HILLSBOROUGH — The perfect instruments for picking the wrongfully prosecuted blues hit the auction block Sunday at a court-ordered sale of former Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong's guitars.
The disbarred prosecutor's three guitars fetched a total of $5,100 in less than half an hour of bidding at an auction house overlooked by a giant statue of Daniel Boone.
The auction attracted curious onlookers and bidders in person, by phone and online.
Many were musicians or collectors. Not surprisingly, though, nonmusical motives also abounded, because of the controversy of the Duke lacrosse case that ultimately resulted in Nifong's being forced from office and disbarred.
"There are one or two people I know who would buy one to go out in the parking lot and smash it to pieces," said Bob Panoff, a former college lacrosse player who has followed the case closely and attended Sunday's auction.
Panoff wasn't bidding, but he wanted to see who was. Before the auction, there was some speculation that Nifong's friends would buy the guitars to return to him on permanent loan. Others expected a bidding war between Nifong's supporters and detractors.
But Mike Rawlins, an online dealer from Winston-Salem, said the Paul Reed Smith Custom 24 electric guitar he picked up was worth the $2,000 he paid -- maybe more, thanks to the history of its owner.
"I didn't buy it for that reason, but I'll use that when I sell it," said Rawlins, noting he'll wait for the court paperwork certifying the guitar's source before listing it in his online store. "It might be worth something to someone."
One winning bidder, who took home Nifong's Martin D-41 acoustic guitar, refused to identify himself.
Another left abruptly after making the highest bid on the former prosecutor's Fender Deluxe Nashville Telecaster electric guitar. But Norman Caine, who frequents the auction house, identified him as a regular bidder there.
Caine said the high-profile instruments may have drawn a gaggle of television cameras, but not much more of a crowd than usual at the Cindy Smith auction house, which holds auctions at least twice a month.
"It's just run of the mill, maybe a little less," he said.
The federal judge presiding over Nifong's bankruptcy case ordered the public auction.
Nifong filed for bankruptcy Jan. 15, the day he was to respond to a lawsuit by three former Duke lacrosse players. Dave Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann accuse Nifong, Durham police and others of malicious prosecution stemming from gang-rape allegations against them that were ultimately found to be false.
Nifong's attorneys have claimed the three guitars make up most of his total assets, listed at about $250,000 in court filings. His home is worth $235,000, but homes are typically not touched in bankruptcy cases.
The former prosecutor's guitars fetched by far the highest prices in the Sunday afternoon bidding. They were sold among other instruments, such as a Regal dobro and a Bundy clarinet. Other items at the auction included vintage postcards, jade jewelry and antique furniture.
The unassuming auction house is part of the ramshackle cluster of storefronts at the Shops at Daniel Boone retail center.
The media presence there Sunday turned off at least one potential bidder. Auction officials said he left the site and called in to bid -- unsuccessfully -- by phone.
Proprietor Cindy Smith said she fielded inquiries from New York to Texas about the guitars, which have what she calls "provenance" -- meaning that the item's value is increased because of its source.
"They're very nice instruments in and of themselves, and then there's the story behind them," she said. "George Washington's wooden tooth is worth more than just a wooden tooth."
Victor Lukas, a member of the Maudlin Boys old-time country band, said his research showed the Telecaster was worth about the $500 he was willing to pay, but he feared the increased attention would push up the price. It sold to another bidder for $1,000. Several guitar enthusiasts at the auction said the other two guitars sold for about what they're worth.
Lukas hoped the Telecaster would have helped him return to playing the blues, a genre he had abandoned decades ago for roots country and Appalachian gospel music. He also figured knowing that Nifong was the previous owner might add to his musical experience.
"It would please me to own one because of him, but that's not why I'm here," said Lukas, 67, of Chapel Hill.
(Staff writer Anne Blythe contributed to this report.)
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