Correction to This Article
This article about an auction of bags, shoes and accessories seized from Harriette Walters, who had embezzled $48.1 million from the D.C. government as a city employee, incorrectly indicated that Walters stood trial. She pleaded guilty in the case.

D.C. embezzler Harriette Walters's ill-gotten goods sold to highest bidder

GOING ONCE . . . A Chanel bag was among items on the block.
GOING ONCE . . . A Chanel bag was among items on the block. (Via U.s. Marshals Service)
By Dan Zak
Saturday, January 23, 2010

Instead of tiptoeing to Tunisia with her stolen millions, Harriette Walters hoarded designer bags. The former tax manager -- and the most brazen embezzler (embezzleress?) in city government history -- bought purse after purse on the taxpayers' dime. When she was arrested in 2007, the crime scene at her Northwest Washington home was splattered with Gucci, Chanel and Louis Vuitton, spoils from the $48.1 million she siphoned from the District over a period of 18 years. Friday morning an online auction of bags, shoes and accessories from the case brought in $104,783, most of which will flow back to the city's piggy bank, according to local and federal authorities.

Take that, Harriette.

It's a teeny-tiny victory for this swindled city, a sliver of restitution financed by American bag hounds who trolled the auction site with user names like "Ms Princess" and "blkwidow" and "nojob." There are good deals in the land of asset forfeiture, and who doesn't want a rabbit-fur Chanel evening bag that doubles as a muff (or a hiding place for fraudulent checks) at 70 percent off the retail price?

The public got its first good look at the Harriette Walters Collection two weeks ago, when 185 seized items were posted on the Web site of a Texas auction house contracted by the U.S. Marshals Service, the custodian of the unusually large stash. In the 10 o'clock hour Friday morning, the bidding began to close, lot by lot, clutch by clutch. Messenger bags, handbags, tote bags, shoulder bags, zippered pouches, backpacks and coin purses, in black suede and pink leather and canvas and calfskin -- all to the highest bidder, wherever she or he may be.

One of the top bids was for a Louis Vuitton leopard polly handbag trimmed in gold python skin and leopard-print fur, which was heading north of $2,700 before the auction closed (never mind that a passable knockoff costs less than $500). One of the most popular items was a gray aged-calfskin Chanel flap bag, which attracted more than 75 bids.

The money that ends up in the city's general fund will be allocated at the discretion of the mayor and the city council. Authorities had already recovered at least $10 million in cash and assets by last June, and more has since trickled in. Some of Walters's jewelry was sold Nov. 14 in New York for a total of $381,900, and on Feb. 13 a live auction in Houston will include another nugget from the collection: a five-carat diamond ring valued at $40,000. Bit by bit, the city is reclaiming some of its dough.

Walters, who is serving a 17 1/2 -year term in federal prison, allegedly kept a jar of $20 bills on her desk at the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue, gave her personal shopper a down payment for her house and dropped at least $1.2 million at the Neiman Marcus in Tysons Corner. In her trial last year she was described as a lonely, insecure woman who sought social connections on the gambling floors of Las Vegas and Atlantic City, and who reveled in her corrupt role as a benefactor for friends and family.

This back story is almost enough for a biopic (Alfre Woodard as Harriette?), and one can look to the bags to round out a psychological sketch. What do the bags say about Harriette Walters?

For one, she has poor taste, according to Kelly Cook, editor and co-founder of Bag Snob, an online community of luxury handbag enthusiasts. Most of the auctioned bags are Louis Vuitton, a fixation of someone who is not interested in "real luxury," Cook concludes, and the Chanel items are garish (see: rabbit fur), which means Walters didn't care about curating a serious collection as an investment.

"She's all over the place, and everything has to have monograms, so she was interested in recognition and status," says Cook, who lives in Los Angeles. "A collector has a distinct point of view, and you can tell what a person likes and what a person wears by their bags. From what I can see here, she would've been happy shopping at Target."

And so the Harriette Walters Collection will be scattered to bag hounds and deal fiends and resellers across the country. No word on whether District residents claimed any items -- the auction house would not reveal the origin of winning bids (though a user named "TriadDC" was a frequent bidder) -- but maybe it's better that the buyers remain anonymous. Anyone who purchased a Harriette bag will be branded with bad luck, says Inga Guen, owner of the high-end consignment store Inga's Once Is Not Enough in Northwest Washington.

"Someone who's very sophisticated would not go online and buy" a Harriette Walters handbag, Guen says in her dulcet Prussian accent. "It has tremendously bad karma. I would not run around with a bag that belonged to a thief."

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