Bridget Donovan had little interest in owning a unit in St. Petersburg's Signature Place condo tower.
But half a million dollars and two celebratory glasses of red wine later, Donovan and her husband, George, owned a 22nd-story, 1,829-square-foot condo overlooking Tampa Bay.
They were among nearly 500 people who jammed a hotel ballroom Sunday as the 36-story sail-shaped skyscraper got a turn on the auction block — giving up 51 units at 25 to 50 percent discounts and exceeding the developer's sales expectations.
"Fifty-one units!" gushed auction company president Jon Gollinger. "Who said Florida's in trouble?"
The auctioneers, Boston's Accelerated Marketing Partners, ran a slickly efficient operation overseen by men in matching dark blazers, white shirts and red ties.
It took less than two hours to dispose of units ranging from a $199,000 lower loft to a $742,000 condo on the 31st floor.
Young women in business skirts escorted winners into a "closing room" to seal deals with bubbling champagne flutes. Platters of shrimp cocktail, cubed cheeses and fresh fruit served as appetizers for the main action in the auction room.
Donovan likened herself to a crack addict after she breached her not-a-penny-more maximum price by $100,000.
"I didn't know I could be led so easily,'' the Fort Lauderdale resident said. "It wasn't like we wanted the unit. But we didn't want the others to have it."
Signature Place financier Fifth Third Bank arranged the auction, held at the St. Petersburg Hilton Bayfront, to quicken sales in the worst real estate environment in decades.
After a price-chopping spree last year, developer Joel Cantor managed to sell 100 of the 242 units, but it wasn't fast enough for his nervous lenders.
The auction surpassed Cantor's hopes. The results matched the bottom-feeding deals he had recently given buyers and, in some cases, exceeded Cantor's prices.
He enlisted a proxy to bid on a few units himself, but lost out.
"An auction was a strange way to do it, but it worked," said Cantor, who attended his son's tennis tournament in Tampa instead of the auction. "I was afraid people would perceive it as a liquidation, like we were going out of business."
Even after the auction ended, Gollinger's staff continued to move units at the recalibrated prices. Cantor said at least 20 more units sold post-auction, leaving the building about 70 percent sold out.
More than 3,000 potential bidders toured the skyscraper in the month before the auction. Hundreds ended up placing $7,500 deposits for the right to raise a bidder's paddle.
After buying a 1,447-square-foot unit on the 14th floor for $326,000, Agnes Dacey whooped for joy down the hotel corridor.
She and her husband, Robert, sold their house in Lutz in November. Now that the kids had moved out, the couple wanted to live in a downtown setting.
"We hadn't even thought of St. Pete. But we're thrilled. We've got to go call the kids," Agnes Dacey said.
Some people went away disappointed after the bidding grew too hot. Semiretired businessman Eric Jones flew down from Wisconsin, hoping to snag Signature Place's priciest auction offering, a 31st-floor unit with a 2,000-square-foot terrace that Cantor earlier had listed for more than $1.1 million.
The bidding soared above Jones' half-million mark and ended at $742,000.
"It would have been my second home," Jones said as he packed up his paddle and auction booklet. "It's back to the beaches."