Karol and Jeffrey Levitt, who may be remembered as Maryland's most acquisitive couple, unwillingly supplied at least four anniversary gifts at today's Internal Revenue Service auction of their collection of 17 antique and luxury cars.
Max Berg, a Chevy Chase real estate developer, bought the two most expensive vehicles as 35th wedding anniversary presents for himself and his wife Arlene. Berg paid $85,000 apiece for two Rolls-Royces -- a 1953 Rolls Silver Dawn and a 1962 Silver Cloud II with "Karol's" written in 24-karat gold script on the passenger side of the car.
But Berg wasn't the only sentimental buyer at the mobbed auction held in an exhibition hall on the Timonium Fairground. Michael Klein of Pikesville and Don Briggs of Owings Mills, who were both celebrating their 11th wedding anniversaries, remembered their wives by purchasing, respectively, a white 1962 Corvette for $10,000 and a 1980 Cadillac Fleetwood sedan for $2,500.
The IRS auction, an attempt to collect part of the $1.7 million the Levitts owe in back taxes, raised $404,900, said IRS spokesman John Dearing. It came one day after Jeffrey Levitt pleaded guilty in Baltimore Circuit Court to charges that he embezzled and misappropriated $14.7 million as president of Old Court Savings & Loan of Baltimore.
The thrift, which had $585 million in depositors' accounts, collapsed last May, provoking the state's savings and loan industry crisis.
The crowd of about 3,000 people included car buffs, Rolls-Royce dealers from West Palm Beach, Fla., the curious who have followed the Levitt saga for a year, and Old Court depositors, one of whom said he came "to see just how much one man could steal."
Some owners of luxury and antique cars took advantage of the gathering of potential buyers to display their Rolls-Royces, restored Buicks and Thunderbirds in the fairground parking lot with "for sale" signs in their windows.
The three-hour event began with sluggish bidding, but gradually built to a feverish showdown as the more luxurious cars came up for sale.
For the first hour, the bidders and onlookers wandered around the cavernous hall, slowly circling the vehicles on display, including four Rolls-Royces, four vintage cars built in 1937 through 1950, two Ford Thunderbirds, and a 1984 German-made Bitter. Twelve of the 17 cars were convertibles.
The deep-dark back seat of a 1941 blue and white Oldsmobile gave visitors a cloistered feeling. The tan seats in the maroon Bitter were tufted leather; the telephone attached to the padded console was not for sale because of a lien placed on the mobile unit. Inside the glove compartment of the 1962 Corvette was a cassette of the movie sound track, "Visionquest," featuring rock star Madonna and the rock group Journey, and a crumpled tube of Ben-Gay ointment.
IRS agents seized the cars in February at Levitt homes and warehouses here and in Boca Raton, Fla.
"This is one situation where the IRS gets to be seen as a knight in shining armor," said IRS spokesman Domenic J. LaPonzina in a reference to the deep resentment among Old Court depositors of the Levitts' opulent life style.
Herman Needel, a retired mechanic from Baltimore, shook his head as he roamed among the cars with his wife Beverly. The Needels have $58,000 -- their entire retirement savings -- tied up in Old Court.
"I just wanted to see where my money is," said Needel, 69. "If Jeffrey Levitt was here, well, see this foot?" Needel extended his right foot and made a grinding motion.
While 500 people registered as bidders and received numbered cards to hold high as they bid, only about 75 made a serious effort to purchase a Levitt car. The successful bidders had to pay 20 percent of the cost immediately -- in cash, cashier's check or certified check only -- with a guarantee to pay the balance in the same manner within 24 hours. John Votta, an IRS revenue officer, served as auctioneer.
The first four cars -- two vintage Buicks, a Cadillac and an Oldsmobile -- were offered without a single person making a bid at the suggested minimum price, forcing the IRS to lower the starting point in the bidding. Many onlookers booed their disapproval of the suggested prices. With Klein's purchase of the Corvette, the mood changed and the competition began in earnest. On a second go-round, the four cars were snapped up.
Berg, a short, plainly dressed man with tousled red hair, faced off with a tanned opponent wearing sunglasses and a gold necklace. The opponent, who would not give his name, managed to secure the Bitter, but lost out on the two most luxurious cars as the bidding reached a sweaty crescendo.
A Polish native who emigrated to the United States in 1948, Berg said he bought the Rolls Silver Dawn and the Rolls Silver Cloud II "just for fun." His wife, he said, was unaware that he had attended the auction. "I'm going to tie a yellow ribbon around them," he said, in a heavily accented voice.
And what about that gold "Karol's" on the glossy black door of the Silver Cloud? What were his plans for that? "That stays," Berg said with a grin. CAPTION: Picture 1, One of the Levitts' two vintage Ford Thunderbirds sits with its hood agape to the world, awaiting inspection and bidding; Picture 2, Real estate developer Max Berg is the successful bidder on two Rolls-Royce, which went for $85,000 each; Picture 3, IRS auctioneer John Votta looks for bids as 17 autos once owned by Levitts go on sale. Washington Post Photos