Fleeced – Times Publications, September 2009
As he glanced out his car window, Robert Huillier was abruptly confronted by two men leveling automatic weapons at him.
In an instant the color had drained from his face; Huillier’s slick bravado and ordinarily confident smile had vanished.
The shocking sight was hardly what Huillier expected when he pulled his car into the apartment complex parking lot on this sunny Tuesday afternoon. The 49-year-old Scottsdale auctioneer had been lured to the meeting by a call from a prospective client concerning a lucrative estate deal.
Little did he know, the voice on the line wasn’t that of a consignor interested in liquidating a house full of antiques. Instead, the appointment was a set-up, arranged by several of Huillier’s former associates seeking retribution.
Belying his neatly groomed appearance and confident demeanor, Huillier is a convicted felon who authorities say used his antiques appraisal business as a guise to deceive well-meaning clients.
Now it was the purported conman himself who was the one being conned.
In fact, the two armed men were actually Scottsdale police officers there to arrest Huillier on eight felony charges of fraud and theft for allegedly having scammed dozens of Valley residents out of millions of dollars. After eluding law enforcement for months, a tip from some of his alleged victims eventually led to his capture.
In September Huillier will face his victims in court, and if convicted on all charges, will face up to twenty years in prison.
Posing as an auctioneer, antiques appraiser and used-car dealer over the last two decades, police say Huillier was a career criminal who left a trail of deception stretching across California, Oregon and Arizona.
In his wake Huillier allegedly bilked wealthy investors out of millions, stole retirement funds from widows and took thousands of dollars of property and cash from Valley consumers.
In the end, it was Huillier’s greed that led to his downfall, says Noel Winters, one of Huillier’s alleged victims who helped arrange the sting operation.
As Huillier was placed in handcuffs and read his rights, Winters watched from several yards away, while another of Huillier’s victims recorded the arrest on home video.
“He’s a crook, a grifter,” says Winters, who worked for Huillier’s auction company, Gaige & Co., as a computer specialist. “He often boasted to me that he was untouchable. He would say, ‘The cops can’t touch me, they have nothing on me.’ He thought we were stupid, but in the end we ended up playing him.”
Phil Fergione was just months away from retiring from a 25-year career in the antiques business and was shopping for a trustworthy auction house to manage the liquidation of his estate.
That’s when he met Robert Huillier.
“I had a lot of priceless treasures that I was attached to for awhile. They were like children to me. It was my passion, and I was emotionally involved,” Fergione says. “I was looking for someone I could trust. Obviously, I made a terrible choice.”
During a two-day auction in late 2007, Huillier sold off Fergione’s personal collection of high-end paintings, rugs, furniture and antique treasures he had spent a lifetime acquiring.
But when it came time to pay Fergione the proceeds, which amounted to hundreds of thousands dollars, Fergione says Huillier was nowhere to be found.
Fergione asked, demanded and eventually pleaded for payment, but he says all he received were excuses and lies.
“There were so many excuses it was just ridiculous,” he says. “I began to realize there was some very underhanded stuff going on.”
Months passed and eventually Fergione sued, but Huillier never showed up in court. Despite winning a $475,000 default judgment against him, Fergione says he has never seen a dime.
“Here’s the sad part: the guy knows the value, quality and prices of merchandise. He could have been very successful by being constructive with knowledge, instead of totally destructive,” he says. “And why he went that way, I have no idea. I just have no idea.”
Fergione’s story is a familiar one to law enforcement. Dozens of Valley residents have been financially devastated after doing business or investing money with Robert Huillier, according to Scottsdale police.
Between July 2005 and January 2008 Huillier allegedly defrauded nearly 70 victims out of cash and property totaling more than $2.5 million.
“These victims either consigned merchandise for auction and were never paid, or they received checks that were paid with non-sufficient funds, closed accounts, or payment was stopped,” according to Scottsdale Detective Frank Nagy’s police report. “Some of the victims have consigned property that has not been returned in addition to not having been paid for auctioned property.”
Uncovering Huillier’s complicated schemes has been a challenge for police.
Since his arrival in Scottsdale in the late 1990s, Huillier began making profitable connections and establishing Gaige & Co. as a high-end auction gallery, specializing in antique American and European furniture, fine art, carpets, silver, jewelry and Native American items.
In the beginning, business boomed, and Huillier, his wife, Robin, and other family members lived the highlife. They had a large house on the golf course in Cave Creek, drove expensive cars and took frequent European and Hawaiian vacations.
For several years, Huillier’s business seemed legitimate. His auctions fetched high prices and clients were being paid.
Skillful at gaining the trust of his clients, Huillier inspired confidence in his customers and in many Valley antique consignors, says Don Demarest, a consignor who alleges Huillier owes him thousands of dollars.
“No one, in all the victims, ever suspected this guy. He was too personable and too friendly,” Demarest says. “He did everything to gain your trust. He’s a great conman.”
For years, Demarest consigned merchandise to Huillier and had always received payment without issue.
