Copyright 1999 The News Tribune
The News Tribune (Tacoma, WA)
May 24, 1999, Monday
SECTION: Front Page; Pg. A1
LENGTH: 2374 words
HEADLINE: SOMEONE WINS, SOMEONE LOSES IN TALE OF TICKET ;
AFTER TITANIC MEMENTO WAS AUCTIONED FOR $100,000, PREVIOUS HOLDER FEELS 'TAKEN'
BYLINE: Rob Carson; The News Tribune
When a boarding pass for the Titanic sold at auction in Tacoma last month for $100,000, the price surprised many people. It was the most ever paid for any piece of Titanic memorabilia.
Nobody was more surprised than Bill Westby.
Westby, 71, a retired steelworker from Parkland, had sold the ticket to the auction house just six months earlier for $1,000.
"When I heard the news, I thought, 'Oh, my God, no ..." Westby said. "I sat there and cried. I really did. I really got taken on this thing."
Westby thinks Alan Gorsuch, the owner of Sanford & Son Antiques in Tacoma, misled him about the potential value of the ticket. "He knew what it was worth," Westby said. "He's in that business."
Last week, Westby hired an attorney to start bringing legal action against Gorsuch in order to get some of the profit.
Gorsuch says the idea that he cheated Westby is nonsense.
He had no idea how much the ticket was worth when he bought it, Gorsuch said. No Titanic ticket had ever been sold at auction, he said, so there was no way to estimate its worth. This one turned out to be particularly valuable, Gorsuch said, because it still had the passenger's immigration card attached. That made it a one-of-a-kind item.
Jeffrey Trainer, a trading-card collector from Allentown, Pa., bought the ticket in a frenetic April 10 bidding session at which the price raced from $5,000 to $100,000 almost as quickly as Gorsuch could call out the numbers.
"They priced it; we bought it. We sold it; we made a profit. End of story," Gorsuch said. "That's how things go.
"If it had turned out to be a fake, you wouldn't find me out there asking them for my money back."
Meanwhile, family members of Anna Sofia Sjoblom, the Finnish immigrant to whom the ticket was originally issued 87 years ago, also are talking to lawyers.
They want to know how Westby wound up with the ticket. Westby is not related to Sjoblom. In fact, he never met her, and he admits he knew practically nothing about the Titanic until the most recent movie came out.
"I'm sure he feels cheated," said William "Spike" Hendricksen, Sjoblom's grandson. "But we're wondering how he ended up with the ticket in the first place."
Hendricksen said he has spoken to three attorneys, trying to get a sense of his family's rights in the transaction.
The story of the ticket and how it ended up on the auction block in Tacoma provides a look into the mercurial world of the collectibles market, where fortunes are made and lost on the whims of public interest. It raises difficult questions about fairness in private business deals. And it offers insights into the relative thickness of blood and water.
Trail of the ticket
After Anna Sjoblom was plucked safely from her lifeboat in the North Atlantic, she made her way by train across America to Washington state. For a short time she lived in Tacoma with an aunt and uncle - Andrew and Matilda Nelson - before twice marrying, moving to Olympia and raising a family of her own.
For some reason that no one still alive can explain, the ticket apparently stayed at the Nelsons' house.
In 1930, 10 years after Sjoblom - then Anna Sjoblom Peterson Kincaid - had relocated permanently in Olympia, the Nelsons took in a baby girl, Betty DeCloedt, whose mother had died. The Nelsons never officially adopted the girl, but they raised her as a daughter, and she took their last name.
The Nelsons had no children of their own, and when they died, their modest estate - house, car and personal possessions - went to Betty.
By that time, Betty was married to Bill Westby, who worked the rebar bending machine at the J.D. English Steel Co. in Tacoma.
According to Westby, the Nelsons' will was not a windfall. The house was mortgaged, and most of the proceeds went to pay inheritance taxes. He and Betty went through the house before it sold. In a closet in one of the bedrooms they found a heavy, reinforced metal strongbox.
Inside the box, along with the Nelsons' insurance papers, marriage certificate and other personal records, they found the Titanic ticket.
Westby says he glanced at it and stuffed it back in the box. "I didn't know anything about the Titanic," he said.
