MUSTANG,NEV. — MUSTANG, Nev. -- Joe Conforte, the nation's most famous brothel owner, joined yesterday the ranks of the thousands of people whose property is auctioned for back taxes each year by the Internal Revenue Service.
Resplendent in a blue cashmere topcoat and red silk tie, Mr. Conforte cursed the IRS and signed autographs for a sympathetic crowd as his Mustang Ranch went on the tax collector's auction block.
Minutes after the gavel first fell, Joe and Sally Conforte lost their celebrated ranch to a top bid of $1.49 million. The original asking price was $10 million. The unidentified buyer pressed through a roiling knot of reporters and camera crews without saying a word and drove off in a gold Honda with plates reading "NV LAW2."
After selling the sprawling buildings and the 400-acre site, the auctioneer started offering piecemeal all of the items found inside the brothel in September, when the IRS seized it to recoup $13 million in back taxes.
Critics of the IRS have charged that such well-publicized seizures are a heavy-handed attempt to use high-profile cases to intimidate taxpayers tempted to cheat.
IRS spokesman Henry Holmes strongly denied that the agency goes after sensational cases to scare ordinary taxpayers. "We do not accept the premise that this is done for intimidation. We do not engage in efforts to intimidate."
Mr. Conforte disagrees.
"They made me a mark, an example to scare other people," he said as he autographed the 27-page inventory of items being sold for Erik Lauritzen of the Nevada Historical Society, who had come to bid on items the society will place in its archives.
The inventory list was hardly the stuff of garage sales. It included "mint-flavored" condoms, "Nevada's Pleasure points" posters, mural-sized oil paintings of reclining Reubenesque women, signs reading "Orgy Room" and, from the walls of the 100 bedrooms, "$2 per minute 20 minute minimum. Unusual request -- different price."
Such IRS auctions frequently generate headlines. Last week, for example, the IRS seized property owned by country music superstar Willie Nelson in six states for $16.7 million in back taxes.
Other notable auction targets have ranged from one-time Dallas Cowboys' lineman Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson, whose Super Bowl ring was put on the block to settle a $156,000 tax debt in 1980, to former President Jimmy Carter's brother Billy, who lost his famous filling station and softball field in Plains, Ga., at a 1981 tax auction for $70,000 in back taxes.