Losers Spinning After Carousel Ride’s Auction

Times Staff Writer

The battle over the Broadway Flying Horses Carousel is over. Or is it?

The auction of the 114-year-old amusement ride Saturday, which sparked a transcontinental bidding war between groups seeking to own one of the country’s oldest carousels, was decided with a bid of $650,000.

But there’s a twist.

The winning bidder was absent, represented only through an agent holding a cellular phone. She would not divulge her identity or that of the winner, and did not say what the future holds for the 40 wooden horses, three goats and three dogs that make up the carousel.


Others who came to buy the antique carousel still want it and hope they can raise more money and convince the mystery buyer to sell it to them. The cost would be at least $715,000 with the auctioneer’s fees added in.

Even though businesses said the carousel had been an economic boost to Seaport Village, no one from the open-air mall near downtown showed up to bid.

“For the sake of everything in Seaport Village, I wish all the tenants in the village could come together and buy it,” said Omar Fararh, who owns three businesses in the village. He said he wished the businesses could have raised enough money to compete for the carousel.

Saturday’s auction in a nearby hotel room -- a barren space furnished only with a podium, a few dozen chairs and a television set that played a video of the carousel -- was the culmination of three months of fundraising, organizing and built-up excitement.

Residents of Salisbury, Mass., where the merry-go-round delighted children for nearly 60 years before being brought to San Diego, had launched an all-out fundraising campaign to regain a piece of their childhood. Their hope was that the carousel’s return would help a town stricken by a sluggish economy.

“We need new business,” Jack Welsh, a Salisbury businessman, said before the auction. “We want to bring in the families.”

A group called the Salisbury Beach Preservation Assn. raised nearly $200,000 to bring the carousel home. The group’s hopes died as an opening bid of $1 million was sought.

But there were no bids. Auctioneer David Norton, speaking as fast as he could, called out again: “$1 million. Nobody likes to be the first.” Seeing that there were no takers, Norton lowered the price to $800,000. “There ought to be a dozen hands up,” he said. There were none.

The price continued to lower, until it reached $500,000. Then someone placed a bid. It came from Larry Davis, an amusement park owner from Palm Springs who later said he wanted to keep the carousel in San Diego.

But a woman holding a cellular phone countered with $550,000. Then another hand rose and the bid was raised to $600,000. The woman, who would not give her name, raised her hand and bid $650,000.

“Once, twice,” Norton shouted. “Sold, sold, sold.”

Although about 5,000 carousels were built during their “golden era” of construction, from 1890 to 1930, fewer than 150 such rides exist today. With 22, California has the second-largest concentration of antique carousels in the country after Ohio.

The Seaport Village ride first opened on Coney Island in 1890, the creation of Charles Looff, a famed German amusement park builder. Looff carved the animals out of wood.

Historians have no record of the carousel’s journey after 1905. They say Looff was known to move his rides around the East Coast to entice businessmen into building seaside amusement parks.

It resurfaced in 1914 in the small hamlet of Salisbury, where it stayed until 1973, when Seaport Village developer Morris Taubman bought it, restored it and brought it to San Diego.

“It’s one of the best maintained machines in the country,” said Bette Largent, president of the National Carousel Assn. “You can’t create another; you can’t go back in time.”

But the trust Taubman established placed the ride up for auction for undisclosed reasons, to the delight of carousel aficionados in Salisbury.

“There’s only one place in the world where that belongs, and that’s in Salisbury Beach,” said Welsh, who flew to San Diego for the auction. So after the auction, he approached the agent for the winner and handed her his business card. “I would like to know who they are,” he said. “We’re hoping that we can work out a deal with the winner.”

“I’m just an agent,” the woman replied. She repeated her comments when representatives from San Diego County’s Board of Supervisors approached her.

Supervisor Ron Roberts has been looking for a carousel to place in Old Town, but his spokesman said Wednesday that the auction had taken place too quickly for the county to react.

Seaport Village businesses, enamored with the carousel’s power to bring in customers, lamented over its possible departure. “It’s an attraction and we love it,” said Bruce Walton, vice president of GMS Realty, which operates Seaport Village. “We think it’s a great amenity for Seaport Village. We consider it an asset.”

The carousel attracted nearly 300,000 riders a year. Now shopkeepers think they should have done more. “We’ll lose a lot of business,” said Lillie Marquez, an assistant manager of Carousel Music Box Co. “I think with it leaving, it takes away from a lot of the nostalgia.”

Davis said more people from San Diego should have shown up Saturday. “You never appreciate what you have until it’s gone,” he said. “These people here are not going to know that they were attached to it until it’s gone.”

Carousel preservationists hoped the amusement ride would fall into the hands of someone who would keep it in one piece. Far too often, they have seen winning bidders dismantle vintage merry-go-rounds and sell them for parts.

“They were just breaking up carousels left and right,” said Brian Morgan, a past president of the National Carousel Assn. “But we started fighting harder, actively trying to find someone in the local community. It’s the local community who saves them.”

But with the buyer’s intentions a secret, the winner’s agent slipped away.

Meanwhile, Welsh will continue to raise funds. “We just need a little more time to get everything together,” he said. “We’re just picking up momentum.”