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599 Topics: A Fraudulent Auction; term versus semester; to go to church/mosque versus to go to the church/mosque; to coin a phrase

Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 599.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café episode 599. I’m your host, Dr. Jeff McQuillan, coming to you from the Center for Educational Development in beautiful Los Angeles, California.

On this Café, I’ll be talking about an interesting, I think, experience I had recently going to a very high-end, or expensive, art and jewelry auction – or was it? And as always, we’ll answer a few of your questions. Let’s get started.

A few weeks ago, I received an advertisement – or an “ad,” we call it – in the mail announcing what looked to be a government auction of seized items. An “auction” (auction) is an event where people “bid” (bid) by raising their hands to indicate they want to buy something for a certain price. “To bid” is to offer a price to buy something.

So, for example, I may be selling a car, and there are five people in front of me who want to buy the car. I have a little auction. I say, “Okay, who wants to give me a bid?” And someone says, “I bid a thousand dollars,” and another person says, “I bid $1,100.” And it continues that way until we get the highest bidder. A “bidder” (bidder) is a person who bids at an auction.

This whole event of selling something by using bids is called an “auction.” So, I had received this ad in the mail announcing what looked to be a government auction of what are called “seized items.” Something that is “seized” (seized) is taken, usually by the government, because you’ve done something illegal or perhaps the things have been stolen.

Under U.S. law, if a criminal, if someone who has broken the law, is found guilty of breaking the law, his possessions, the things that he owns, can be seized or taken by the government, especially if those things had been purchased with the earnings or proceeds of illegal activities. For example, if you are a “drug dealer” – that is someone who sells drugs – and you are arrested, the government could take things that you bought from the money you made selling drugs. We would call the money that you made from selling drugs the “proceeds” or “earnings” of your activities.

The government could take your nice television or your sports car or your expensive watch – those things can be taken, or we would say “seized,” by the government and then the government can sell those things. Usually it sells them at an auction. The advertisement I received said that this auction would include valuable artwork – that is, paintings and sculptures – by “world-famous artists” – artists whose names I recognize, people like Marc Chagall, Camille Pissarro, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, and many others.

The auction also said that they would be selling very expensive Persian rugs and diamond jewelry. “Rugs” (rugs) are things that you put down on the floor. They’re usually soft coverings, we could call them. “Persian” (Persian) is what we call rugs that are from Iran or made in an Iranian style. Persian rugs are often very expensive, as are of course diamond jewelry – things like rings and pendants and so forth. Well, all of this sounded very exciting. The ad also said that they would be selling a Rolls Royce car, a very expensive car.

Now, my wife and I like to go sometimes to auctions and it just so happened that this auction was very close to where we live, only about maybe two miles from my house. So, since we did not have any other plans on our Saturday afternoon, we thought, “Well, let’s just go to this auction.” We weren’t going to buy anything. We just wanted to feel a little of the excitement of being at an auction like this.

The auction was “held at,” or took place at, a commercial center – a group of buildings that had meeting rooms or ballrooms that you could rent for things like parties or wedding receptions, which is a party after a wedding. I had had been to this building before, and I had even been into the meeting room, so I was familiar with the place. The first thing we did when we got to the auction is we had to give our name and contact information. We had to register.

By registering, we received a piece of paper with a large number on it, and this is what is used at an auction. When you are bidding on something, you raise up your piece of paper that has your number on it, and if you win the bidding, the person who is selling the items – we would call that person the “auctioneer” – writes down your number so that he knows you are the person who won that auction, that particular auction, and therefore will get that item at the end of the auction. You normally pay at the end of the auction for the things that you have successfully bid on.

Well, we first registered and then started walking around the meeting room. There were, I’m guessing, about 50 different easels with paintings on them. An “easel” (easel) is sometimes called a “stand” (stand). Usually it has three legs that are used to hold up a painting, either so the artist can paint on it or you can look at it. Now, these paintings had some very famous names connected to them. They were signed paintings by some of the most famous names in the world: Picasso and Pissarro and Chagall, Lichtenstein, and others who were very famous, especially in nineteenth- and twentieth-century art.

Along the wall of the ballroom, or of the meeting room, was a series of about eight jewelry cases. These were glass boxes, basically, inside of which were very expensive or supposedly very expensive pieces of jewelry – diamonds and rubies and other very expensive stones. My wife asked to look at one of the rings, and a very pretty young woman opened the case and held out the ring.

