Lehman Brothers' Swag—SOLD! Appraising the aughts at a high-end bankruptcy auction

Take a close look, auction shoppers, at the near-identical pair of silk-screened portraits on display in Continental Ballroom A. They depict a frattish-looking middle-aged gent in a jacket and tie. He’s framed, incongruously, by an orange and blue background. This boardroom portrait is from the hand of the pop-art legend Peter Max—but that’s not its most interesting feature. Rather, it’s the card on the back of the frame, which reports the title: “Tim Durham.”

As aficionados of financial crime will tell you, Tim Durham was an Indianapolis-based leveraged buyout specialist who was flying high, and rolling up what appeared to be garish returns for his investment firms, until federal prosecutors indicted him in the spring of 2011 on charges of conspiracy to commit wire-securities fraud, wire fraud, and securities fraud. Prosecutors say he bilked clients out of more than $200 million. Bloomberg Businessweek dubbed him “the Madoff of the Midwest”

The Max portraits are among the more harmless specimens of Durham’s excess. In 2007, Durham had 30 scantily clad professional models flown in from L.A. for a Playboy-themed 45th birthday party at his 30,000 square-foot mansion in the Indianapolis suburb of Fortville. The cake featured Durham’s likeness on a million-dollar bill made of frosting. The Hoosier State political establishment was briefly up in arms when Durham—a big-wheel Indiana GOP donor—posted photos on MySpace of himself enjoying a birthday lap dance.

All that’s left today of Durham’s legendary excess—among other things, the man assembled a collection of more than five dozen luxury sports cars—are things like these rather poignantly bright yet forlorn-looking portraits, indifferently displayed in a squat exurban auction space. Sure, the pinkish playboy isn’t Max’s greatest work. But in another sense, the symbolism is perfect, because this is not just any assemblage of overclass frippery. The Durham rendering is part of a tidy auction of “bankruptcy released” goods, many from the defunct investment banking colossus Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.

In other words, it’s a chance to gawk at the very terminus of aughts money culture, right next to the Beltway in Tysons Corner.

A display ad in the Washington Post had trumpeted the auction, and its Lehman lineage, beckoning the public to the Hilton McLean Tysons Corner. “Please call hotel for directions,” it advised—lending the event a nice (if distant) echo of the sort of exclusive financial subterfuge that brought the firm down. Lehman, of course, had been the sole house that the Federal Reserve declined to deem “too big to fail,” meaning it went belly-up the moment that its overleveraged balance sheets turned toxic at the outset of the 2008 meltdown.

But even now, Lehman made the task of tracking down its assets a tough one. When I called the hotel, as instructed, I was patched into a closed loop of voicemail directives. The Google Maps app on my iPhone was only mildly more helpful, leaving me circling a cul-de-sac, trying to turn left into an unmarked access street that the phone insisted on calling Ring Road. Wherever the hotel barons and iPhone programmers may have thought I was, this was not McLean.

It seemed fitting that the sell-off of the firm’s high-end lifestyle accessories should occur in a place nearly impossible to find: Lehman’s high-rolling CEO Dick Fuld, after all, had effectively abolished thousands of other American places by transforming them into securitized debt.

Once inside, alas, I realize that I’ll be cruelly deprived of artifacts from the high housing-bubble era that I’d been hoping for. There’s no Dick Fuld helicopter gear, no obvious selections from the bungalow-sized shoe closet that belonged to the wife of Lehman equity-shop boss Joe Gregory. The collection on display turns out to be a fairly random jumble of tasteless corporate pecuniary display. When I ask a woman behind the jewelry table how much of the stuff in her cases came from the Lehman bankruptcy—and whether the Lehman shop in question was the Wall Street mothership, or the bank’s erstwhile satellite operation in the (real) McLean, she can’t help. “I just work for the auction house,” she says.

Still, once I let go of my fond reveries of a strictly Lehman-themed, San Simeon-style road show, I realize that the contents of Ballroom A—which, as another docent explained, originate from “liquidations, U.S. customs, estates, and a variety of different sources”—furnish plenty of edifying glimpses into the lifestyles of the 1 percent.

Durham had boasted of owning an original Picasso, so it’s probably a safe bet that none of the three studies for “Guernica” on offer in Ballroom A belonged to him—they’re all prints, after all. Still, plenty of the other offerings could be expressions of Durham’s indefatigably crass taste, or a cherished objet d’art liberated from some derivates-addled major domo at Lehman.

Just inside the entry way, for instance, is a garish-yet-prosaic eight-foot study in spiritual kitsch. It shows a trio of stately white horses galloping through some shallow body of water; the pure-looking steeds are framed in the middle distance by an enormous cathedral of some sort (possibly St. Paul’s, but the rendering is far too generic to be sure). Directly overhead is a single, glittering, white dove, framed in an ethereal halo of light. The heavenly bird dwarfs a nearby quarter moon—neither perspective nor scale is the strong suit of this unnamed artist, who apparently apprenticed in van-airbrushing during the 1970s. There’s a Norman Rockwell print of a couple from the idealized Gay Nineties, courting wholesomely in picnic mode; the male swain has a loyal Labrador Retriever by his side, and the gentle lady is seated next to a basket of fresh cut daisies.

There are also no less than three Peter Max prints of a Mick Jagger portrait on display. One is positioned, for some reason, right beside a signed presidential portrait of Harry S Truman.

Over in the jewelry area, things get very gaudy very fast. The standout item, from a purely visual perspective, is Item Number 13167, a “Multi-sapphire Diamond and Butterfly Broche,” featuring an 18-carat white gold setting. None of the items up for bidding fetches a recommended starting bid, but the catalog entry for this gleaming, multicolored chest accessory—which the attending Eastern Classics agent assures me is a “very fine piece”—quotes a “replacement appraisal” of $21,600. I might have entertained, however briefly, a bid on the Tiffany’s gold pencil, a fitting post-boom geek accessory if there ever was one. But it, too, was assigned an appraisal range that would probably push Newt Gingrich’s credit line into receivership.

In the end, the glittering contents of Ballroom A felt a bit like the late financial bubble: lots of swag, little utility.

In fact, only one item in the whole room boasted even a faint whiff of use-value—and that’s not even why it was so costly. It was an electric guitar, and according to its “certificate of authenticity,” it was a rather cheap Fender knockoff. Like an overinflated mortgage in some doomed Las Vegas suburb, though, its value came from the legion of influential signatures it had attracted.

In this case, though, the cursive flourishes came not from loan officers but from a random battery of rock eminences: Tom Petty, Lenny Kravitz, Jimmy Page, Slash, Keith Richards, The Edge, Dave Matthews, Bono, John Mayer, Steve Via, Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, Angus Young, Kirk Hammett, Neil Schon, and Paul Stanley. I ask the nearby curator what kind of taste in music the original owner might have had. “Beats me,” he said with a bitter laugh. Indeed, had axe signatory Jimmy Page been on hand, he might well have reminded us that the players may change, but the song remains the same.

Our Readers Say

Mr. Max does many commissioned works, and this one undoubtedly is one of them, whereas Mr. Durham probably overpaid dearly to have it done to crown his ego, he obviously selected one of the few alive Pop Art Icons whose entourage of advisers will not and should not scrutinize the personal affairs of the client requesting the artwork. Hence, Mr. Max's name has to be absolutely distanced from the alleged financial disasters that Mr. Durham may have committed. On another page, "the Pinkish PlayBoy" is not one of Peter's best works.
What does it mean to distance Max from the excesses of the era? He did well by it . Why he would waste his considerable talent in this way is his to own.

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