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Disputed 9/11 Flag Goes for $25,000

Loudoun School Board Chairman Wins Second EBay Auction

By Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 19, 2005; Page A06

The eBay auction ended just after 6:30 p.m. with the high bidder pledging $25,000 to take home an American flag that may or may not have flown at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, depending on whom you ask.

It was a disappointing conclusion for the seller, David Nicholson of Orange, Va., who thought he had sold the flag Monday online for a bid of $371,300. Nicholson, 44, suffers from advanced kidney cancer and planned to use the money to support his family.

David Nicholson wanted $1 million for his flag. The first auction brought a $371,300 bid, but the buyer backed out. (Rebecca Sell -- The Free Lance-star Via AP)

But controversy surrounding the banner's authenticity overtook the initial auction, and hours after it ended, the winner told Nicholson he would not honor the sale. Nicholson reposted the auction Tuesday, including details about the flag flap and a more stringent approval process for prospective buyers, who were promised anonymity.

Bidders weren't eager to bite a second time.

Yesterday's auction brought a paltry sum, compared with the $1 million Nicholson believed he could generate before critics began questioning the flag's provenance.

"It's awful," Nicholson said minutes after the auction's close. "It's really bad."

Last night, Nicholson, despite his promise of anonymity, identified the buyer as John A. Andrews II, owner of Andrews Community Investment Corp. in Ashburn. Andrews, who is chairman of the Loudoun County School Board, said he plans to donate the flag to a place he already has chosen. He said it was not important whether it flew at the Pentagon on Sept. 11. "It's symbolic of the sacrifice that people made," he said.

Since Nicholson's first auction was posted March 4, the flag has been the subject of outrage and despair among survivors of Sept. 11 victims, who argued that such a sale was morally wrong and would set a precedent for profiteers looking to cash in on artifacts both real and fraudulent. They have been particularly critical of eBay for allowing such items to be traded.

Yesterday, eBay removed an auction hawking an "authentic" piece of glass from the World Trade Center. In the posting, the seller said she never intended to sell "this priceless piece of history" but had the care of a sick mother to consider.

"This was what I envisioned the minute I heard about Nicholson's auction," said Debra Burlingame, whose brother was killed at the Pentagon on Sept. 11. "The potential for this to mushroom knows no limits."

Nicholson, who once ran an auction house in Orange, said the flag was given to him in 2002, along with used construction items for disposal or sale, by Pete Elliot, a supervisor for Facchina Construction Co., which was working at the Pentagon. Nicholson said Elliot supplied a letter of authenticity, certifying that the flag had been flying from one of its cranes at the time of the attack.

Nicholson said he had not intended to sell the flag -- lending it for public displays for which he was featured on CNN in 2002 -- but he changed his mind when his cancer was diagnosed.

Shortly after the first eBay auction opened to nationwide publicity, Nicholson said Elliot asked him to return the letter of authenticity, saying the company had reprimanded him for writing it and feared losing valuable government contracts. Elliot has declined to comment and has been referring calls to his attorney.

Seven days into the auction, Facchina posted a statement on its Web site saying that it had neither a crane nor a flag at the Pentagon on Sept. 11. Other workers on the scene have since stepped forward to say the same thing.

Last night, Nicholson said he blamed Facchina Construction and Elliot for the disappointing sale and said he would be looking for a lawyer Monday to pursue action against them.

"What they did wasn't right," he said.

Nicholson had said he planned to give part of the auction's proceeds to fund cancer research but said last night that he didn't see how he'd be able to afford to.

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