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Bankruptcy trustees auction Universal Health Care's art and everything else

ST. PETERSBURG — The final remains of the bankrupt Universal Health Care were sold at bargain prices at a public auction Tuesday and Wednesday. From the "Chihulyesque" hand-blown glass sculptures that adorned the walls of the lavish executive suite to the headsets from hundreds of telemarketers' cubicles, everything went to the highest bidder.

It took Moecker Auctions three hours to sell more than 200 pieces of art to about 130 bidders online and in person at Universal's offices at 100 Central Ave. A custom portrait of Gandhi fetched $5,400, while multiple framed nature photographs and colorful, abstract prints averaged about $150 each.

Auctioneer Eric Rubin praised the quality of a sleek black leather sofa and two matching chairs.

"There was no expense spared because they were spending other people's money," he said. "They bought the best of everything."

State regulators have accused Universal's leadership, including CEO and founder Akshay Desai, of fraud, embezzlement and diversion of funds. An investigation is ongoing, though no charges have been filed. Roughly 1,000 employees lost their jobs in March shortly after FBI agents raided the firm.

The 5- by 6-foot custom portrait of Gandhi dominated Desai's office. Rubin said he understood the company paid $16,000 for the sequined, abstract piece. It sparked a bidding war between the owners of Airport Farmers & Flea Market in Hernando County and Prabhu Negi, a retired doctor who lives in Seminole. Initially Negi was hesitant to raise the bidding from $1,000 to $1,500 and upped it only to $1,250. But he topped each bid after that until he placed the winning one and took ownership of the imposing piece. The crowd applauded.

"It's Gandhi," the soft-spoken 72-year-old said when asked why he was intent on buying the portrait. Negi's father took him to see the beloved leader make a speech in northern India when he was a small boy.

Along with art, bankruptcy trustees oversaw the sale of roughly 25 flat-screen TVs, 160 laptop computers, printers, kitchen appliances and office furniture.

Many buyers were taking what was left of the defunct business to use in their own new facilities. Officers of Heritage Insurance were among the most frequent art buyers. The company is moving soon from leased space on Central Avenue to a 145,000-square-foot facility it recently bought in Clearwater.

"We need to decorate our place, so we've bought up most of it," said chairman Bruce Lucas.

Evan Duglin spent more than $8,000 on artwork for Connie Duglin Linen Rental's new facility in Tampa. It will be the headquarters for the 30-year-old company, which has 18 locations around the country.

"I don't know a lot about art but I know what I like," said Duglin, 79. He bought a set of 10 contemporary paintings of stripes and rectangles to hang in the office he's creating for his 4-year-old grandson. "His office is going to be right next to me. He will see it this weekend," Duglin said. And even if he doesn't take over the business one day, "he'll always have the art."

Katherine Snow Smith can be contacted at (727) 893-8385 or kssmith@tampabay.com.

Bankruptcy trustees auction Universal Health Care's art and everything else 09/25/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 25, 2013 8:51pm]
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