Costume Drama

The costume-jewelry dealers were a little blue at the Stella Antique Pier Show on November 11. It was a gray, drizzly day, and this year, their most colorful, high-rolling client wouldn’t be coming, draped in jewelry (“six, seven, ten pieces!” remembers one dealer) and wielding a Judith Leiber minaudière full of blank checks.

“Dennis was everybody’s ideal customer,” sighs Barbara Strand, a dealer specializing in the Bakelite that the collector so loved. “When he came in, everyone lit up like Christmas trees. He didn’t hassle people about money when he bought stuff. Now we all realize why.”

Dennis Masellis is now a prisoner on Rikers Island, sentenced to three to nine years after pleading guilty to first-degree grand larceny in June. Masellis, a payroll clerk at the law firm Baker & McKenzie, embezzled, over the past decade, more than
$7 million through ghost employees and negative deductions on his own paychecks. He spent every last cent of it on costume jewelry, antiques, couture, and 400 Barbie dolls (each of whom had something of a wardrobe herself). And all of it is now in the possession of Doyle Auctioneers on East 87th Street.

Doyle held its first sale of the Masellis collection earlier this month (it brought in just under $2 million), and expects his pieces to affect, in varying degrees, every single auction the house will hold in the next twelve months. The staff is giddily sorting through the boxes of surrealist Bes-Ben hats, modeling the tiaras, marveling at vase after vase of intricately beaded flowers.

“It is, quite simply, the most important collection of accessories ever assembled in terms of quantity, of quality, scope, and depth,” says Jan Reeder, who organizes couture and textile auctions at Doyle and has been assigned the task of sorting through at least 10,000 pieces of jewelry.

Masellis is, by all accounts, an odd man. Hugely overweight and flamboyantly dressed (“a regular Elton John,” snorts one dealer), he cut a controversial figure on the costume-jewelry circuit. “He really changed the whole face of this thing globally,” says Chicago dealer Brett Benson, who for the past four years sent items to Masellis at least once a month, and who took the convict out for a presentencing dinner at Bill Hong, where the dealers all wore free dennis! T-shirts. “He escalated it to the price structure of an art form. Unfortunately, it was a case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, but he did amazing things to the market. I thought it was family money. I always thought, I’m not going to bite the goose that’s laying the golden egg!

“There was no joy of purchase, which I found curious,” says Mario Rivoli, a New York dealer. “People usually say, ‘Oh, this is perfect!’ or ‘I love it!’ He went, ‘I’ll take it.’ Blank face. No reaction whatsoever.”

“The dealers would give him cookies; they’d say, ‘I’ll call you, I’ll take you shopping,’ ” says a dealer who asked not to be named. “If anybody in their normal mind would pay $100 for something, he’d pay not $200, not $300, but $5,000 for it. Of course he felt like he had friends!”

“I was so sorry to see it all go at auction,” says Strand. “If he were living in Italy, his picture would be on a postage stamp. He would be a national hero!” She sighs. “He stole lawyer money to buy beautiful art.”

Costume Drama