Hecker's toys draw big crowd to auction

  • Article by: RICHARD MERYHEW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 19, 2009 - 10:55 PM

Conspicuous consumption on the block: More than 1,100 turned out to bid on the auto mogul's goodies.

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Art Fuchs of Young America wore his bidding number on his hat as he joined a large crowd and waited to bid on golf clubs once owned by Denny Hecker.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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For $140, Matt Donahue walked out of the auction house in New Germany carrying a shiny, slightly used golf club and dreams of nailing 300-yard drives.

And he owed it all to Denny Hecker.

The financial misfortune and legal troubles that drove the auto mogul to bankruptcy this summer turned into an opportunity of sorts Wednesday for Donahue and more than 1,100 golf and recreation buffs who showed up at the auction house 40 miles west of Minneapolis with hopes of landing one of hundreds of Hecker's former toys.

For Donahue, a 66-year-old property owner from Shorewood who is trying to improve his golf game after hip surgery last year, the chance to add a new driver to his golf bag at a discount price made the hour-long wait in the heat and humidity well worth it.

"It's a Hecker Hook special," he said with a smile as he inspected the nearly brand new driver he got for slightly less than he would pay on the floor of a golf store. "But you can hit it 350 yards if you know how to hit it."

The auction at the FWR Auction Center was ordered by a U.S. Bankruptcy Court trustee to generate cash to pay off hundreds of Hecker's creditors, who collectively are owed $767 million. Hecker, whose auto dealership empire once boasted $6.8 billion in annual revenue, filed for bankruptcy protection June 4, claiming $18.5 million in assets.

As hundreds of people turned out to bid on his possessions, Hecker got more bad news -- a bankruptcy judge authorized Chrysler Financial to repossess four of his Dodge trucks. In a separate action, a bankruptcy trustee is attempting to recapture at least $300,000 from a second mortgage Hecker secured in March from Riverwood Bank.

Fred Radde, the auction house owner who doubled as the day's auctioneer, said that as auctions go, this one was routine. In fact, he said, in terms of the merchandise available, it was rather modest.

"A lot of our auction sales dollars-and-cents-wise, and item-wise, far, far, far exceed what this is," he said.

But Hecker's high profile -- earned with the help of TV, radio and roadside ads and the catchy "We're good people helping good people" jingle -- and high-end taste appealed to the curious.

"The assumption I had was that he's a pretty wealthy guy so he'll put his money in higher quality items," said Lori Carey, of Bloomington, who showed up with her son, Connor, 7, hoping to buy a golf club or two and, maybe, a water scooter. "So hopefully, I'll get higher quality stuff."

Golfers had their choice of nearly 140 individual clubs or sets of clubs, including 81 drivers with names like "Whale Killer" and "Heavenwood." Thirty-two putters also were up for auction, along with 14 golf bags and a golf cart.

Other possessions up for bid: several guns, nine Polaris snowmobiles, two Vespa scooters, four Bombardier personal watercraft, two pontoon boats, a yacht trailer, a Kawasaki Jet Ski and a riding lawn mower.

Radde said his company picked up the items last month. The boats, water scooter and snowmobiles were taken from Hecker's lake home in Crosslake, Minn. The golf gear came from Hecker's office in St. Louis Park.

By 4 p.m., an hour before the auction, more than 500 people walked the auction house to inspect all of the merchandise.

"We're bidding and, hopefully, winning," an optimistic Carey said.

Nearby, Steve Anderson, a self-proclaimed golf "duffer" and a minister from Waconia, had his eye on a set of used irons that looked brand new. Next to him were buddies Dave Johnson, who wanted a golf bag, and Tom Wilson, who hoped to walk out with a new putter.

"I've never seen this much golf stuff at an auction," Anderson said. "It's unbelievable. It's hard to imagine one guy had all this."

Said Wilson: "There are $350 drivers here that shouldn't go for more than $50 or $60."

But, Johnson added, "I'm guessing people will spend more here than at a retail store because there is so much competition."

By 5 p.m., all seats were taken and bidders stood 10 deep.

"It's early yet, we'll hit 1,300," said Jeanne Salonek, a cashier.

An hour later, bidders were still showing up to register. By that time, however, Donahue, one of the first to bid on an item and win, was walking to the parking lot with a smile on his face and the shiny, black aluminum driver in hand. Next to him was John Harrigan, his attorney and long-time golf partner.

Harrigan is a four-handicapper, Donahue said. At his best, Donahue is an 8.

"I've never beat him," Donahue said, shaking his head. "But," he added as he inspected his club, "if you hit one of these right ... this is worth at least nine strokes."

Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425

Staff writer Dee DePass contributed to this article.

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