When the New York City sheriff’s office needs to sell property it has seized – be it an impounded car or a multi-million-dollar luxury townhouse – Dennis Alestra gets a call. Alestra, a quick-talking, business-savvy court auctioneer, conducts sheriff auctions from the back of a pickup truck he had specially modified. It functions as a miniature office, complete with air-conditioning and loudspeakers.
Court auctions are just like regular auctions—rhythmic chanting and all. He gave this demonstration to The Ink:
Alestra, 66, was born in Brooklyn, and worked as a furniture repairman and salesman before deciding to attend the Missouri Auction School at age 36. He still owns and operates a furniture store, Divine Wood, on Port Richmond Avenue in Staten Island. His brick-and-mortar office in the back of the store is a gallery of his various interests that include professional wrestling (he was a ring announcer), Checker cars (he collects them) and cigars (he smokes them).
WHY DID YOU WANT TO BECOME AN AUCTIONEER?
I knew a guy who was doing it, and I said, Ah I could do it. I think I could do that. … It’d be a fun business when I got older. … I thought growing old would take longer. But now I’m here.
DESCRIBE YOUR AUCTION TRUCK
In here, I got heat. I got air condition. When it’s bad weather, I come in, the sheriffs get in there. I got four desk booths. I’ve got computers. I got money counters. I got fax machines. …
So when it’s raining and cold, the deputies come in with me and everybody’s comfortable. Nobody’s out in severe weather. …
Nobody has this. Nobody in New York.
ALL INSIDE THAT TRUCK?
All inside that truck.
WHAT MADE YOU THINK TO GET ONE LIKE THIS?
Well, I saw somebody in Missouri had one – an old yellow one. It didn’t look nothing like this and this took three months to get.
WHO SHOWS UP TO COURT AUCTIONS?
All different people you wouldn’t think had millions of dollars. They sit there like regular people. I got rabbis that come over time. The same three rabbis.
HOW DO YOU MOTIVATE PEOPLE TO BIG HIGHER?
I do my own research on the property. Check the neighborhood out, check out the demographics of the area. … I tell [the bidders], “This is what we’re going to take. You don’t want to bid? We’ll adjourn the case we’ll come back.”
HOW DO YOU CONTROL AN AUCTION?
Say, we know we got to get $300,000. I’ll open the bidding low, $25,000. … Then I’ll go to 50, 75 and 100, 125. I’ll build it up. Once I hit that point, now I know, Okay. I’m at $300,000. … I’m not going to go to 350. I want to go 305. Edge it on slow. If I go a big number, they’re not going to bid. But I already got my judgment amount. So I bid $305,000. I get somebody to nibble at that. Then I’ll go 310, 315 and then I’ll bring it up slowly at a smaller amount.
DO YOU KEEP THE JUDGMENT DEBT IN MIND WHEN YOU RUN AN AUCTION?
I work with the lieutenants in charge, the under sheriff. They tell me what the judgment amount is, and I always try to get at least what the judgment amount is. So if somebody is being sued for their property and they owe a guy $400,000, I always try to get at least that and then try to get a little more. So the guy walking away doesn’t just lose his house and then he still owes the guy money.
Header photo: Dennis Alestra discussing a collection of photos from his time as a wrestling ringside announcer. (The Ink/Aaron Brezel)