Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen has seen his share of court fights, what with a patent war he launched a few years ago against pretty much all of Silicon Valley, and other high-profile business battles.
But few lawsuits have been like the one filed on the billionaire’s behalf Wednesday in San Mateo County Superior Court. That legal action, complete with a temporary restraining order, is not about software, but rather concerns the hardest of hardware — a 70-year-old German tank known as the Panzer IV that weighs 27.6 tons.
Allen owns a lot of things. The Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. The NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers. A chunk of the Seattle Sounders soccer franchise. He founded the Allen Institute for Brain Science. He has given away more than $1.8 billion. And there’s a lot more left over.
Now, he says, he spent $2.5 million on the Panzer IV, a choice bit of history that he bought in July to add to his museum of military memorabilia housed in his Flying Heritage Collection in Everett, Wash.
But the Panzer’s owner (in Allen’s world, the “former owner”) says that the sale never occurred. And therein lies the legal action.
The tank in question was built in 1944 and used as part of the German effort during World War II. It was eventually bought by Syria in the 1950s. The Israelis captured the Panzer in 1967 during the Six-Day War and used it to train soldiers before retiring it to the Israeli Armor Museum.
In 2003, the behemoth was purchased by the Military Vehicle Technology Foundation in Portola Valley, Calif., which oversees the so-called Littlefield Collection, described on its website as “one of the largest and most significant collections of historical military vehicles in the world.”
But Jacques M. Littlefield, the Stanford-trained engineer who amassed the collection of 240 vehicles, died in 2009. In early July, the collection was donated to the Collings Foundation in Stow, Mass., which is dedicated to preserving military and aviation history.
Collings held an auction later that month to sell some of the Littlefield Collection so that it could build a facility to showcase the rest. The Panzer IV was sent to the auction block.
“It’s very historically significant,” said Rob Collings, executive director of the foundation. “It’s the most produced German tank of World War II. There’s only two privately owned such vehicles in the United States. It’s got a lot of historical significance to it.”
And that’s where Allen comes in. According to court documents, Allen has “a passion for aviation and military history.” His company, Vulcan Warbirds Inc., buys and sells military planes and vehicles and leases them to the Flying Heritage Collection, which recently opened a 26,000-square-foot “tank arena.”
“Warbirds has been seeking to find a Panzer IV Tank for over five years,” the lawsuit says. “Panzer IV Tanks are extremely rare and rarely are available for sale. Once acquired, the Panzer IV Tank will be on display at the museum.”
When Flying Heritage Collection officials saw the Panzer on sale as part of the Littlefield auction, they jumped. But not very high.
According to the auction catalog, the tank was expected to bring $2.4 million to $2.6 million. Allen’s group bid $1.5 million. There was a second bid by another tank lover of $1.75 million. Neither bid was high enough to meet the reserve, or minimum price.
The tank went back to Collings.
Not long after, the court documents assert, Allen’s group got back in contact with a representative of Auctions America, which had led the auction, and negotiated a purchase price of $2.5 million for the Panzer and wired the auction house $4.2 million — which covered the cost of the tank and other items that had been purchased at auction.
“Then,” the documents say, “in a complete about-face almost one month after Warbirds paid in full for the Panzer IV Tank, on August 20, 2014, Rob Collings informed [Flying Heritage Collection Executive Director] Adrian Hunt that the board of the Collings Foundation had not agreed to sell the Panzer IV Tank.”
The only way a sale would go through, the documents quoted Rob Collings as saying, was if he could “first source an equivalent piece.”
Hence the suit. And the temporary restraining order prohibiting the Panzer from going anywhere.
Vulcan Warbirds released a statement about the suit: “Auctions America has failed to honor our agreement and yesterday we sued it and the Collings Foundation, the former owner of the tank, to enforce our contract. We look forward to restoring the Panzer IV Tank and having it join our Sherman tank and other historic military aircraft and vehicles at the Flying Heritage Collection.”
Collings, however, was happy to talk.
“We do not have an agreement to sell a Panzer IV to Paul Allen or Flying Heritage Collection or Vulcan or any of his companies,” Collings said. “I heard the comment made from someone at Flying Heritage Collection that this was a case of sellers’ remorse. No it was not. We didn’t ever sell it.”