Betty knew a bit more. She had heard the stories about Anna Sjoblom as she was growing up - how the 18-year-old emigrant left Finland on the liner Adriatic and, because of a coal strike, was transferred onto the brand-new Titanic. She had heard how Sjoblom and four friends had been assigned to windowless cabins in third class, far below the opulent main decks, and how she had pinned her ticket and immigration card inside her coat for safekeeping.
The night the Titanic hit the iceberg, Sjoblom was trapped in third class by metal gates across the stairways. She and her friends made their way to the top deck by breaking a window and climbing up the outside of the listing ship and over the rail. A ship's officer spotted Sjoblom and deposited her in what is believed to have been the last lifeboat to leave the ship. Early the next morning, when she was picked up by the steamship Carpathia, the ticket was still pinned inside her coat - still dry. Her friends, along with more than 1,500 others, did not survive.
Decades later, when Titanic mania began seizing the country, Bill Westby remembered the ticket and dug it out of the strongbox, thinking it might be a good time to sell.
Betty said no. She wanted to hang onto it.
In 1997, Betty died of heart failure. She had been the one who handled the family finances, Westby said, and after she died, he made a depressing discovery. Betty had been paying the credit card bills, but she had only been making the required minimum payments. The balance due on the cards had grown to $16,000.
Day-to-day expenses had been coming out of Westby's retirement fund, accumulated during 40 years at the steel plant. That was almost gone, too.
In debt and newly involved in a romantic relationship, Westby decided it was time to sell the ticket.
He and his new girlfriend got out the Tacoma phone book and looked under "Antique Dealers." The name "Sanford & Son" caught their attention, they said, because of the television show of the same name.
They called the store and talked to Gorsuch. He asked them to bring in what they had so he could take a look at it.
They drove to Antique Row and handed over the ticket and an album of the Nelsons' that contained old postcards and pictures of Sjoblom.
Gorsuch glanced at the ticket and leafed through the album. He suggested Westby and his friend go out and get some coffee while he had a closer look.
An hour later, when they returned, Gorsuch asked Westby to name a price.
That threw Westby. He had expected Gorsuch to give him a price. Earlier, Westby had had his son take the ticket to an antiques show at the Puyallup fairgrounds and make some inquiries. His son had come up with an offer for $500. After an awkward moment in Sanford & Son, Westby doubled that price. He told Gorsuch he thought the ticket should be worth $1,000.
Gorsuch told him he wouldn't be able to go that high.
Well then, Westby said, how about $1,000 for everything - the album full of pictures and the ticket.
"Get the checkbook," Westby remembers Gorsuch telling one of his assistants.
Just weeks later, at the auction, Gorsuch sold collections of postcards and pictures from the album for several hundred dollars. The ticket brought $100,000 plus a 10 percent auction fee, which also went to Gorsuch.
The auction fee alone was 10 times times what Gorsuch had paid Westby. Altogether, Gorsuch grossed more than $112,000 on the deal.
When Westby heard the news on TV, shock turned quickly to anger.
"I thought he did right by me," Westby said. "When I saw that, I thought, 'Boy, I just really got taken.'"
Adding insult to injury, Westby said, was Gorsuch's promise to donate $10,000 from the ticket sale to the nonprofit group Citizens for a Healthy Bay.
"My God, why couldn't he give me 10 percent?" he said. " He should have been fair and square."
Crash course on history
Gorsuch said he was fair and square.
Despite 30 years in the antiques business, he said, he was no expert on Titanic memorabilia. "Everything in this business is a crash course in history," Gorsuch said. "I had no idea what it was worth.
"We had no idea that there was only one ticket that was complete. As it turned out, this was the only one that had both halves."
Gorsuch said he had been reluctant to pay Westby even as much as he did. He had a $500 figure in mind when he started dealing with Westby, he said, but - as is his standard policy - he didn't tip his hand.
"I never say a price, he said. "I will not give a free appraisal."
If you tell people what you're willing to pay, Gorsuch said, "They use your offer to go shopping for a better price." Either that, he said, or they sell and then feel cheated.
"If I make an offer, no matter what I offer, they'll go home and their Aunt Sally or whoever tells them they were robbed."
If Westby had wanted more than $1,000, Gorsuch said, "I probably wouldn't have bought it, to tell the truth."
According to William Cookson, a consumer affairs specialist with the Washington State Attorney General's office, such transactions raise difficult questions about fairness in the give and take of business deals.
