the one about a bidder who buys an old piano that has money stashed inside. Or about auctioning off the contents of a mini-warehouse stacked full of cartons in front. After winning the contents with a bid of a few hundred dollars, the bidder takes down the boxes and discovers a new bass boat and trailer hidden in the back.
For most people, though, auctions connote the sale of antiques and decorative arts. A couple of dozen auction houses regularly advertise furniture auctions at locations throughout the city. If they deal primarily in furniture, they tend to operate from large, inexpensive warehouse spaces.
At the top of the pyramid stands Hart Galleries on South Voss Road. If anyone could seriously claim to auction the goods of Texas' rich and famous, it would be Jerry Hart. When John Connally declared personal bankruptcy several years ago, it was Hart who auctioned off Connally's personal goods. Much of Texas society turned out for the event, some simply to mingle, others to buy a piece of history, and some even seeking to buy items to give back to the Connallys.
Last spring Hart Galleries auctioned more than a million dollars worth of furs, clothes, china and other household goods that had belonged to Teresa Rodriguez. The merchandise, some of it never used, had been seized by the Internal Revenue Service after Rodriguez was charged with creating phony investment schemes in minority businesses.
Though Hart declined to talk about auction advertising for this story, his ads speak for themselves. They're low-key and factual. When the truly rich and famous seek Hart's services, the news media tend to get the word out more effectively than advertising.
Generating excitement is part of the auction process, notes Mike Jones of Dallas. Jones is president of the Texas Auctioneers Society and also director of the Texas Auction Academy, which trains potential auctioneers with a two-week-long course on professionalism and the ethics of auctions. An auctioneer for 18 years, he specializes in the liquidation of industrial assets. Jones remembers going to his first auction with his grandfather.
"There is something mystical and magical about the chant of an auctioneer," Jones says. "It's just fun."
"In spirited bidding," he adds, "the prices can surprise the seller. And if there are assets sold at auction because of distress, a sense of urgency can be created. These items are being sold that particular day. That's part of the excitement, the opportunity to buy it at your price."
Buying at your price presumes, of course, that the auction is what is called in the trade "absolute," with no minimum and no reserve. If the auction isn't advertised as absolute, buyers should assume that the house has a minimum for bids. If that minimum is not met, an auction house "shill" buyer bids up the price and the item is returned to the house.
"A good auctioneer needs a good personality," says Jones, "and enjoys being around people. You need to be part marketer, part banker, part legal adviser, part psychologist. Bid calling is only a small part of it."
You also need a license, and under current regulations, it isn't very hard to get one. For a $50 application fee, would-be auctioneers can obtain a study guide on the auction business along with a set of state regulations from the Texas Bureau of Licensing and Regulation. Once a quarter, the bureau administers a computer-generated test in Austin that has a 30 percent failure rate. The questions cover the details of the Texas Auctioneer Act as well as details of the auction business itself. Before the exam was made tougher in 1992, it had a 10 percent failure rate. The annual licensing fee is $200.
Jones says that the Texas Auctioneers Society, which represents about a sixth of the state's licensed auctioneers, is lobbying the state Legislature this session for tougher licensing requirements. The reason why an industry would ask for tougher regulations on its business -- something more than a bit out of the ordinary -- is that the loose nature of the auction business means that odd things and odd folks can gather along the edges of the bidding world. Among the things that can end up hurting all auctioneers, says Jones, are misleading advertising and unscrupulous conduct. If the new regulations are passed, auctioneers would be required to have a high school diploma or the equivalent and to complete an 80-hour course in auctioneering before taking the state test. To maintain a license, auctioneers would be required to attend a day-long class each year to keep them abreast of new regulations and trends in the auction business.
Such classes are now voluntary, such as the one held in January at the Adam's Mark Hotel in west Houston. About 50 auctioneers assembled there, and they represented the auction spectrum, from livestock specialists dressed like Bum Phillips to antiques specialists in navy blazers.
Bob Peterman, a state investigator for auctions, led off the session. A tall, white-haired man wearing a blue jacket, khaki slacks and tan boots, Peterman speaks with a laconic emphasis remindful of U.S. Senator Phil Gramm.
"The bad buys out there are hurting you," he told the auctioneers. "If you do things like they are supposed to be done, you won't have a problem. But there's a lot of folks out there who are not like that. We have folks who take consignments, sell them and pocket the money, as simple as that."
"Basically, you are looking at the auctioneers enforcement program," Peterman continued. "I'm simply one person with a 40-hour restriction on my work week and no budget for overtime."
Because he's so short-handed, Peterman called for "self enforcement." He has several auctioneers around the state whose advertising he regularly peruses.
