Talk show host and comedian Jay Leno was sued over his purchase of a 1931 Duesenberg luxury roadster valued by its owner at $1.7 million at an auction allegedly set up while the elderly plaintiff was suffering from dementia.
Leno paid $180,000 to the Manhattan garage, which allegedly claimed the now-deceased owner failed to pay his bill and also sold his 1930 Rolls Royce, according to a complaint filed Oct. 14 in New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan. Wendy Lubin, daughter of late Macy's executive John Straus, sued Leno, 58, his company Big Dog Productions Inc., and the Upper East Side Windsor Garage where Straus parked the cars for more than 50 years, according to the complaint.
The estate alleged that, after Straus rejected Leno's offer to purchase the Duesenberg, the comedian, an antique car buff, entered into a "sham" transaction with the garage and other business entities it controls to take ownership of the car. Straus died in May at the age of 88.
"Notwithstanding the hundreds of thousands of dollars paid by Straus to the garage over the years, these vehicles were purportedly auctioned off to satisfy certain relatively trivial parking bills," Lubin and the estate said in the complaint.
Leno, host of the Tonight Show on the NBC television network, couldn't be immediately reached for comment yesterday. **** Guttman, a Leno spokesman, declined to comment on the lawsuit.
"The allegations will be proven in a court of law to be untrue," said Bruce Bronster, a lawyer for Leno and the garage. "Mr. Leno bought the car in good faith after a lien sale for fair market value and only recently heard of these allegations."
The Duesenberg and Rolls Royce "were stored in several of my clients' garages," Bronster said. "Over a period of years, the owner became extremely delinquent in the payment of storage fees. Repeated efforts to bring the account current were unavailing, leading to a lien sale to cover the monies due."
A woman at Burbank, California-based Big Dog who refused to give her name declined to comment immediately yesterday.
Andrew Solomon, a New York lawyer for Straus's daughter and the estate, insisted John Straus never abandoned either the Duesenberg or the Rolls Royce at the garage. He said Straus attempted to pay the bills and that the garage rejected payments and wrongfully seized the cars.
"Precious Family Heirloom"
"Leno knew that our client didn't want to sell the car and that it was in the garage where he'd had it for more than 50 years," Solomon said in a phone interview. "Mr. Leno's a wealthy man and one of the foremost experts on this car. My client would never have sold the car and never let it go for not paying his bills. This car was a precious family heirloom."
The complaint included claims of unjust enrichment and "conversion" for the alleged wrongful taking of the car. The plaintiffs seek damages of more than $1.7 million and return of the Duesenberg.
According to the Christie's International Web site, an engine for a model J sold for more than $82,000. The Christie's site called it "a massive powerhouse of engineering excellence" in its auction catalog description.
The Duesenberg Model J from 1929 "was more than just a luxury car, as Duesenberg intended it to be a sporting drive for keen drivers," according to the Top Classic Cars Web site, www.topclassiccars.com
. "The engine was mighty, being a straight-eight cylinder with twin overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder."
The plaintiffs alleged Straus's Duesenberg was extremely rare, describing it as the "last known, original condition family owned Model J Duesenberg in existence." Only 470 Model Js were made from 1928 to 1937 by the company founded by two German brothers, the estate said.
Straus's car, which only had 7,085 miles, was bought from the factory by Straus's father, Herbert Straus, in 1931. Straus later purchased it from his mother, the estate said.
According to the complaint, the Manhattan parking garage arranged "sham auctions" knowing "Straus was incapable of protecting his rights due to his deterioration from dementia."
In 2005, the garage claimed Straus failed to pay more than $22,000 in parking bills for the Duesenberg and Rolls Royce, the estate said in the complaint. The garage allegedly sent Straus conflicting bills for the storage of cars he kept at another facility, called the Wayne Garage, about 10 blocks away, according to the court filing. Straus kept other classic cars at that garage, according to the suit.
In an alleged "ruse" to confuse Straus, Windsor Garage eventually claimed he never paid for the storage while sending him bills for the Wayne Garage cars and refusing his checks to pay the Windsor garage bills, the plaintiffs said.
The garage never made any attempt to contact Straus or any members of his family, the estate alleged in the filing.
Windsor Garage eventually seized the Duesenberg and Rolls Royce and conducted a "lien auction" in April 2005, which the estate called an "unlawful private sale" to "certain eager purchasers waiting in the wings, such as Leno," the estate alleged in its complaint.
A company called Chapman LLC purchased the Duesenberg and the Rolls Royce the next month, although the garage continued to bill Straus for storage until December of that year, the estate said.
Chapman sold the Duesenberg to Leno and his production company, the estate said. Windsor Garage and its owners pocketed $140,000, while Straus's parking account, which the garage claimed was in arrears, was credited $39,709 as a result of the sale, according to the complaint.
In a 2007 book titled The Hemi in the Barn, by Tom Cotter, Leno wrote a forward describing his purchase of a 1931, un-restored Duesenberg that he said he found in a Manhattan parking garage, according to the estate's filing.
"I didn't want to lose it," Leno wrote, according to the complaint. "So I made up a story — no, it was an absolute lie — that the car couldn't be removed from its third-floor home because the new elevator that had been installed several years earlier was too small to fit the car."
The alleged ruse was meant to dissuade other buyers or spur lower bids at the auction, according to the complaint.
On his Web site, called "Jaylenosgarage," the comedian described having several Duesenbergs in his car collection.
A woman who declined to identify herself answered the number for Chapman by saying "Garage Management Company LLC," an entity that is also named as a defendant in the suit. She declined to comment.