A Seattle company led by Microsoft Corp. co-founder and billionaire Paul Allen has filed a lawsuit in in a dispute over ownership of a German World War II-era tank. A Panzer IV, built in 1944, was offered in a July 2014 auction of some of the military vehicles owned by the late Jacques Littlefield of Los Trancos Woods.
The lawsuit, filed Sept. 10 in San Mateo County Superior Court, alleges a breach of contract by the Collings Foundation of Stow, Massachusetts, for its refusal to turn over the Panzer to Vulcan Warbirds Inc., Mr. Allen's company. The suit also names the foundation's auctioneer, Auctions America, as a defendant.
In its lawsuit, Warbirds says it entered into a contract with Auctions America and paid $2.5 million for the tank and that the money has been transferred.
The Collings Foundation acquired Mr. Littlefield's collection after he died in 2009. Rob Collings, the executive director, said he's seen two offers for the Panzer from Warbirds and has refused them both. Funds sent from Warbirds to Auctions America for the Panzer were to be returned, he said.
The Panzer IV is one of five in the United States, the lawsuit says. Warbirds considers them "extremely rare."
Warbirds leases its military vehicles to the Flying Heritage Collection in Everett, Washington, which has a museum and a particular interest in World War II-era tanks. The Collings Foundation runs a military vehicle museum in Massachusetts and is planning an outdoor amphitheater for battle re-enactments.
Amy Christie of Auctions America said by email that it's unfortunate to "find ourselves caught between two of the hobby's most important collectors. We are diligently working with both parties to reach an amicable resolution."
Money changed hands
The tank was captured from Syria by the Israelis in 1967 and later stored in an Israeli museum, according to the Auctions America catalog. Mr. Littlefield acquired the tank in 2003.
The following chronology is drawn from the lawsuit, which included copies of emailed messages between Warbirds and the auctioneers.
At the auction, Warbirds opened with a $1.5 million bid on the Panzer, listed at $2.4 million minimum. Someone countered with $1.75 million but with no more bids, the tank remained unsold.
Three days later, the auctioneer emailed Warbirds saying that offers above $2.25 million for the Panzer IV "will be considered" by Mr. Collings and foundation trustees.
Warbirds responded, offering to buy the tank "for the price listed," completed a bill of sale, and agreed to wire $2.5 million for the Panzer as instructed.
The tank was one of several purchases by Warbirds. A summary on Auctions America letterhead shows a total outlay of $4.2 million. Included were a troop carrier for $1 million, a SCUD-A missile for $300,000, an anti-tank gun for $45,000, a howitzer for $35,000 and various spare engines.
Warbirds says it wired the $4.2 million, that the funds were transferred, and that "at no point" did the auctioneers say they lacked authority to sell the tank to Warbirds.
Some weeks later, Warbirds wrote to the auctioneers regarding a telephone conversation between Flying Heritage Collection Executive Director Adrian Hunt and Mr. Collings earlier that day in which Mr. Collings said the foundation "would honor the price paid by Warbirds" if the foundation found "a replacement tank."
Mr. Hunt requested the tank's release and Mr. Collings refused, the lawsuit says. The tank is in storage at the Littlefield facility, Mr. Collings said.
The auctioneer suggested a conference call, but Warbirds replied that it had arranged for pickup of the Panzer and that the company's legal department was now involved.