Sale of Criminals’ Assets & Collectibles is Still Much in Debate

This week, an order to sell the possessions seized from the infamous Boston mobster, James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, was placed, with the proceeds to benefit the families of his victims.  Bulger was famously portrayed by Jack Nicholson in the film, The Departed. 

The sale of memorabilia from the possessions of criminals is a fairly well developed segment of the collectible market.  For example, the US Marshals Service auctioned 60 lots seized from Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski’s remote Montana cabin.  Likewise, the artwork created by executed serial killer, John Wayne Gacy, has been sold for up to $12,000 a piece by a Las Vegas gallery.

Historic prices for more famous criminals have also been exhibited at auction.  2012 saw both a pair of pistols owned by Bonnie and Clyde sell for over $12 million and an archive of medical charts of Al Capone brought $25,000.  Probably the most famous of these sales was conducted by the auction house, Butterfield & Butterfield (now Bonhams) where the memorabilia of OJ Simpson was auctioned off to satisfy the civil lawsuit judgment won by the Goldman family.  OJ’s Heisman Trophy was among those items sold, bringing more than $300,000.

Various states have versions of what is commonly known as Son of Sam laws that prohibit criminals, and in some cases their families, from profiting from the sale of their life stories and their possessions.  New York’s version, passed in 2001, even requires that the victims of crimes be notified anytime that a criminal receives $10,000 or more, regardless of the source.

An interesting dilemma exists though, as many experts in the field attest to.  That is, that the pieces of memorabilia only attain these values due to the notoriety of either the crimes or the criminals themselves.  Thus, the better known either are publicly, the stronger the prices realized at sale which benefit the victims’ families.

Whether the sale of Whitey Bulger’s personal possessions will generate much revenue, we shall see.  The benefit to his victims’ families will doubtlessly be of any comfort.