|The eBay lot of medals, at least one of which is stolen|
property, sold on April 13, 2014 for $611.
IN AUGUST OF 1980, I left my house in northern Westchester County, New York, and moved into Manhattan to sublet a loft in Soho for the month with Robert Hard, a man I was dating. (I was divorced; my son, who was five, was spending the month with his grandparents in Humboldt County, California.)
It was a glorious summer, much of which was spent on the fire escape, smoking cigarettes and drinking wine.
On the last day of August, we packed up what belongings we had brought with us and shoved them into Robert’s car, which may have been a ’73 bronze Mercury Capri hatchback. We drove from Soho to the way-upper West Side, where Robert’s twin brother Gordon shared a flat with four other guys.
The next morning, we went downstairs to 104th Street, where we’d parked the Merc. The windows were smashed. Our stuff was gone.
The sublet had been furnished. All I’d packed from my house were necessities (clothes, cosmetics) and sentimental items I was reluctant to leave in an unoccupied house in the woods -- such as the the Silver Star awarded posthumously to my father, U.S. Marine Lt. John D. Robertson, Jr. for valor (“…which resulted in his death…”, as the proclamation read) on Okinawa in May 1945.
The guilt and shame of losing his medal lingered with me for a long time.
Two or three years after that August night, Robert called my house and said he had something he thought would interest me. Could he drop by?
He arrived with a package of letters from officials in the Pentagon documenting his long and utimately successful effort to have all of my father’s decorations and honoria, including the Silver Star and the Purple Heart, replaced.
Last week, I was pulling into a parking space outside a class at Humboldt State University when my cell phone rang.
“A kid from Pennsylvania just called,” said my husband, John. “He asked if you knew that your father’s medal is for sale on eBay?!”
“That’s a scam,” I said. “The medals are at U.S. Bank, in the safe deposit box.” A beat, two beats.
My God. It’s the real one.
I called “the kid” — 19-year-old Austin Nedwick, a pre-med student who collects military memorabilia.
“The seller doesn’t know what he has,” Austin said. “It’s listed wrong, and it’s with a bunch of common medals. But dealers will spot it. The bid could go up to a thousand dollars. If it had kept its ribbon and pin it would have been worth up to five thousand. Especially since there’s a story with it.”
I asked Austin how he found me.
“The seller has included a photo of the back of the medal. Your father's name is engraved there. I Googled it, and found all the stories about you, and the movie you made — ‘Letters Home’ — and from the newspaper articles it didn’t sound like you were someone who would have sold this or given it away…”
He sent me the link for the eBay listing. The Silver Star, battered and dulled, surrounded by a dozen or so lesser medals, was nearly unrecognizable in the flea-market lot. A second photo showed the flip side.
I enlarged the image. A rifle shot went through my heart.
Up to that point, I had thought, well, amazing story, how unlikely, I already have a medal in storage, I don’t have time to pursue the red-tape labyrinth of getting this back, it’s just a symbol, a thing — and then I saw my father’s name, belly-up, exposed, tossed in a box like a piece of junk jewelry, abandoned and dismissed.
I wrote the seller, who is known to me only as Canuprovethat2010 -- by eBay regulations, he is allowed his anonymity regardless of whether or not he is selling stolen property, unless a police officer produces a report. I explained the circumstances. I also emphasized that in no way did I believe that he was the original thief. (“The people who stole our stuff probably only had possession for 10 minutes. The only things they collected were syringes,” I wrote.)
The seller responded, asking for more information about me, to prove my right to the medal. I produced the proof. He responded, writing that he didn’t know what to do, as there was already a bid on the item. (There is a simple procedure: eBay allows a seller to end an auction without giving cause, at any time before the auction closes.) The seller chose to stonewall; someone had probably clued him to the fact that he had missed a high-worth item. Last Sunday evening, the “box of medals, good stuff” that included my father’s Silver Star, sold for $611. The winner, from the looks of his history of eBay transactions, is a dealer.
I called eBay and spent most of Sunday on hold. I was transferred and transferred. I repeated the story eight or nine times. When the evening ended, I had had conversations with representatives in both the Mediation and the Trust & Safety departments.
As it now stands, Mediation is pursuing the case, notifying both the seller and the buyer that eBay is aware there was prior notice that stolen property was being sold, and encouraging them to join a three-way e-mail conversation (in which, unfairly, only my identity is known to the others). The ideal is, says Joseph in Mediation, for the three of us to “work out something.” Joseph emphasized that by this, he, and by implication, eBay, did not mean that I was expected to buy the medal back.
The Trust & Safety department of eBay deals a much heavier hand on stolen property issues, but that level of disciplinary action (lifetime exclusion from eBay, for starters) requires the involvement of a police officer and a copy of the police report.
Robert Hard -- I’d emailed him as soon as I learned about the medal, under the subject line, “This will blow your mind” -- was discouraging about the chances of obtaining a police report for a car break-in in 1980. I hadn’t been too optimistic myself. I seem to recall that there are warehouses somewhere in Brooklyn filled with pre-computerization paperwork from the NYPD.
In my most recent conversation with Mediation’s Joseph, I told him I was not going to let this incident pass.
“I always do that,” I said. “I’ve never sued anyone, I’ve never pressed charges, I’ve never taken a cent in a divorce. I’ve always decided that the hassle wasn’t worth the bad energy, and I’ve walked away. But I’m not walking away from this, not now, not ever. Tell the buyer and the seller that. Tell them that I am not going to lose this medal twice. I am not going to rest until his name is with people who are his family, people who look like him, who laugh like he laughed: his daughter, his grandson, his great-grandsons.
"We will know him by his things.”
"We will know him by his things.”