East Precinct police officers recover stolen property in Chicago; alleged con man escapes

Learn how NOT to get swindled: East Portland auctioneer Robert W. Mathisen is said to have stolen more than $1 million in goods and cash. Even worse, he robbed a community of trust …

Looking at a doll that was part of a truckload of merchandise Portland Police say was stolen ‚Äì then taken to Chicago ‚Äì is NRT Officer Michele Michaels, with its owner, West Coast Antiques’ Ann Smith. David F. Ashton photo

By David F. Ashton

Members of Portland’s antique and collectables community were shocked in late 2004 to find the Southeast Portland building, home of Robert W. Mathisen’s Professional Auction Group, empty.

When Mathisen and his wife, Ginger, left town, they not only took money owed to collectors and ordinary people who had consigned their valuables for him to sell – but also, a truck full of valuable antiques and collectables.

These valuables came from estate sales and collectors throughout East Portland.

The police had originally advised victims to “write off” their losses. But, when Sgt. Dave Anderson assigned East Precinct officers Michele Michaels and Sheri Davis to the case in 2005, the mystery of the Mathisens’ disappearance slowly began to unravel.

“What kept this investigation alive, Michaels told us, “was that each person we talked to gave us another person to speak with. Many of the victims know one another, in the antique and auction community.”

Son gives up parents

The case broke open when they convinced one of Mathisens’ sons, living in Chicago, to talk. The break came just in time ‚Äì most of the goods were about to be auctioned off in the Windy City.

Anderson, Michaels, and Davis flew to Chicago–packed up the goods–and trucked them back to Portland. The merchandise was put on display at East Precinct in late April, so victims could come and identify their treasures.

“Not only did Mathisen take off with their valuables and money,” Michaels told us, “he took away a piece of their life. The people he cheated gathered at his auction house every week or so. They enjoyed each other’s company; it was like a family. In addition to stealing their valuables and money, Mathisen stole their ability to trust.”

Reunited with lost treasures

Ann Smith of West Coast Antiques was at East Precinct when we arrived. Opening an antique case belonging to Smith and her husband Leonard, she said, “This is one of several dolls we had consigned to Mathisen.”

Smith recounted how their relationship soured, as Mathisen became slow to pay after goods were auctioned. “Finally he stopped paying at all,” Smith continued. “So, we stopped giving him goods to consign.” The final straw, she added, was when two checks Mathisen gave her bounced because he had stopped payment on them.

Officers who helped crack the case, Sheri Davis and Michele Michaels, stand in the East Precinct Community Room – then resembling a showroom at a high-end auction house, laden with merchandise they say auctioneer Robert Mathisen took with him after he disappeared in 2004. David F. Ashton photo

Learn not to be cheated

Michaels told us, “The people who got taken told us, ‘Gosh, I feel so silly, so dumb.’ Or, ‘I wish I’d checked them out better.’ But remember, con artists do what they do well ‚Äì this is what makes them successful.”

How can you protect yourself?

“Listen to your small inner voice,” Michaels said. “If you get the feeling like something isn’t right ‚Äì beware. If someone tells you, ‘please don’t cash this check until next week”, this is a bad sign. Ask around. If you’re putting something on consignment, ask your friends what they know about a particular dealer. Try out an auction house first with smaller, less valuable things.”

Both officers Michaels and Davis said they’d wished they could have collared the Mathisens in Chicago; the slippery couple escaped. “But isn’t it wonderful seeing the smiles on people’s faces who are reunited with their treasures?” Michael’s asked, looking around the room.

© 2006 David F. Ashton ~ East PDX News

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