My wife reached for it. She wanted to look at it more closely, and the woman said, “No, I can’t let you do that.” The woman said the ring was too expensive. My wife said, “Well, I just want to see if it fits me,” and the woman did in fact let her try it on – that is, put it on her finger to see if it was a good size for her – but she took it back right away. She wasn’t allowed to look at it very long. My wife thought, “Well, this is probably just for security” – that is, for safety, so no one steals the jewelry.

In another corner of the room, there were these very large Persian rugs, and according to the information in front of the rugs, these were all rugs that were made in Iran and brought to the United States to sell. Finally, in one corner of the room, there were tables that had books on them. Most of these weren’t very expensive books. They weren’t rare books, but there were a lot of books about crime.

Now, if you opened the books, at least some of the books, there was a little sticker, a little piece of paper that was attached to the book, that said “Property of Whitey Bulger sold at auction.” When I saw that, I immediately went over to my wife, somewhat excitedly, and told her that I believed I had hit on the owner of these pieces of art. “To hit on” something is to discover it, to have figured it out. I thought I was very smart.

I thought, “Oh, I know why they’re selling all of this very expensive art here” – because these pieces of art, just like these books, were property of or belonged to a man by the name of Whitey Bulger. Now, Whitey Bulger was a notorious crime boss who was head of a crime gang in Boston in the 1970s and 1980s. He later went into hiding. When I say that he was “notorious” (notorious), I mean he was famous, but for doing bad things. He was famous in a bad way.

Sometimes people use “notorious” when they really mean “famous” as in being famous in a good way, but Whitey Bulger was definitely famous for being a bad man, a crime boss, the head of a criminal gang. We might say the head of a mafia group. The “mafia” (mafia) are criminals that are often associated with people from certain areas in Italy or Italian-Americans, although there are mafia or what are also called “organized crime groups” of many different nationalities in the U.S.

Whitey Bulger had to go into hiding – that is, he had to try to escape from being caught by the police, who were of course looking for him – and he did this successfully for many years. In 2011, after hiding for almost 20 years, the police finally found Whitey living right here in California – in fact, living just a couple of miles from my house, and just a couple of miles from this auction in Santa Monica, California.

They arrested him and he was convicted of, or found to be guilty of, many crimes and is now in jail, probably for the rest of his life. Well, if these books belonged to Whitey, then it seemed logical that the artwork did too, and that the government had seized this artwork, and this company that was working for the government was obviously selling the art because it had been seized.

We sat down as the auction began and there were, oh, I would say maybe a hundred chairs in the auction room. Interestingly, the auction room was divided in half, in two parts and there were paintings that divided the two sections. Now, if you were sitting in one section, because of the paintings, you couldn’t actually see anyone sitting in the other section. This will become important in a minute.

As the auction began, the auctioneer read the terms and conditions of the auction. These are basically the legal rules for the auction. He announced that if there were dealers in the room who wanted to bid but didn’t want to reveal or let anyone know that they were bidding, they didn’t have to raise their hands like most people do at an auction. They could simply put the piece of paper in front of their chest, in front of their body as they were seated instead of raising or putting their hand up for everyone to see.

I should explain that a “dealer” (dealer) is someone who buys things and sells them to other people. I mentioned previously a “drug dealer” is someone who sells drugs – buys drugs from one person and sells it to a group of other people – that’s a “dealer.” I thought this was a little strange, but the auctioneer explained that some dealers preferred doing it this way because they were going to sell these items again to customers at a higher price.

Logically they would do so, and they didn’t want people to know that they were the ones buying the goods – buying the pieces of art, in this case – or the Persian rugs. Well, it seemed strange to me, but okay, I had not been to an expensive auction like this before, so maybe that’s the way things worked, I thought. The first item, the first thing the auctioneer tried to sell was a large Persian rug. The auctioneer spent a lot of time describing this rug, saying how beautiful it was, saying that it was worth tens of thousands of dollars.

He spent a lot of time describing this rug, and I began to get a little worried because it was clear there were maybe a couple of hundred things inside of the auction room to sell, and if he was going to spend that much time on one item, on one thing, we could be here all day. Well, he continued to talk about how wonderful this rug was. To be honest, he sounded a little like the current president of the United States in 2017. He talked about how beautiful it was. “It was the most beautiful rug you’ve ever seen”; “It’s the best rug anyone could ever have” – things like that.

