Batman comic book caper ends with million dollar auction

BOCA RATON, Fla. (AP) – For almost two years, Randy Lawrence of Boca Raton suspected who had his stolen collection of about 1,300 comic books worth $2 million, a treasure he had been building for 54 years as a retirement nest egg.

But back then, no one – not he, nor the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office, the FBI, the State Attorney or even a private investigator – could do anything about the nabbed graphic novels or prove who was the nabber.

The story made headlines nationwide and set the comic collector world abuzz, both here and in Europe.

After a superhero effort, Lawrence got the collection back in January 2020 and is now offering Batman comic books, his special focus, during an online auction that started at noon Thursday and goes through Sunday via Heritage Auctions. Go to HA.com.

“It just haunted me every day,” Lawrence says. “I know who robbed me. That was the most frustrating thing.”

THE HEIST

The collection was stolen from Lawrence’s storage unit sometime between December, 2018, and Jan. 8, 2019, the day he discovered the theft.

“I went in and there was a box, it was just moved a little,” the 60-year-old New York native recalls. “I didn’t remember moving it. I took the top off and it was empty. I took off the next top and the next top, going on and on. And they were all empty. I remember letting out a scream like a wounded animal. This was all my money. Everything was in these books. This was my plan for retirement.”

Just a few weeks later, about 2,000 miles away in Phoenix, Arizona, Phillip Weisbauer was arrested trying to resell five of the more valuable vintage Batman comic books. Weisbauer, a resident of Royal Palm Beach, told police he didn’t know anything about the other comic books. He was placed on probation after pleading guilty to a reduced charge and ordered to pay court costs.

THE SUSPECT

But Lawrence felt that Weisbauer’s father in Palm Beach County was worth watching.

“It turned out the father had a (storage) unit that they had got around that time about 30 feet away from my storage unit,” Lawrence says. “The hunt was on. I went to the FBI…the Palm Beach County Sheriff, Dave Aronberg at the (Palm Beach County) State Attorney’s Office.. I was sitting home for months. So, I had to take it on myself.”

After a private investigator proved to be “a waste of time and money,” Lawrence hired attorney Wayne Schwartz of the Boca Raton law firm Lee and Amtzis.

“He finagled a solution” he says. “All of a sudden, he returned the books. We knew the father had the books. I was very, very, very lucky.”

Charges were never filed against the father.

THE AUCTION

Lawrence decided not to press his luck. He made plans to sell the collection, teaming up with Dallas-based Heritage Auctions.

Heritage’s Robert Wilonsky says that Lawrence’s Batman comic books – dubbed the Alfred Pennyworth Collection (named after Batman/Bruce Wayne’s butler) – was already extremely well-known among comic book enthusiasts, but the media coverage of the robbery widened the awareness beyond those cliques and made the auction of high interest to more potential bidders.

“It certainly added to their infamy,” he says. “I think it added a great story to it. The collection is well-regarded. Randy sought …. the best of the best of the best. And Batman was his focus.”

In November, Heritage auctioned off about 200 books from the collection.

At that time, one of Lawrence’s titles set a record for the most ever paid for a Silver Age (1956-1970) Batman comic book. The comic book was the debut of Batgirl and went for $132,000.

This week with a three-day event and a weekly event going on simultaneously, about 900 titles will be auctioned off. On Sunday night, another 70 will go up for auction.

“When Randy’s comic books were stolen … he put out the word among the collector community,” adds Wilonsky. “That close-knit comic book community helped him get them back.”

“That night (when the theft was discovered) I emailed all my (comic book) dealer friends,” Lawrence says. “I put out alerts. All these people, they spread that email to everybody. The next morning I was going to the local comic book stores and … every place I went, everyone knew who I was. I had never been involved in social media things before. I was amazed.”

He even heard from collectors and dealers in Rome, London and Paris.

THE ORIGIN STORY

The story may have gone half a world away, but it started with a kid, Lawrence’s father, who started collecting comic books in 1939. He kept that meticulously organized collection in boxes under his bed.

One day, while Lawrence’s dad was at school, there was a knock at the door with someone collecting for a paper drive.

“And my grandmother gave all my father’s comics away,” he says. “Everything was gone. In some respect he and I have gone through the same thing. In his case, his mother stole his comics and in my case a stranger stole mine.”

Fast forward to 1966 and Lawrence, as a child, woke up one Sunday morning up to see two comic books, Batman and Spider-Man, laid out on the floor in front of his bed. The Sunday morning routine went on for years.

“In some way I think he did this to get me to really want to read. But I also think he was trying to turn me on for the love of comic books he had when he was a boy.”

His dad even built him a secret room in the basement to house his growing collection. “There were shingles on this one wall, like the shingles you have on the outside of the house. One shingle, you pressed it and the door would pop open.”

Lawrence kept collecting, buying a few vintage titles while in his 20s before selling off most of the titles, such as the Avengers and Spider-Man, to focus on Batman when he entered his 30s. All the time he made a living working in the dress business in Manhattan’s garment center.

“I tried to make it the best Batman collection out there,” he adds. “And I pretty much did that over the next 40 years.”

Now he only has six Batman comic books that he just couldn’t part with, featuring all the villains such as the Penguin, the Joker, Catwoman. That and some artwork are tucked away.

“They are hidden in a very, very secure place,” Lawrence says.

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