Wednesday, May 24, 2006 02:39 pm
In the wake of scandal, Goodwill finds a treasure trove
It must have taken years to accumulate. Collectible plates commemorating the Russo-Japanese War. A grandfather clock. Old comic books. Baseball cards. A gumball machine from the 1920s. Wooden chests. Tonka trucks. A Mickey Mouse Club beanie. Rare books. Antique furniture. World War II artifacts. Depression-era baby strollers. Vintage photographs. Old dolls with price tags still attached. Enough musical instruments to supply an entire band. “It’s a pretty awesome collection,” says Sharon Durbin, the new executive director of Land of Lincoln Goodwill Industries. All this and more was hidden above Goodwill’s thrift store on North 10th Street. The locked compartment was stuffed floor to ceiling when employees pried off a padlock and opened it a few months ago. No one knows how long the stuff had been there. Call it the secret vault of Larry Hupp, the former Goodwill director who was forced to resign last fall by federal prosecutors, who threatened him with criminal charges [see Bruce Rushton, “Ill will,” April 27]. “Under the previous administration, there were areas no one was allowed into,” Durbin says. “It’s kind of a bizarre situation.” Normally, such high-end items would be sold at Goodwill stores as they are donated. But there are so many antiques and other valuable items on hand now that Goodwill has hired an auctioneer to sell everything on Saturday, June 3. The sale will be held at Goodwill headquarters, on North 10th. Ron Williams, auctioneer with the Williams Auction Co., says he normally advertises on 8 1/2-by-11-inch sheets of standard office paper. For this sale, he used an extra-large legal-sized flier to list dozens of the items. It will take as long as four hours to auction everything, he says. He says he never makes predictions about what an auction will net, but the stars of the show will likely be furniture and pottery made in Roseville, Ohio. Prized by collectors, a single Roseville vase can fetch more than $1,000. “I only have two pieces, but they’ll bring good money,” he says. “They’re beautiful, and they’re numbered. There’s not one flea bite on them. I don’t know how they survived all that banging around up there.” Goodwill can certainly use the money. James Verpoten, the former interim director summoned from national headquarters to clean up after Hupp, has said that the agency lost about $30,000 in fiscal year 2005. Durbin took over from Verpoten last week. Former Goodwill employees suspect that the stuff may have been accumulating at least since 1997, when Hupp and his top assistant, Debra Neece (who also resigned rather than face criminal charges), ordered a worker to buy things from secondhand stores to sell in a silent-auction fundraiser. Workers were puzzled because they’d seen silverware, artwork and other items they believed could have been auctioned to raise money for the disabled. Neither Hupp, who worked at Goodwill for more than a quarter-century, nor Neece could be reached for comment. They are opening a for-profit thrift store near the intersection of Wabash and Chatham and will remain under the supervision of federal probation officers until next year. Durbin would prefer to talk about the future rather than the past. “We’re just taking advantage of the treasures we found to help our organization,” she says. “We’re excited about it.” In the future, Durbin hopes to establish a Web site to sell high-quality donated goods so that potential buyers don’t have to visit stores. Besides offering convenience, such a Web site could boost prices. A national online-auction site, Shopgoodwill.com, already brings top dollar for goods, raking in more than $15 million since its 1999 startup, with a portion of the proceeds going to a California Goodwill chapter that runs the site. “We have a white canvas right now that we’re working with,” Durbin says.