Okay, so now the bidding begins. He asked for someone to bid. Now I couldn’t see anyone on my side of the room raising their hand or bidding. The auctioneer, however, said there was a bid of, I don’t know, maybe a thousand dollars or two thousand dollars. Since we could not see anyone bidding, raising their hands, we assumed that maybe there was a dealer bidding who was just putting his piece of paper in front of him so that no one around him could see that he was bidding. He was doing so, in other words, inconspicuously.

“Inconspicuous” (inconspicuous) means that you don’t let anyone see what you are doing, or you don’t, we would say, “attract attention.” You don’t do things so that other people can see what you are doing. Immediately something occurred to me that was rather odd. Although I had never been to an expensive auction like this, I have watched many auctions on television, especially British auctions – auctions that take place in England – and I had seen usually, especially for an expensive item, telephone bidders or internet bidding, where people submit their bids on the internet or there’s someone on the telephone who is taking their bid and giving that bid in the room.

But there were no telephone or internet bidders, which I thought was a little strange. Also, there were only about maybe 50 people in the room, although there were about 100 or so seats. Why were there only 50 people here bidding on what seemed to be amazing pieces of art? Then I started to pay more attention. I started to think that maybe there was some problem here, maybe this wasn’t what it seemed to be.

When the first painting came up for sale, it was a painting by the Spanish artist Joan Miró. The auctioneer started at a very high price for this painting, something in the tens of thousands of dollars, $50,000 or $100,000. “Who wants to bid $100,000?” In the end, the painting was sold for $15,000 to someone who never raised his hand – at least, I didn’t see anyone on my side of the room raise his hand. Now remember, I can’t see the other side of the room.

Then another Miró was brought up and the auctioneer said it was from the same series, or group of paintings, by this artist. And he started the bidding at $10,000. When someone finally bid, they didn’t bid $10,000. They bid $500. And he looked very disappointed. He looked very, almost angry. He said, “Oh, that’s a very low bid, ladies and gentlemen.” The bidding continued and the painting finally sold for $1,500, which is 10 percent of what the painting sold that looked just like this one a few minutes ago.

This one was bought by someone on the other side of the room, although again I couldn’t see because I didn’t see anyone raising his hand. After a couple of items like this, I began to think that there was something wrong, as did my wife, and so partly because the auctioneer was taking so long going through and describing each item, we decided after about 30 minutes or so to get up and leave the auction.

Now, even before we left, I would say maybe half of the people there left before us. I thought, “Why are these people all leaving? Maybe they know something we don’t.” So my wife and I decided to leave also. As we were driving home, we began to think about what had happened and started to realize that the entire auction was in fact a scam. A “scam” (scam) is an activity that cheats people out of their money – that is, it is a way of getting people to give you money by lying to them. It’s what we would call also “fraud” (fraud).

We realized that the works of art were, in fact, fakes. A “fake” (fake) is something that tries to be something it is not. It is not real. It is an imitation. The so-called letters of authenticity of the artworks were also fakes. A “letter of authenticity” (authenticity) are letters or documents that are signed by experts, by art experts in this case, saying that this is a real Picasso or a real Miró. But of course, it’s really impossible to tell, looking at a piece of paper, whether this is a real expert or not.

We also suspected, we also thought, that the jewelry – the diamond rings, for example – were also fakes. That’s why my wife was not allowed to look at the diamond ring very closely, because if she had, she might have discovered it wasn’t a real diamond ring. Another thing that we realized after we left the auction is that some of the people there were probably what we would call “plants” (plants). A “plant” is a person in a group who tries to fool or trick people – someone who is working, in this case, with the auctioneer to pretend that he is a real bidder.

So, if you have someone in the audience who is a “plant,” that person could, for example, pretend to buy the Miró painting for $15,000, making everyone think, “Wow, this is a really expensive painting.” Of course, the plant isn’t actually buying anything. He’s working illegally or secretly with the auctioneer to try to get people to think that these pieces of art are very valuable.

Finally, we realized why the room had been divided into two and why the two sections of the room couldn’t see each other. This allowed the auctioneer to go back and forth between the two sides, pretending that there was someone bidding on the other side. So, I couldn’t see the other side bidding; the auctioneer could look over there and say, “Oh, there’s someone bidding $5,000” – a dealer, say, with his number in front of his body. And then the auctioneer could turn to my side and say that there was someone else bidding, and of course the people on the other side couldn’t see whether there was someone bidding or not.

