Chez Dowdell: House and contents under the gavel

The wet weather of Saturday, May 10, may have looked foreboding to some. But drizzle and rain were no impediments to the shoppers picking over the loot accumulated by discredited financier Terry L. Dowdell.

Now in jail, the 56-year-old Dowdell awaits sentencing later this month on federal charges of operating a Ponzi scheme that raised up to $70 million from unwitting investors. Last December, in Charlottesville's federal court, Dowdell pleaded guilty to 20 felony charges, including securities fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering.

Back in Dowdell's old neighborhood, bargain hunters and curiosity seekers pulled their pricey SUVs and Mercedes onto the narrow roads of Rosemont Estates near Ivy. (One parking attendant shrugged his shoulders and said, "I don't care if you park there; you probably won't get hit.")

There were trucks, diamonds, pearls, and several Thomas Kinkade prints at 3313 Rosewood Lane. In the final moments before the auction began, a general quiet settled over the house as people peeked around corners, hobnobbed politely with acquaintances, and waited.

Indicating that this was not your everyday country auction, head auctioneer Art Motley started proceedings by making the assembled hopefuls aware of the security guards. Lest anyone be tempted to walk off with unpurchased booty, "that's why they're wearing guns," he laughed.

At 10am, bidding began slowly in the crowded garage, its four corners outfitted with television monitors so that everyone could see the highbrow offerings. Coaxing money out of the crowd came first, as Motley shot high with a $1000 opening bid on an African sculpture bought in New York– only to drop it to $100 before arousing a flicker of interest.

Lamps, linens, pillows, and scads of framed leopard and tiger prints began the proceedings, none garnering more than one or two bids.

At 11am, with gray skies looming low, the crowd moved to the front steps of the brick mansion. Assessed at $946,300 the colossus rises high and mighty above the houses around it. The cool veneer of the spectators belied the fact that somebody was about to shell out nearly one million dollars in a neighborhood where the absence of trees suggests it was a cow pasture less than a decade ago.

Asked how many had registered for bidding on the 5,000 square-foot house, Ernie Rogers of Motley's Auctioneers tartly replied, "I will not disclose that information." The house on three acres went for $925,000.

A three-acre tract of land also owned by Dowdell– just down the hill and across the road– prompted the most shuffles and murmurs. Several bidders came in strong at $100,000, but as the bidding reached $150,000, the contest narrowed to two men. Finally one bowed out, shaking his head at the final offer of $185,000.

Federal prosecutors say that before they stopped him last year, Dowdell had been promising virtually risk-free returns of up to 160 percent per year. But, pressed by authorities, Dowdell admitted there was no actual trading program. "Instead, Dowdell was operating a classic Ponzi scheme in which old investors were being paid with new investor money," says a prosecution release.

The sun never shone on Saturday's auction (or on how much money it raised– auctioneer Motley did not return phone calls), but that did not dampen any enthusiasm for the opportunity to take home some of the spoils of one man's ill-gotten gains.

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