When Darren McCarty filed for bankruptcy in 2006, he had to part with more than his fair share of sentimental items. He gave up photographs, his Corvette and even his three Stanley Cup rings, which he had won in better times playing on the Detroit Red Wings. But that was before McCarty endured an expensive divorce, suffered gambling debts and was traded to the Calgary Flames with a smaller contract. Suddenly, his most personal possessions were out of his hands and in the control of Curtis Kaye from C.B. Kaye & Associates, an auction company that sells seized items.
McCarty’s story is unfortunate, but today it’s far from unique. During the past few years, the country has been flooded with bankruptcies, foreclosures and, as a result, property seizures. More than 1.4 million companies and individuals filed for bankruptcy last year and 2.8 million homes were threatened with foreclosure in that time. For those unfortunate citizens who have their property seized, the story usually ends with a repo man taking your possessions and a court date somewhere down the road, but for the goods that are seized, this is only the beginning of a long and complicated story.
The world of seized property may seem a cold and mysterious one, but for 48-year-old Curtis Kaye, it’s just the family business, and he has been immersed in it as far back as he can remember. Long before Kaye took over the operations at C.B. Kaye & Associates, he was being groomed by his father to become an auctioneer. “I was pretty much forced into it as a child,” Kaye said. “Whenever there were breaks from school, my father would take me to work with him and his crew.”
Since then, Kaye has worked on “traditional auctions” as well as selling off goods that were seized after bank repossessions. About 15 years ago, federal authorities reached out to Kaye and made him one of their go-to guys in Michigan for selling off goods confiscated by the government. Does it bother him to profit from auctioning off other people’s treasured possessions? Not really.
“I equate what I do to that of a funeral director,” he said. “It’s a sad situation for the people involved, but the duties I perform are an integral part of moving forward with that process.”
The McCarty seizure may have been his most public case, given the hockey player’s notoriety, but Kaye has handled plenty of other sad cases. When I spoke with Kaye, he was just wrapping up an auction of 200 collectible dolls that had been seized from a woman who went bankrupt. The collection included dolls from Franklin Mint, Madame Alexander and others that been personally signed by artists. The dolls were from all over the world, and could well have been the product of a lifetime of collecting, but Kaye would have no way to know that. For Kaye, it’s just a waiting game. His company was responsible for holding the dolls for several months until the court proceedings finished. Only then was he allowed to put them up for auction online. Eventually, they sold for a little less than $2,000, a steal for whoever bought it, given that just one Madame Alexander doll can cost $100 or more today.
The list of items that get seized by the state and auctioned off by companies like C.B. Kaye is seemingly endless: boats, cars, houses, appliances, jewelry and so much more. Many of these come from bankruptcy cases, as happened with the woman who lost her dolls, while others are the result of criminal investigations related to drug and weapon charges. In these cases, the government is likely to confiscate property that is much more dangerous than a few dolls, and this property doesn’t go to sellers like Curtis Kaye. Instead, dangerous items stay with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
According to Wanda Bossa, the Chief of Assets Forfeiture and Seized Property at ATF, authorities divide seized goods into two categories: valued assets and non-valued assets. But she might as well call them things that will kill you (non-valued) and things that won’t (valued). The non-valued assets include weapons, ammunition, tobacco and more. Once a case is over, she said the firearms tend to be “shredded, smelted and recycled,” while items like tobacco are “incinerated.”
Valued items, on the other hand, are all those goods that get auctioned off later. For example, the ATF might seize a car that has drugs in it, and once a trial is over, they will prepare it to be sold in order to help pay for the cost of investigating the case. And that’s where the drama begins. Bossa told us that oftentimes, state and local authorities will duke it out to get the seized goods. If a police department believes they contributed more to the investigation than another unit, they will try to get first dibs on the goods, especially if it’s something like a car that’s useful for their day-to-day work.
However, if the items don’t end up in their hands, the government will reach out to their network of contracted sellers to auction them off. If they need to move a car in Colorado, they’ll turn to Dickensheet & Associates; if they need to sell off real estate in Washington, D.C., they’ll call up Long & Foster, and if they seize general personal property in Michigan, they'll call up Curtis Kaye. (In order to be an auctioneer for the government though, each must do some bidding of their own, guaranteeing that they can perform this service at a fair price.) Whoever ends up buying the goods, much of the money goes toward the same cause: paying off any debts that the original owner had, whether it’s a mortgage on a foreclosed house or a lease on a car.
Once these items do make their way to the auction block, they can be a great deal for consumers. Kaye said he once sold off a repossessed yacht for $250,000 (expensive, but nothing compared to the millions it might have sold for normally), and has sold a car for just $75.
“It’s like treasure hunting. If you are willing to put some time and legwork in, there is a very good chance you’ll be able to purchase an item substantially cheaper than you would find anywhere else.”
Of course, since you are buying up what is essentially government property, there are some restrictions. If it turns out that you are in any way related to the person who owned the item originally, you won’t be allowed to buy anything. And that says nothing about the awkwardness you may feel snatching up another person’s property. But if you are interested in seeing what’s available in your area, check out this list of companies authorized to sell these goods. Many of them post auction items online so you can get a sense of what’s there and what the asking price is, and very few are widely advertised so you’re likely to have less competition bidding on these goods.
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