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Bargains

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"Have you heard that ad they play on 'XRT? Some guy bought, like, this $10,000 jeep for 10 bucks? You hear that?"

Well, this guy had, and so had all the bargain hunters, store owners, and collectors who packed a warehouse in Bensenville for an auction of carpets seized by U.S. Customs. There had been an ad in the Saturday Tribune: "URGENT IN BENSENVILLE, PUBLIC NOTICE, AUCTION! Cargo description: Extremely high value, handmade carpets: Persian, Asian, Turkish, Afghanistan, etc."

The warehouse--which is west of O'Hare, past a country-and-western bar and an ammo shop--looked like one of those places where they film all those climactic scenes in movies about drug runners. Inside were stacked mountains of boxes of Solo cups, plastic forks, Burger King-shake syrup, sweet-and-sour sauce, ketchup packets, and tons of salt. A rusty train car sat on the train tracks that run through the place.

Once you got past the mounds of boxes and the people who checked your ID, you could see hundreds of handmade rugs: silk carpets, cashmere carpets, wool carpets--some with intricate golden medallions embroidered onto them, some as small as a piece of floor tile, some big enough to wrap an entire family. The auctioneer, a gentleman in jewels and a charcoal gray suit, paced through a cloud of unfiltered cigarette smoke as the crowd gathered and looked over the booty.

No one seemed to know how all the carpets got from Afghanistan and Turkey to Bensenville. "This is stuff seized from drug dealers," several muttered.

"Let me assure you," said the auctioneer, "these came here in a very honest manner. They were not stolen." His statement seemed to disappoint a good number of people in the crowd, who apparently thought that if the material was somehow illegal, the bargains might have been better.

U.S. Customs used to run this kind of auction, but now the agency hires private firms. This auction was run by the Fidelity First Financial Corporation of Chantilly, Virginia, which accepted American Express, cash, and checks with Visa or Mastercharge cards as backup.

The carpets were draped over tables and plopped on chairs, and some of the 200 or so people in the crowd started sitting on them. The crowd was made up primarily of young couples. Many of the women had blond hair that didn't match their eyebrows, and a lot of the men looked like they'd kick your ass if you looked at their wives.

"Have you ever been to one of these?" a woman whose wig sat on her head like a deflated basketball asked someone beside her.

"Couple times."

"How much do they usually go for?"

"Depends. Couple hundred. Sometimes more. Sometimes a thousand. But you go to Woodfield and they ask a fortune. I collect them. I've got a room with piles of carpets. I have to pile them on top of each other. I'd like to show them all, but I don't have enough room. They make great gifts."

The auctioneer moved to center stage. "Upon the fall of the auctioneer's gavel, the responsibility of purchase falls upon the bidder," he said. He didn't actually have a gavel and so clapped his hands together whenever a sale was finalized.

Behind him a couple of burly guys took turns unrolling carpets in front of their faces as the auctioneer gestured toward them. "This is a genuine Shiraz carpet," he said. "The prince of Shiraz would put these carpets on his walls for prestige. It is a hundred percent cashmere. It is all vegetable dyed. The red is made from pomegranate root and the black is made from coal shavings. What am I offered for this? Make a reasonable offer and we'll see what happens."

Someone held up one finger and said, "A hundred."

"I appreciate your bet sir," said the auctioneer. "But it is much too low. That is absolutely for nothing. The bid is 100. Who'll bid two?"

Someone else held up a finger.

"OK, 200. Who'll bet three? No offense, but I can't let it go that low."

Eventually he did let it go that low. It was dangerous to scratch your head or wipe your nose. If you did, the auctioneer was liable to look at you and say, "I'm offered a thousand. Going once. Going twice."

A burnt orange carpet with red medallions on it was held up. "This is a genuine Afghan carpet. It measures two and a half by three and a half. These used to be made by 13 tribes. Now, only 3 or 4 still do."

"Two hundred is offered. Who'll bid 250?"

A bored young girl next to me raised her hand.

"Two hundred fifty is offered, thank you. Who'll offer 275?"

The girl's mother swatted her.

"Stop it!"

"You stop it!"

"You stop it!"

"Going once. Going twice."

"Leave her alone," the father interrupted. "That'll look great in the family room."

There were some people who knew exactly what they wanted and how much they were willing to pay. Others were armed with wads of cash and American Express cards and just got caught up in the excitement of the bidding.

"How much should I pay for that one? What do you think it's worth?" the woman in the wig asked.

"Five hundred, easy," said the woman beside her.

The auctioneer read the lot number and the description of the piece, a cream-colored carpet from Iran with a maroon pattern on it that looked like the feathers of a peacock.

"I'm offered $100. Who'll bid two?"

The woman in the wig held up two fingers.

"Thank you, ma'am. I'm offered 200. Who'll bid three? The bid is $200. Going once at $200. Going twice at $200. Last opportunity at $200."

He clapped his hands together.

"Sold!" He turned to the woman. "You just stole that," he said. The woman laughed with glee.

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