The issue is a complicated one, Cookson said, and the legalities vary from situation to situation. "Unless it can be shown clearly that the buyer was bargaining from an unfair advantage and intentionally took advantage of the situation," he said, "private deals of this nature are generally considered a situation where both the buyer and seller are responsible to look after their own interests."
Generally, Cookson said, whether a transaction constitutes consumer fraud depends on the representations made by the buyer to the seller. "Were they unreasonable?" Cookson asks. "Were they unfair?
"The answer to those kinds of questions usually require a legal opinion, and the best way for the parties to get an opinion is for them to consult with their private attorneys."
Gorsuch says he has a clear conscience and believes he acted responsibly and ethically.
"It was just a gamble, period. In this business you do a lot just by instinct. That one was a home run," he said. "Most of them aren't."
Two years ago, one of Gorsuch's strikeouts was publicized around the country. He had agreed to serve as the selling agent for what was supposedly a pre-Revolutionary War American Chippendale desk. If authentic, the desk would have been worth more than $4 million.
After several experts pronounced the desk an amateurish fake, Gorsuch staged a dramatic cancellation of the sale. He had the desk hauled out to the sidewalk in front of his shop, set a can of gasoline on it and ordered its owner to set it on fire. The owner refused.
With regard to selling the Titanic ticket, Gorsuch said, the $100,000 was by no means clear profit. He incurred many expenses in the process of researching and marketing it.
"We spent probably in excess of $20,000 in advertising on that ticket alone," Gorsuch said. He placed ads in national antiques magazines and used the ticket as the starring attraction in a large antiques auction that he said cost $35,000 to produce.
"As far as them being cheated out of something, that was not the case," Gorsuch said.
Ticket possession questioned
Meanwhile, Anna Sofia Sjoblom's family, long established in the Puget Sound area, is wondering how the ticket ended up in the Nelsons' strongbox instead of staying with its owner.
"The main question in my mind is, 'How did it ever leave the immediate family?' " said Spike Hendricksen, Sjoblom's grandson.
"Knowing my grandmother, it had to have been a slip-up," Hendricksen said. "We cannot believe she intended to have somebody outside the family end up with it.
"I would bet they can't prove it was given to the Nelsons," he said, "and I'll bet they can't prove the Nelsons ever intended to have it end up with Betty." "Somewhere along the line, somebody should have said, 'Hey, this really should belong to you guys,' " Hendricksen said. "If you find something that belongs to someone else, you generally return it.
"But it has leaped into a different context here. After the movie came out, returning it didn't seem to be the same option because it was suddenly worth a lot of money."
Hendricksen said he has talked to three attorneys about the transaction. He is pursuing answers to legal questions "with interest, not aggression," he said.
"I don't know what rights we have," he said. "You almost have to prove theft. You know that expression, 'Possession is nine-tenths of the law?' We may be in a situation where that is the case."
Hendricksen said the money is not as important to him as keeping the ticket in the family. He grew up listening to stories about the Titanic, he said, and the ticket is an important symbol of his grandmother's survival.
"We wouldn't even be around to talk about it if she hadn't survived," he said. "If we had had it, it would have stayed with the family - movie or no movie."
Hendricksen's mother, Evelyn, 85, doesn't attach so much significance to the ticket.
"To me, it doesn't seem that important," she said from her apartment in a Seattle retirement home. In the dispute over the profit from the ticket, her sympathies tend to lie with Gorsuch. She had the pleasure of meeting the auctioneer, she said, and found him charming.
"The auctioneer is the one who realized how he could promote it," she said. "I think the auctioneer is a very smart businessman. He saw an opportunity and he grabbed it. He realized he could make money. It would be nice if it had come into our family, but we weren't aware of it."
As for Westby, she said, "He's just being greedy. He should have been smart enough to say, 'Let me think about it,' and let it ride. He should have caught on and not been so anxious to get his money.
"Sometimes if you're too anxious, it kills it for you."
- - -
* Reach staff writer Rob Carson at 253-597-8693 or rob.carson,mail.tribnet.com.
GRAPHIC: COLOR PHOTO ; Drew Perine; The News Tribune: Spike Hendricksen, 50, and his mother, Evelyn Hendricksen, 84, display a photo of her mother, Anna Sofia Sjoblom, whose ticket on the Titanic created a furor when it was sold at an auction for $100,000. (A10) COLOR PHOTO: The ticket is a one-of-a-kind collectible. (A10)
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