Over time he entrusted him with more expensive merchandise, and in late 2007 he consigned an estimated $350,000 in high-end antiques and automobiles to Huillier.
But when payment never arrived, Demarest began asking questions.
“I got a tip from someone inside the business that he hadn’t consigned them, that he had just taken them to a pawnshop,” he says. “So I went to the pawnshop, and I found all my items. Instead of placing them at auction, he took them right down the street and had them pawned!”
It was around this time, police say, that Huillier’s twisted Ponzi scheme was coming unraveled.
Huillier perpetrated his fraud like any classic Ponzi scheme, where older investors are paid off with the investments of newer investors.
His consignment agreements were structured to pay clients 30 business days after an auction; he often postponed payment to six weeks or longer using a variety of delay tactics. He also held an auction every fifth week, paying the consignors of the previous auction from the proceeds of the more recent ones.
Eventually the scheme caught up to him, police say.
“He’s done this to at least 70 people in town,” says Winters, who claims Huillier personally owes him several thousand dollars. “He stiffed a little old lady going into assisted living, whose estate she sold so she could pay for her own assisted living, and he stiffed her.”
According to police documents, the scheme was just one of several different “angles” Huillier had been working.
Successful restaurateur and nightclub owner Mark Drinkwater began investing with Huillier in 2002 and initially saw a favorable return on his $30,000 investment into the estate business.
Then in 2007, Huillier convinced Drinkwater to purchase $295,800 worth of art from the Tucson Museum of Art as an investment. Later police learned the museum had only consigned about $1,500 in art to Huillier in 2006, and about $500 in 2007.
According police reports, Drinkwater claims to have loaned Huillier more than $1.3 million over the years to buy estates and museum items that were never auctioned.
Another purported victim, Mary Beth Williams, a Scottsdale widow, invested $200,000, her life savings, with Huillier in 2005. After receiving interest payments made with checks that bounced or with checks from closed accounts, Williams asked for her money back.
She never received her principal investment back, and Huillier cut off all communication with her, according to police.
Between October 2007 and August 2008, Scottsdale investigators were inundated with complaints from victims alleging Huillier had scammed them.
But as detectives began questioning Huillier’s victims and sorting through his business dealings, they quickly discovered this wasn’t the first time Huillier fleeced well-meaning customers out of millions of dollars.
Trail of Deceit
Before establishing his auction business in Arizona, Robert Huillier owned an auto wholesale dealership in California in the 1980s he called Bay Cities Auto Auction. However, authorities say the business was simply the beginning of Huillier’s career as a conman.
“Former business partners and acquaintances from California and Oregon all described Huillier’s business activities as deceptive and that he left several victims behind at each location while owing hundreds of thousands of dollars,” according to Det. Nagy’s report.
Taking advantage of a loophole in California’s law that allowed residents to obtain a title on a vehicle without being the owner, Huillier obtained titles for hundreds of vehicles clients brought to his lot to sell.
Later he sold those cars out from under the owners and pocketed the cash. When police finally caught up to him, he had sold more than $800,000 worth of other people’s vehicles without having paid for them.
Huillier was convicted of two felonies relating to obtaining vehicles without paying for them and odometer roll-back fraud.
After serving two years in prison, he moved to Oregon, where he went on to devise a nearly identical scam to the one he would later pull off in Arizona, authorities say.
Ann Smith, owner of West Coast Antiques in Oregon, consigned thousands of dollars in merchandise to Huillier in Portland, until one day Huillier claimed he was broke. Smith, who personally lost $35,000, says from the beginning she thought she had been conned.
“He came over very humble and apologetic. He said, ‘Gee, I’m really sorry. I didn’t see it coming,’” she says. “I thought, no, it doesn’t happen overnight. I think it was a Ponzi scheme…and it all caught up with him.”
Following his January 6 arrest, Robert Huillier was released on $100,000 bond while awaiting trial, which is set to begin Sept. 9. Upon his arrest, he declined to speak to investigators, and multiple attempts by The Times to reach Huillier for comment were unsuccessful.
In 2006 alone, Huillier’s monthly bank deposits averaged almost $2 million per month, according to police documents. Yet in 2007, after failing to pay dozens of high-end consignors for auction, Huillier claimed to business associates that he was broke.
Today, Huillier has no identifiable assets and “seems to put anything of value or title in other family members’ names,” according to Nagy.
There are still several civil suits pending against Huillier from clients he did business with in 2006 and 2007. Attempts by his alleged victims to recoup their losses have revealed more victims.
Scottsdale mother Robbi Kelldorf is a defendant in a complicated civil suit in which she says she became innocently entangled because of a professional relationship she had with Huillier.
As a result, she claims, she has lost her nine-year job as a representative for Doyle Auction Gallery in New York and will likely be on the hook for $130,000 in civil damages for having referred clients to Huillier.
Kelldorf, who was also involved in arranging the sting operation which brought down Huillier, says the plaintiffs in the case are going after her because Huillier claims he has no assets.
“It really pulled the rug out from underneath of me. I’m numb from this whole situation,” she says. “This man had taken so many people down, and I didn’t even know the half of it.