Sometimes, even an auction can't get lavish mansions sold

Credit: Exp Realty
The palatial mansion in Barrington Hills that was featured in the TV show "Empire."
August 21, 2023 05:56 AM 2 HOURS AGO

In May, when a lavish Barrington Hills mansion that appeared on the television show "Empire" had sat on the market unsold for a decade, a Florida-based auction company took on the task of selling it.

At auction, the baronial property, whose asking price had slipped from $15.3 million in June 2013 to $9.5 million in May 2023, would find the price the market is willing to pay. On its website, Elite Auctions described the property as an “extraordinary, elegant testament to opulence and refinement” that was being offered “without reserve.”

In auction language, that means the house would be sold at the top bidder’s price, no matter how low.

Properties of this one’s caliber are often frustratingly difficult to sell on the conventional market, Elite Auctions CEO Randy Haddaway told Crain’s at the time. For the sellers, Sam and Geralyn Cecola, an auction “establishes a date-certain sale,” after which they could finally move on.


On July 15, “the house will sell to the winning bidder,” Haddaway said.

That’s not what happened.


July 15 came and went, and the 17,600-square-foot house built in 2008 on a little more than 8.2 acres, is still for sale.

It was the latest in a series of upper-end Chicago-area homes that have gone up for auction without selling in the competitive bid environment. Among the others are Michael Jordan’s Highland Park mansion, an opulent property in Winnetka, a Lincoln Park house by architect Larry Booth and a 19th-century mansion on Dearborn Street in Chicago's Gold Coast neighborhood. The first two went back onto the conventional market, and the latter two sold to pre-emptive bidders who put in a high offer before the auction to avoid vying with other bidders.

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Despite the romantic notion about “finding the price” from bidders who compete with one another, high-end house auctions in the Chicago area often fail to finish. The reasons have to do primarily with the procedural trap doors built into some auctions.  

“If you’re not going to have an absolute auction,” where the property will for sure be sold to the highest bidder, “you probably shouldn’t tell people you’re auctioning their home,” says Diana Peterson, CEO of Northbrook real estate firm AW Properties Global, which has an auction division called AuctionWorks. The firm has auctioned several properties absolute in recent years, including a six-acre Lake Forest estate, a Glenview house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and a house on Dayton Street in Chicago's Lincoln Park.

Peterson doesn’t use the term “trap doors.” She refers to “reassurances for the seller.” In Barrington Hills, the Florida-based auction house provided the Cecolas one such reassurance in case the market was telling them a price so low they didn’t want to hear it. Elite’s arrangement allows the sellers to check bidders’ proposed opening bids ahead of auction day. Then on July 15, if they opted not to start the bidding, there’d be no option and no sale.

It appears the market disappointed them with its numbers, because the Cecolas did not proceed. They could not be reached for comment, and Haddaway said he was not authorized to comment after July 15.

“We did exercise the right to cancel the auction,” said Michael LaFido, the Exp Realty agent who represents the property. But LaFido said he could not speak for the sellers on why they didn’t go ahead.

Despite the cancellation, LaFido said, the promised auction “got us a lot of attention for the property. We had 20 qualified showings in the last month before the (auction) date,” which was the most of any month of the decade the house has been on the market.

Rick Levin says “getting the spotlight on the property” should be counted as a win for the auction house. “Anything that gets people looking at your property is good for your sale,” he says.

The head of Rick Levin & Associates, a Chicago-based auction house whose real estate offerings are primarily commercial properties and developers’ portfolios of unsold residential property, sometimes auctions individual homes.

Levin’s firm was the auctioneer on both the Larry Booth house and the Gold Coast housewhere pre-emptive bidders swooped in with a strong enough number to ward off all competitors. While that’s not the intended route of an auction, he says, “if it works, if it gets people thinking they’d better act right now to get that house that used to be just kind of sitting there, you as the auctioneer should be commended for that because you got the job done.”

Maybe, but it’s not appreciably different from turning up the marketing noise on a house that’s being sold conventionally, where the buyers say what they’ll pay and the sellers say yes or no to the number.

When an auction is announced, sellers have a specific image in their heads, Levin says.

“It’s always fun to be a spectator watching multiple bidders going up against each other and raising the price until the market level is achieved,” he says. “Open auctions like that have been going on since Mesopotamia, and it’s fun.”

But both Levin and Peterson say auctions are more likely now to be held online. Bidders appreciate the privacy and feel more secure, Peterson says.

If auctions on any terms other than an absolute sale to the victor in a bidding war often don’t work, why do they keep happening?

Peterson suggests it’s because some people don’t realize that Chicago’s upper-end market is rooted in workaday Chicago, not in the playground markets like Aspen, coastal Florida and Palm Springs.

Because of the dual concentrations of wealth and trophy properties in some of those markets, “you can start the bidding at a dollar and people with a couple hundred million dollars will start there and compete with each other” up to a healthy market value, Peterson says. “But it doesn’t work here.”