Even though we thought there was something wrong when we were there, we weren’t sure. We had a doubt, and that’s why it was, in a way, such a good scam, because it was good enough for people to think that maybe this was true. Now, we could have called the police, but we had no proof. We had no evidence. We later investigated on the internet and found out that this was a popular scam, that there were many fake auctioneers that would go from one city to another pretending to sell a Picasso painting for $500 or $1,000, or a big diamond ring for $300.

There’s an old expression, “It’s too good to be true” – that is, if something looks like it’s an amazing deal, it’s probably not real, and that was certainly the case for the art auction that wasn’t a real art auction.

Now let’s answer a few of the questions you have sent to us.

Dinnie (Dinnie) from China wants to know the difference between two common terms used in education, “term” (term) and “semester” (semester). The word “term” can sometimes be used, as I often use it, to refer to a word or set of words with a single meaning. However, in education, in schooling, the word “term” usually refers to a period of study, a certain number of weeks or months that the school year is divided into.

For example, if you are studying at a college, you normally begin your classes in September and end them sometime in May or June. That nine- or ten-month school year is divided up into “terms” (or weeks, or sections), where you take some classes in one term and other classes in another term. There are two basic kinds of term systems in the United States, in colleges and in high schools. One is called the “quarter (quarter) system,” and the other is called the “semester system.”

The “quarter system” divides the school year into a fall quarter, a winter quarter, and a spring quarter. Now logically, “quarter” should divide the school year into four parts since a quarter is 25 percent of something, and if you think of the summer quarter as being the fourth part, it sort of makes sense. Many colleges have a quarter system including the one that I went to, or at least it did back when I was a student there. So, you would have a ten-week fall term, a ten-week winter term that would begin in January, and then another ten-week spring term, and you would finish your school year sometime in June.

The other possibility for an academic or school term is a “semester.” And a semester is usually two terms, or a semester system has two terms – a “fall semester” which lasts 15 weeks, and a “spring semester” which lasts 15 weeks. So in both cases, the school year is 30 weeks long. In the quarter system, it’s divided into three parts or three terms. In the semester system, it’s divided into two parts or two terms.

Muhammad (Muhammad) in Iran, wants to know the difference between the expression “to go to church” or “to go to synagogue” or “to go to mosque” versus “to go to the church” or “the synagogue” or “the mosque.”

Muhammad wants to know if there is a difference between these two expressions with or without the definite article “the.” And the answer is yes. If you say, “I go to church” or “I go to mosque,” you mean that you regularly go to those places as a part of your religious practice. , “I don’t go to church” is saying that he is not religious. He doesn’t normally go to religious services.

If you say, “I go to the synagogue” or “the mosque,” you mean a specific place – not just generally, but an actual, specific synagogue or mosque or church. “This afternoon, I’m going to the church.” That doesn’t mean that you are religious. You may be going to the church for some other reason; maybe you need to talk to someone there or maybe the church is having a sale and you are going to buy something.

When you say, “I’m going to the mosque” or “the synagogue,” you mean you are going to a specific building. When you say, “I go to church” or “I go to mosque” or “I go to synagogue” or “I go to temple,” you are saying that you are a religious person who usually attends religious ceremonies. You’re not referring to any specific place as you are if you said “the” – “the church.”

Finally, Roman (Roman) – originally from Russia, now living in Belarus – wants to know the meaning of the expression “to coin (coin) a phrase (phrase).” “To coin a phrase” means to create a new word or a new expression for people to use. Most of us don’t go around coining phrases, or inventing new sayings or new phrases that are introduced into the English language for everyone else to use, or any other language for that matter. Why do we have this expression, then, if it’s probably not a very common occurrence?

Well, it’s usually used jokingly. When we use an expression or a phrase that everyone already knows but we’re being sarcastic, we’re saying that what we are saying is original, even when it is not. Maybe we use it when we say something that is obviously a common expression and indicates that we haven’t given very much thought or originality to what we’re saying. We may add “to coin a phrase” after saying something like that as a joke, saying “Yes, I know. I didn’t say anything very original there,” or “I didn’t express my ideas in a very original manner.”

When two people get married, we may say, “Well, I hope they live happily ever after.” “Happily ever after” is a common expression used to indicate that we believe or hope that people who are married will stay married and be happy for the rest of their lives. So, if I use that about a newly married couple, I might add the phrase “to coin a phrase,” because I know that what I just said wasn’t very original.

