A chunk of pride slips away with auctioned house

MICHAEL OLESKER

February 28, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

When he bought the place off Greenspring Valley Road three years ago, and money was no object, Eli Jacobs paid $2,250,000 and didn't have to blink. When the bank sold it out from under him Friday morning, and the whole world could watch, there were McDonald's hamburger wrappers in a box in the garage.

"McDonald's," a free-lance photographer said disdainfully, and snapped a shot.

"Sure, McDonald's," somebody else said. "They've got a sale on burgers this week."

Read into this whatever symbolism you wish. There was a box for Bloomingdale's wine glasses on the garage floor, too, but inside the box were empty soda cans. The house had a handsome white exterior, but people who went inside said all the fixtures had been stripped away.

Three years ago, Eli Jacobs owned the Baltimore Orioles and everyone said he had money that would never end. The figure you heard was $500 million, and Jacobs never disputed it. Now he's millions in debt, and he's losing the Orioles, and his house is gone, too, and everybody off Greenspring Valley Road Friday wondered how such a collapse could happen to such a smart man in such a brief period of time.

"It's kind of like a fraternity house," a fellow joked, stepping into a little line of prospective owners inspecting the house.

"Oh, good," said an elderly woman behind him, in a mink coat. "I've never been in a fraternity house."

The two smiled at each other, but there was an edginess around their eyes. These are people with money, who know how it is made and sometimes how it goes away.

Friday was a picture of how it goes away against all previously imaginable odds: with snow falling dreamily, with maybe 75 people standing in the frosty air, reporters and other gawkers mostly, but about 10 people who'd actually put up $100,000 registered checks to get in on the bidding.

"No way it's worth $2 million," said an accountant who walked through the place and said he was considering buying it strictly for resale value.

"What's it worth?" he was asked.

"Maybe $800,000."

"No, no," said a businessman leaning on a cane. "A million-two, maybe a million-five."

"So Jacobs got taken?"

"He didn't care what he paid," said the businessman. "He wasn't gonna pay for it anyway."

Jacobs was nowhere in sight. He'd fallen behind on his $20,000-a-month mortgage payments, and all clothing and furniture that belonged to him had been removed from the house. It was assumed he was somewhere in New York, in some degree of humiliation, but nobody's exactly certain about this complex, withdrawn man.

"It's seldom you have an opportunity to buy such an attractive home under these circumstances," Ray Nichols, of Atlantic Auctioneers, was saying into a microphone now. The crowd gathered around him in the snowy front yard, and television cameramen got as close as they could.

It was hard to reconcile such a public display with such a private man as Jacobs, but here it was: the orderly, systematic, highly civilized stripping away of his defenses.

"Who'll start the bidding?" Nichols said.

Long pause. High quality home, Nichols said. Longer pause. Premium location, he said. Scenic view. Everybody remembered the original $2,250,000 price.

"Six hundred thousand," came a voice.

"I hear six," Nichols echoed, and then he repeated it, sing-songy, over and over, getting into a rhythm, trying to work some energy into the shivering crowd.

"Seven."

The bids came slowly. Between shouts, you saw people huddling together, whispering numbers back and forth. The bidding went to a mil

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lion-two and hit a wall.

"Come on," said Nichols. "This is where the bidding should have begun."

A few more bids, muttered almost reluctantly. You thought of Jacobs going for the big money on the house three years ago, and now it wasn't fetching half as much: one more way he was looking like some poor soul who'd gotten snookered.

"Anybody," Nichols said now, looking around the crowd. "Anywhere."

It finally sold for not quite $1.5 million, and the new owner's agent was quickly hustled inside where he could sign papers before he might change his mind. In three years, the price had fallen more than three-quarters of a million dollars.

This Jacobs is a difficult man: bullying, demanding, quickly given to threats of lawsuits. But now he was something else, something more poignant: In three years, with hundreds of millions gone away, he was a reminder of everyone's vulnerability, and the erratic, unpredictable bounce of the American dollar.

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