"I like it when an auctioneer sends me an ad with ridiculous claims in it," Peterman said. "In Houston there's some real humdingers. We're watching them closely. There's some ads that would make a good subject for a soap opera plot."
Several of the auctioneers laughed, perhaps ruefully, at Peterman's remark. For anyone familiar with the Houston auction business knows about the ads of Marian Voss of Texas Rich and Famous, a store whose very name attempts to capture the fizz of the auction business.
In his 14-year-long career as a licensed auctioneer in Houston, Voss has claimed to have goods from a Middle Eastern prince and an Indian maharajah, from a prominent Louisiana art collector and from the estate of a European physicist. But when a Texas attorney general pressed him to back up these claims in a 1990 lawsuit, Voss and his longtime associate, Sam Solomay, couldn't do so; they were fined $60,000 for false advertising and told that the Texas Bureau of Licensing and Regulation would be watching their ads.
Still, the ads of Texas Rich and Famous make for some intriguing reading. A couple of weeks before Christmas, both Houston dailies carried the latest story from the auction house. Titled "A Mother's Plight," the ad told of a "Tanglewood" woman, identified only by the initials E.S., who "was severely beaten and badly bruised by her mega-rich ex-husband's bodyguards, and her children were kidnapped to another country. Now she is cashless and strapped to pay exorbitant legal fees to regain her children." The mother, the writer of the ad continued, "has commissioned us to auction off items from her luxurious and affluent estate in order to generate immediate cash."
Auctiongoers who remembered the Texas Bureau of Licensing and Regulation's judgment could be forgiven if they were a little skeptical of Voss' latest ads. In the 1990 lawsuit, Sam Solomay's lawyer had even argued that the ads were intended to be taken as tongue-in-cheek. But Voss' attorney, Steven Engelhardt, insists that "A Mother's Plight" is true. A battered woman whose children were taken from her really exists, he says. She consigned several pieces of furniture that were sold at auction and received money for them. So quite possibly some auctiongoers did benefit from a mother's plight, and the mother herself turned some quick cash from her "affluent estate."
But chances are that many of the goods that Voss auctions nearly every weekend don't have such an interesting tale attached to them. According to public records on file in Austin, many items at Texas Rich and Famous have been consigned there by Ricky Fishel's Eagle Pawn & Jewelry on Bissonnet. Those, though, tend not to be identified as such. Who, after all, wants to bid on stuff from Texas Broke and Anonymous?
When contacted, a number of Houston auctioneers complained that advertising such as Voss' tarnishes the reputation of the trade. But they also refused to go on-the-record about Voss. Nor would Voss or Solomay respond to requests for interviews. But the elements of their story can be obtained from the public record.
According to a deposition he gave in 1990, Marian Tiberiu Constantine Vasilescu, 48, came to this country as a political refugee from communist Romania. After attending high school and technical college in Bucharest, he had entered the Romanian army. Although his testimony is sometimes vague about dates, he remembered precisely when he moved to Houston: November 11, 1969, because "there are some days that are like stars in my head."
"I love this country," Voss declared. "My name is very long. People could not pronounce the name. People were making fun of my name, calling me foreigner. Letters that I would write to somebody signed by Vasilescu, they thought he was a joke; so naturally I changed my name to make it easy for everybody."
In Houston he worked for a company selling eyeglass frames for a year, and then sold jewelry wholesale for several years. In the late '70s -- he was vague about the date -- he opened Voss Oriental Rug Gallery. It was the first of a string of companies he operated, among them a furniture company called Dorchester. Another company was called Voss Gallery Inc.; yet another was titled Chelsea Inc. And then there were Devon Inc., Bankers Clearing Center Inc., United Trading Inc., Bronze Foundry Inc., Lienholders Inc., Forbes Financial Group, Accents Interior Decorators. Others include Frederick Remington Inc., Voss Advertising, A&A Oriental Rug Co., Accents Oriental Rug Co., New Orleans Gallery and Biedermeier Antiques. Voss said he created some of the companies to keep track of the various auctioneers who worked for him.
Then, sometime in the late 1980s, Voss had an important encounter. He met Sam Solomay, a self-described business consultant.
Solomay, Voss said, "showed me a little -- some ways to do business that I was doing another way another time. It was -- [we] just grew to become friends. And actually he wanted to do business with friends, never with your enemies."
Solomay is Lebanese, Voss testified, and knows the Lebanese community. After the two grew close, Solomay began consigning goods to be auctioned, Voss said. He was not an employee, though sometimes Voss hired him to help out.
"He will take an inventory sometimes before the auction of bronze or whatever to see that people come to work don't steal. That's one of his main reasons to be there," said Voss. "In the auction business there is pilferage that you never in your life have seen."
In addition to inventory and checking proceeds, Voss said, Solomay "does advertising for me. He's a marketing, as I call him, master at advertising.
