It was proved over and over again yesterday at the Laventhol & Horwath bankruptcy auction: The sweet scent of a deal works like a drug on the reason of otherwise sane people.
While hundreds of anxious people crammed into the bankrupt accounting firm's downtown Baltimore offices in search of bargains on used computers, copiers, typewriters, and all kinds of office equipment, not everyone made out like a bandit.
People shook their head at the guy who spent $5 for a stapler.
Another paid $90 for a 3- to 4-year-old water cooler with a few missing parts.
And someone else ran the bidding past $1,800 for a Toshiba portable computer that observers said could easily be bought used for around $1,600.
"There's a lot of mental illness here," said a 49-year-old businesswoman.
Describing the chaos, which began before 10 a.m. and continuedinto the evening, she said, "If you want to bid on something, you throw yourself into the [packed] room around the corner and yell, 'Hey, hey!' "
According to the woman, who asked not to be named, and other veteran auction vultures in the crowd, a lot of people just didn't know what they were doing when they arrived to pick over the remains of Laventhol & Horwath.
The nation's seventh-largest accounting firm, the Philadelphia-based company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in November as a result of lawsuits seeking millions of dollars in damages for allegedly faulty work.
More than 1,000 "lot" items were up for bid -- all of the company's furniture, the pictures on the walls, live plants, pencil sharpeners, tape dispensers, and cheap plastic desk calendars.
Lot No. 534 was a bronze statue of a mountain man on horseback,his rifle high in the air, his steed reared back as he did battle with an ornery mountain lion.
At 11 a.m., auctioneer Jonathan Melnick had a way to go before the fancy knick-knack came up for bid.
He was still getting rid of boxes filled with dozens of used floppy disks, with bids starting at a buck a box.
Several hundred people crowded into the packed rooms to get a look atwhat was up for bid at the moment.
Others milled around the empty hallways or enjoyed the view from the 15th and 16th floors at 6 St. Paul Centre, where Laventhol & Horwathonce employed 50 people.
Nationwide, the firm employed 3,300 people, most of whom were laid off in the face of $85 million in debt.
Their loss was Keith B. Miller's gain.
A Reisterstown chiropractor, Dr. Miller showed up yesterday to find equipment for a branch office he is opening.
One of his first buys was 20 gray plastic wastebaskets, for which he paid $1 each.
"It costs about $28,000 to outfit a new office from scratch, not counting the chiropractic equipment," Dr. Miller said.
"I'm looking to save about 75 percent of that."
Independent accountant Bruce D. Royster was looking for an answering machine, a portable computer, a laser printer and a fax machine to add to his existing office on Druid Park Drive.
He had $2,000 in his pocket and was prepared to spend most, but not all, of it.
"This stuff isn't crucial," he said.
"But if I can get it at a reduced price for future growth, I'll be happy.
"This was a functioning office until they went bankrupt, so I don't expect there to be any dogs" among the equipment.
Officers of the Tremont Plaza Hotel showed up for items of function and walked away with items of art.
"We have office space we reserve for movie groups filming in town. They used to have to rent their own furniture, so we're looking for good deals on desks and filing cabinets and chairs," said Terry Yadon, comptroller of the downtown hotel that has hosted film crews from movies like "Her Alibi," "Clara's Heart" and "Avalon."
What they picked up, for $180 each, was a pair of watercolor paintings signed by artist L. Seward-Miller.
One showed old men near a Fells Point bench and the other was of the Farmers Market beneath the Jones Falls Expressway near Holliday Street.
As late afternoon turned into evening, they were still going at it.
Dr. Miller, the chiropractor, was still among them.
"I just paid $75 for a printer," he said.