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Charitably, Dunedin man buys Fed chief art

Mystery surrounded the $150,400 bid for an Alan Greenspan portrait. Turns out it was a guy who liked the cause.

By JAMES THORNER
Published February 17, 2006


photo
[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
The painting of retired Fed chief Alan Greenspan was bought by Matthew Schirmer of Dunedin.

DUNEDIN - Two weeks ago, someone slipped onto the eBay online auction site and bid $150,400 to win an oil portrait of jowly septuagenarian Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.

The mystery bidder has been noted in news stories on three continents, from Reuters, to the Today Show to the Financial Times of London.

Greenspan retired Jan. 31 as the most feted Fed chairman of all time. But who would drop $150,400 on a hastily painted oil-on-canvas likeness of the inscrutable money man?

Matthew Schirmer would.

On Thursday, the 35-year-old Dunedin insurance agency owner revealed himself as the owner of a painting he has titled Irrational Exuberance in honor of Greenspan's best-known catch phrase.

And no, Schirmer is not a Greenspan groupie, one of the acolytes who viewed the Fed chairman as an oracle during his decades in Washington.

Proceeds from the sale benefit the charity Autism Speaks, founded by NBC chair Bob Wright to research the neurological disorder Dustin Hoffman's character suffered from in the movie Rain Man.

Schirmer's cousin recently learned his 3-year-old son was afflicted with autism. The news moved Schirmer to drop a bid on the painting with seconds left on the three-day auction.

"We would never have paid this amount if it wasn't going to autism," said Schirmer, who bought the painting with his wife, Diane, and brother Nate. "We've never done anything like this. We're not into painting."

Bidding began at 99 cents on Jan. 31. Schirmer's was the highest of 233 bids when action ended on Feb. 3. He beat out big-money bidders with online names like "silverspoon" and "commoncents." The listing got nearly 125,000 hits.

Bankers and brokers wanting a piece of Greenspan on their office wall helped push up the price of the painting. Or so news stories reported.

Through Wright's influence, CNBC, the business-oriented cable network, enlisted artist Erin Crowe to paint the portrait live on TV last month.

Crowe, 25, has created about 50 portraits of Greenspan over several years. But this one had the cachet of being painted on Greenspan's last day as Fed chairman.

"It's probably among the most valuable things ever sold on behalf of a charity on eBay," said eBay spokesman Hani Durzy, mentioning comedian Jay Leno's $800,100 sale of an autographed Harley Davidson motorcycle for Tsunami relief in 2005.

CNBC swore Schirmer to secrecy until the network formally unveiled the winner Thursday. To tape the program, Matthew and Nate Schirmer traveled to Boca Raton.

The program included a statement from Greenspan, who had remained silent since the sale two weeks earlier.

"During my 18 years at the Fed, I'm sure there were a lot of people who wanted to have me hung," Greenspan said in the statement. "I'm glad that they're only hanging my portrait."

Their 34-inch-by-24-inch Greenspan swaddled in wooden braces and foam, the brothers drove their eBay treasure back to Dunedin.

"We have it right now in the back of the Jeep. This is like an expensive Jeep right now," Matthew Schirmer said of a work whose value surpassed some minor Picassos.

The brothers, who own Florida Insurance Inc. in Dunedin and Patriot Bank in Pasco County, set aside a chunk of their money each year for charity.

They plan to display the portrait at local art museums and galleries, the proceeds going to autism research.

"I just happened to spend our annual charity budget in the first 35 days of the year," Schirmer said.

James Thorner can be reached at thorner@sptimes.com or 813 226-3313.

[Last modified February 17, 2006, 09:47:29]


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