"Mr. Solomay has gone to college and he has a bachelor's I believe. He has been trained to do such a thing. I trained myself to be a salesman. These are two different things. I could write an ad but it would never be proper. The grammar would be bad in it."
Grammar, though, wasn't the only problem Voss faced with his advertising. In 1989, he applied for membership in the Better Business Bureau, but before his application had been screened and approved, he and Solomay added "member of the Better Business Bureau" to his ads. The Better Business Bureau insisted that he drop the listing. Voss refused, and the bureau started reviewing his ads. Before long, state assistant attorney general Rich Tomlinson of the consumer protection division was suing.
In another lawsuit, Voss contended his business in another state was ruined when he advertised goods that he didn't have. In this 1991 suit he testified that he lost six rugs and a French bronze worth $60,000 when an auto dealership seized his car for nonpayment of a disputed repair. The goods had been consigned to him and placed in his trunk by Sam Solomay, Voss said. But when he had the trunk opened, the goods, he said, were gone. The loss of these goods only a few days before he had advertised them for auction in New Orleans had ruined his reputation in Louisiana, Voss complained.
"Came well in excess of 100 people but they didn't want to stay," Voss testified in a deposition. "They come in for this merchandise advertised, sir. We don't have the merchandise advertised. They got mad at us, calling us names, calling us crooks, 'You should go back where you come from,' complained to the newspaper, complained to everybody and they left ...."
Voss estimated that he might have lost a "few million some dollars in business over there." "My name, it's black in New Orleans, Louisiana," he said. "The minute they see 'M. Voss,' they run away."
If, as Voss says, one misleading ad ruined his reputation in Louisiana, the same cannot be said for his reputation in Houston. If anything, his auction activity has become more intense. Whether that has anything to do with the fascinating stories recounted in his advertising is anyone's guess.
Actually, with so much attention being brought to bear on his claims, one has to wonder why Voss continues such flamboyant advertising. An auctioneer who refused to be named has his own thoughts; he compares Voss to a child. "You tell your kid not to play with that cigarette lighter, and as soon as your back is turned, he flicks it," the auctioneer says. "That's Marian Voss."
That might be as good an explanation as any as to why the public can still see on the walls of Texas Rich and Famous two framed letters purporting to be from the estate trustee of the Maharajah Amarjit Singh.
Ah, yes, the maharajah. Advertising the sale of his goods got Voss in trouble both in Texas and Tennessee in 1990. The Tennessee Auction Commission demanded proof of the authenticity of the maharajah in Voss' ad in a Memphis newspaper, as well as elaboration on the charities to which he claimed the proceeds would go. Rather than provide the requested proof, Voss eventually surrendered his Tennessee license.
The plainer of the two letters thanks Voss for conducting the maharajah's sale. The other is indeed suitable for framing. Bearing an elaborate four-color border with elephants, it invites Voss to auction the maharajah's goods. Neither letter bears a return address.
Despite the approbation of royalty reflected in those letters, Voss has not been having a good year. The state of Texas is threatening him with administrative penalties. A client is suing in small claims court, accusing him of falsely representing the client's goods. Last fall, a former landlord won a $186,000 judgment against Voss' previous auction house, Biedermeier Antiques, for breaking a lease.
Perhaps it's the drain of all this, but with each passing week of the last two months, the ads for Texas Rich and Famous have lost some of their flare and flavor. After "A Mother's Plight" at the Christmas season, Voss advertised the estate of a "Houston socialite, Mrs. Renee Beckman." The Beckman estate was followed with the goods from a "failing venture." At the end of January, he was holding a "total liquidation of all 1994 consignments." During the first week of February, Voss simply offered at auction, "estates, consignments and others."
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But on February 10 some of the juice seemed to be back. Voss advertised a "celebrity auction." Goods from the "combined estates of the late actors and stars in the 1800s and early 1900s" were to be sold. The stars were "Jimmie Cooper, Lester Cooper and Cloe Kinsley." The names are intriguing because they sound right, they tickle at the back of the mind and almost seem familiar. One can almost see Bob Peterman reaching for his scissors to cut that ad out.
But the Texas Rich and Famous ad that might have the most interesting story behind it, at least to Voss, ran back in October. It read: "After a bitter divorce battle between a successful Houston businessman and his ex-wife, he has commissioned us to auction off his family's diamonds, jewelry, art and furnishings to settle all disputes, debts, lawyers' fees and court judgments."
The businessman in question could be any number of people, of course. But Voss' wife, Monica, appears to believe Voss is alluding, in a prophetic manner, to himself, for she has filed the ad with her divorce proceedings.
Once that lawsuit is actually settled, Voss will have grounds for advertising, with the state's approval, one hell of an auction.