Enron Corp.'s trademark "tilted-E" sign sold for $44,000 — 88 times its asking price — on Wednesday as the bankrupt former energy giant began auctioning off surplus items.
Jimmy Luu, sent by his boss at a Microcache Computer store in Houston to buy the sign, said he was given explicit orders regarding the 5-foot, stainless-steel sign that once stood outside a downtown satellite office.
"He said, 'Just do anything to get it,'" Luu said after the gavel came down on the big E in a crowded Houston hotel ballroom.
All Luu had to do was keep bidding higher, prompted by a raucous crowd that stood on its tip-toes to see the contestants. The auction at a Houston hotel drew a capacity crowd and lines that stretched outside. More than 12,000 bidders were signed up to bid via the Internet as well.
Scott Bui, attorney for Microcache, said: "The reason we bought this was to preserve this business icon. It also signifies a lot of sweat, greed and fraud in business."
As the auction climaxed for the sign, the crowd grew so large that auctioneer Kirk Dove had to run to the back of the room and stand on a chair so he could call the duel between Luu and his chief competitor, Mir Azizi.
Dove, as much a stand-up comic as a stoker of bidding frenzy, whipped the crowd up with rapid patter and one-liners.
"Remember, this auction is brought to you by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, so think before you bid," he cracked.
The sign was the highlight among thousands of items up for bid Wednesday and Thursday, ranging from routine office supplies to kitschy items like stress balls, mugs and an air hockey table. The auction will be one of many that will be held to raise proceeds for creditors.
Enron declared bankruptcy in a wave of accounting irregularities that caused its high-flying stock to crash last year. The scandal has resulted in three convictions so far with more indictments expected.
Luu said Microcache will display the sign at one its three stores in Houston.
Bidders began arriving at the Radisson Astrodome around 5 a.m., four hours before the auction began. The hotel was jammed with more than 1,000 bidders, with hundreds more in line waiting to get in as others left. An additional 12,000 people from around the world were registered online.
Dove kept a humorous perspective on the proceedings, calling the sign the "world's largest cufflink." Another "tilted-E" went for $15,000 in a London auction earlier this year.
Bidders expecting bargains however, might have been disappointed. Electronics, furniture and other items were consistently selling at or above retail price because of the scandal appeal. For instance, an older-generation Palm Pilot that can be bought for under $100 sold for $220.
Brian Cruver, a former Enron employee who wrote the book "Anatomy of Greed: The Unshredded Truth From an Enron Insider," was at the hotel with his own agenda.
"I'm here to buy my old chair," he said. "It's the most comfortable chair I've ever sat in and I want it back."
"I felt like a star in there, with everybody cheering," the shell-shocked Luu told a crush of reporters that followed him out of the auction room.
Azizi, standing nearby, carped, "It wasn't his money, damn it. It was my money!" Azizi said he had planned to put the sign atop an 18-unit loft development he is building near downtown Houston.
"I was going to call it 'The E-Lofts.' It was a marketing gimmick," he said.
As far as marketing gimmicks, the auction proved effective. Those looking for bargains found them few and far between as the strange psychology of auction bidding took hold, replacing cool-headed reason with head-to-head competition.
"Our creditors should be pleased," Enron spokeswoman Karen Denne said.