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Lawyers recoup $600K for Michael Jackson memorabilia collector

BOSTON – It may not have been as easy as 1-2-3, but a pair of Boston lawyers has helped recoup $600,000 for a client who got the bad end of an unauthorized private sale of his Michael Jackson memorabilia.

Michael Jackson’s 1987 album, ‘Bad,’ was the first to produce five No. 1 singles. A memorabilia collector consigned a promotional poster for the album, featuring Jackson’s handwritten lyrics, to auction but was told no bidder met the reserve price, leading the collector to seek legal assistance.

Michael Jackson’s 1987 album, ‘Bad,’ was the first to produce five No. 1 singles. A memorabilia collector consigned a promotional poster for the album, featuring Jackson’s handwritten lyrics, to auction but was told no bidder met the reserve price, leading the collector to seek legal assistance.

In 2009, Peter Slingluff, a longtime collector of rock ‘n’ roll and pop memorabilia, consigned two items — a promotional poster for Jackson’s “Bad” album, onto which the King of Pop had inscribed the lyrics to the song “We Are the World”; and the handwritten lyrics to his smash hit “Billie Jean” — to the New York pop-culture-themed auction house Gotta Have Rock and Roll. The “Bad” poster, in particular, was considered “a very impressive and unique piece” by one Jackson autograph expert.

It seemed like a smart move: On its website, Gotta Have Rock and Roll boasts of setting the world record for fetching the highest price for an Elvis Presley item (his famed peacock jumpsuit) and also raking in $528,000 for John Lennon’s talisman necklace, which the former Beatle can be seen wearing on the cover of his and Yoko Ono’s 1968 album “Two Virgins.”

And yet, when Slingluff’s items went up for bid, no one met his reserve price, the auction house told him. Instead, the auction house sent Slingluff a check for $40,500 — the proceeds of a private sale Slingluff says he didn’t authorize — and told him to beat it.

Slingluff grew even more suspicious after the pieces were flipped for nearly 10 times as much about a year later through the Los Angeles auction house Julien’s. That led Slingluff to believe that Gotta Have Rock and Roll owner Edward Kosinski had secretly sold his Jackson memorabilia to an insider.

Enter Boston attorneys Joshua W. Gardner and Nicholas Rosenberg, who convinced arbitrator John M. Brickman that it was black and white: Slingluff should be awarded more than $600,000, encompassing the proceeds of the later sale, attorneys’ fees and interest. The judgment is awaiting confirmation, according to Rosenberg.

Working on the case was a thriller, Rosenberg says, in part due to his and his partner’s affinity for the collector, who sleeps in one of Lennon’s beds in his Allston home.

Rosenberg says his work with Slingluff has provided a window into a world where there are “so many opportunities for fraud and breaches of fiduciary duty.” While a certain amount of opaqueness may be justified to preserve buyers’ and sellers’ anonymity, he explains, that’s no excuse for a dearth of documentation to legitimize sales.

Gotta Have Rock and Roll was represented by Hartley T. Bernstein of New York City. Efforts to obtain comment from Bernstein or his client were unsuccessful.

According to Peter J. Caruso II of Prince, Lobel, Tye in Boston, whose practice largely revolves around the art world, sellers need to guard against being blinded by the excitement of the auction process. Detailed written consignment agreements should be requested and reviewed closely, and as many contingencies as possible need to be anticipated.

“Sellers sometimes don’t pay attention to anything else, except the gold at the end of the rainbow,” he says. “One rule that we continue to remind clients about, especially in the Internet era, is that standard forms still need to be reviewed.”

Caruso also recommends would-be consignors visit auction houses with which they are considering doing business to get a sense of how they operate, if feasible.