ANCHORAGE, Alaska - A Dallas auction house selling a rare century-old $5 bill from Fairbanks this month was duped in a separate, unrelated deal last year with a Fairbanks locksmith who sold the company historical bank notes he stole from the estate of a collector.
Fairbanks police say Heritage Auctions pulled the bills from sale after learning it received stolen property from Forrest Holton, who is serving a three-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to felony theft.
The theft remained undiscovered for months and came to light when estate representatives learned some of the bills were listed for auction in April 2011.
"They thought they had the darn things," Fairbanks police investigator Jim Gibson said.
In his approach to Heritage, Holton claimed he found the bills in a desk kept at an abandoned storage facility that he bought in a foreclosure sale, a transaction that never happened. Holton actually gained access to the bills several times after changing out the locks of four safety deposit boxes belonging to the estate of pioneer Fairbanks banker Bill Stroecker, whose collection included First National Bank of Fairbanks notes signed by his father, who preceded him as bank president.
Holton also approached a South Carolina antique money collector and dealer, who expressed interest, but lost communications with the locksmith, according to police.
Altogether, Holton stole about 60 bills, including two uncut sheets of bank notes, said Gibson, who was assigned to the case. The value of the loot was estimated as high as $500,000, the bulk of it from the uncut sheets and the 10 bills Heritage bought for $82,000.
A Heritage official said the company closely tracks reports of stolen currency, and the Stroecker bills were not among them because they had not been reported as stolen at the time. Because currency can be identified by serial number, it's highly unusual that a thief would approach a major auction company with stolen bills, according to Heritage's director of currency auctions, Dustin Johnston, who flew to Fairbanks in early 2011 to purchase the notes.
"It's a risk that we take," Johnston said Thursday. "In this particular case, we took the bullet."
In his eight years with the currency division, Johnston said, only two other substantial collections were stolen and submitted for auction. He said Heritage quickly learned of the thefts and the collections never made it to auction.
On Oct. 18, the company is set to auction off a $5 bill presented to a turn-of-the-century vice president and possessed by his family until they decided to auction it off through Heritage. That bill, also from the First National Bank of Fairbanks, was presented to the frontier city's namesake, Charles W. Fairbanks, in 1905 when he served as vice president under Theodore Roosevelt. It is one of only four of its kind and is expected to fetch up to $300,000.
In the Holton case, the theft was discovered after four of the bills were listed online to go on sale.
A Fairbanks friend of Stroecker recognized two of the bills from the banker's collection.
Joe Usilbelli Jr. said he contacted custodians of the estate, noted the bills were for sale and asked what they were doing with the rest of the bank notes. The response: What notes on auction?
Fearing that a $1 bill already up for auction would be bought, Usibelli submitted the winning bid of $2,300 so he could return it to the estate. The bill arrived, but he was never charged by Heritage, which removed the other three bills before they became available.
"I'm glad I was able to help bring back some historic items of Fairbanks and Alaska," Usibelli said.
Johnston said Heritage knew about Usibelli's plan to return the bill to the estate, and did not charge him for the note.
Heritage recovered the money it paid to Holton.
The estate recovered all but six bills and worked out a settlement with Holton's employer for the loss and legal expenses, according to Don Dennis, spokesman for the estate.
Dennis said he recognizes Heritage had procedures for securing legal goods.
"But there's always the human element," he said.