That’s all we have time for. From Los Angeles, California, I’m Jeff McQuillan. Thanks for listening. Come back and listen to us again right here on the English Café.

ESL Podcast’s English Café is written and produced by Dr. Jeff McQuillan and Dr. Lucy Tse. This podcast is copyright 2017 by the Center for Educational Development.

auction – an event or place where things are sold to the person who is willing to pay the most for them

* Julio attended a land auction and bought a piece of land he plans to use to build a new shopping center.

to bid – to indicate that one is willing to pay a particular price in an auction

* If two people really want an item, they may continue bidding until the price is much higher than the item is worth.

proceeds – profits; revenues; earnings

* All of the proceeds from our school event will be used to buy new textbooks and make building repairs.

easel – a stand, usually with three legs, used to hold an artist’s work

* Don’t place the easel too close to the window or the sunlight will damage the painting.

Persian rug – a soft, thick floor covering with traditional designs, originally from Iran

* Babette installed tile all over her house and then bought a Persian rug to go over it in the living room to make the room look nicer.

to hit on – to discover by accident; to think of by chance

* Some Internet thieves will try to guess people’s passwords until they hit on the correct one.

crime boss – the leader of a criminal organization; a person in charge of a criminal organization

* Al Capone was one of the most powerful crime bosses in New York in the 20th century.

terms and conditions – the rules that one must follow if one wants to get a particular service

* The terms and conditions state that the company can sell your email address to other companies.

inconspicuously – without attraction attention; without causing others to notice

* Jason felt ill during the church service and inconspicuously left early.

scam – an activity designed to cheat people out of their money; a fraud

* If someone calls and asks you for your credit card number, it is probably a scam.

fake – not genuine; an imitation; something that is not what it claims to be

* Marcello thought he had purchased a rare and expensive stamp for a low price, but it turned out to be a fake.

letter of authenticity – a document signed by an expert stating that something is genuine (what it claims to be)

* This autographed letter by Benjamin Franklin comes with a letter of authenticity.

plant – a person placed in a group to fool or trick people, or to discover information about them

* The company management placed plants among the workers to find out who the troublemakers are.

term – one of the parts or periods of the school year

* Students who leave school in the middle of a term will not get credit for their classes.

semester – one of two usually 15- to 18-week periods that make up an academic year at a school or college; one of two main school periods lasting half of the school year

* In the middle of the semester, students take exams called “midterms.”

to go to church/mosque – to attend a religious service; to practice one’s religion by attending regular services or participating in worship at a church/mosque

* Kara considers herself a Christian, but she doesn't go to church.

to go to the church/mosque – to visit a place or building where religious ceremonies are held

* The bride and groom need to arrive at the church early, at least an hour before the scheduled time of the wedding.

to coin a phrase – to create a new word or phrase that other people begin to use

* People who use smartphones can call themselves “smartheads,” to coin a phrase.

What Insiders Know
Famous Auction Houses

People who are selling “valuable” (with a high worth; able to be sold for a lot of money) items have many auction houses to choose from. The “best-known” (familiar to many people) auction houses sell “high-end” (very fancy and expensive) “consignments” (items for which the owner receives a percentage of the sales price). This includes Christie’s auction house, which was founded in 1766 and is “headquartered in” (with its main offices in) London, but has a large presence in New York City. Christie’s has sold many “big-ticket” (expensive) items, including automobiles, artwork, jewelry, and even “models” (small versions) of the spaceship from the TV series Star Trek. Sotheby’s, founded in 1744, sells similar items through auctions and also “facilitates” (helps something to happen) “private sales” (deals or transactions between two people or companies).

The website Huffington Post “compiled” (put together) a list of the strangest items sold at American auction houses in 2014. The list includes the violin that was played as the Titanic ship which sank in 1912; it sold for $1.7 million. Another item on the list is a “taxidermy” (a dead animal that is stuffed and prepared for display so that it looks like a live animal) “ostrich” (a very large bird that cannot fly and is known for putting its head in the ground) that was made in 1785; it sold for more than $33,000.

Other items have become valuable “on the auction block” (when they are sold at an auction) because of their “affiliation with” (connection to) a “celebrity” (a famous person). For example, the wedding ring of Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who shot President John F. Kennedy, sold for $118,000.