When the time came for John A. O'Keefe to sell some property from his mother's estate, he decided to go to Laws Auctioneers Inc. in Manassas, one of the best-known auction houses in the Washington area.
O'Keefe, of Heathsville, Va., testified before the Virginia Auctioneers Board in May that he decided to use Laws Auctioneers because his mother had used it when she decided to sell items from his grandmother's estate.
Several months after he delivered the furniture to Laws in September 2003, he had heard nothing from the company about the sale of his mother's items. He testified that the company did not return his phone calls and that he got his money only after going to the Manassas auction house and refusing to leave until he got a check for $560.
Yesterday, the Virginia Auctioneers Board announced that it had revoked the licenses of Harry L. "Sonny" Laws Jr. and Laws Auctioneers Inc. and handed out $40,000 in fines covering six cases, including O'Keefe's.
It is not the first time the auction house, on Route 28, has been in trouble with the state. In 1998, the company was found guilty of 24 state violations, and its license was revoked. In 1999, the company was again open for business after obtaining a license from the state by filing an application under another corporate name.
There is nothing to stop Laws Auctioneers from creating another company name and once again filing for a state license, said Mary Broz, communications director for the state Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation, which regulates the industry.
"As with any board," Broz said, "the auction board receives license applications all the time, and they are approved provided all the requirements are met. . . . With its most recent revocations, however, involving Mr. Laws as an individual, the board would take that into account if his name was part of any application."
Laws could not be reached for comment yesterday. Two phone numbers listed for the business have been disconnected. A secretary for lawyer Merle Fallon, who represented Laws five years ago, said her boss is no longer Laws's attorney, and she said she did not know who is.
Lynn Bauer was one of the people who filed a complaint with the state. She moved from Fairfax County to Virginia Beach in 2001, stepping down in size from a house to a condominium. She contacted Laws to sell furniture that was not going to fit into her new home. She said she was charmed by Mr. Laws when she spoke to him by phone.
But she said the charm has long since vanished.
When reached by phone yesterday, she said Laws initially told her that he could not sell her items because business was slow after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Her experience, as with the other complainants, was that no one from the business would return her calls after a while. She said she had only a verbal contract with Laws.
"Two years went by, and I called and called, and he finally called me back and left a message and said that he had sold everything and that the check was coming," Bauer said. "He told me to expect a nice check."
The check has not come. Bauer said she was expecting to receive $5,000 to $6,000 for the sale of furniture, which included a dining room set, two bedrooms' worth of furniture, Ethan Allen end tables, a solid brass bed, silver, a set of Gorham china, 150 record albums, a clock and a hide-a-bed.
Bauer said she had been interviewed by a Fairfax County detective about her case. Fairfax police declined to say whether they are investigating Laws.
Karen Davis of Gaithersburg said she entered into a verbal contract in June 2002 with Laws when she moved to Maryland from Fairfax County. She said she did not hear from him for 18 months and has not received any money from what she estimated to be $5,000 worth of furniture she gave to Laws to auction.
"I am happy that his license has been revoked," Davis said, "but I am disappointed that he was fined such a very small amount of money, $5,000 [for her complaint]. I don't think this will be a deterrent."