You would imagine that most of the people at an auction featuring fine art and Rolexes would be fairly wealthy themselves, and you’d be right. There were plenty of Porsches and Hummers in the parking lot, and I spotted several expensive-looking suits, rings and breasts in the crowd.
Not everybody was loaded, though. Penny and I, for example, would have been hard-pressed to afford even a modest set of gold cufflinks shaped like stock market mascots (she could have worn the little bull; I, the bear), and we heard repeated grumblings about items “going high.”
Really, anyone who came looking for screaming bargains probably went home disappointed. One guy told me he bid $6,500 for an antique snooker table. He said it would have been a good deal if he’d won; it still sounded expensive to me.
We all got something, though: a glimpse at fame and fortune. The $25 admission fee included unlimited gawking privileges (though photos and video were forbidden) and it’s always fun to see how the other .01 percent lives.
I, for one, deeply enjoyed surveying Hilbert’s kingdom and thinking to myself, “I bet he doesn’t even know how many trees he has. I have eight trees in my yard, and I can describe each one. A man ought to know his trees.”
I also got to ponder, is there any way a person could actually earn this kind of fortune? Ignoring for a moment how he actually got it, I theorized on what Steve Hilbert could have done, what miraculous feat he could have performed to spare him the begrudging glares of all the rubbernecking have-nots. There were six of us waiting in line to peer over the balcony at his lawn, and I know every last one was thinking some variation of, “Jeesh, wouldja look at that. Some lucky jerk.”
Jonas Salk did not have a sports barn. Dr. King died without a wine collection. Gandhi didn’t even have shoes, much less English leather riding boots.
So how is it fair? Truth be told — and I’d be awfully surprised if the Hilberts would dispute this — it isn’t. Some people get mansions and others get shanties; that’s just how it works. And some get mansions and then lose them, and stand by helplessly while thousands of strangers march through their gardens, scoffing at their taste and leaving muddy footprints on the priceless oriental rugs. Fate is funny like that.
But I sensed a collective rumbling of injustice in every room I visited Saturday, and it occurred to me that a court-ordered estate auction is like most compromises: Both sides walk away mad.
And that’s why I stole a pebble from Steve Hilbert’s driveway. It wasn’t a protest against the no-camera policy — I had an artist with me anyway. And I knew it wouldn’t really change anything; in fact, he’ll never even miss it. I wasn’t even trying to strike a blow for all the people who blame him for taking their savings — though if any of you want the rock, I’ll be happy to send it to you.
I stole that pebble because when it comes down to it, I just really, really wanted some of what he had. And in that sense, I was just like everybody else there.