Didja hear the one about the elderly car enthusiast who took it on the chin from Jay Leno?
The family of Macy’s heir John Straus is suing the “Tonight Show” host and the owners of an East Side garage who allegedly duped the octogenarian out of his beloved – and one-of-a-kind – 1931 Duesenberg Model J.
The car’s estimated value is $1.2 million, but Leno bought it from the garage after a “sham” auction for a mere $180,000, Straus’ family charges in a Manhattan Supreme Court lawsuit.
The garage had also “auctioned” off another of Straus’ cars – a 1930 Rolls Royce Phantom convertible – to a corporate alter-ego for a whopping $0. The car, which is actually worth $500,000, now belongs to an executive of the Windsor Garage, Dennis Ricca.
Click here to play Pop Video Quiz: Talk Show Wars
“The whole thing was a sham,” said one of the Straus family’s lawyers, Nathan Goldberg.
Reps for Leno and the garage didn’t immediately return calls for comment.
The suit says Straus had rebuffed car-collecting comic Leno’s offers to buy the car for years, but it ended it up in Leno’s lap after the garage pulled some funny business in 2005.
That’s when, the suit says, the garage warned Straus it would auction off his cars unless he paid his parking bill, which he’d been paying in periodic installments at the E. 76th St. garage for decades.
Straus, who was in his 80s and beginning to suffer from dementia, sent in a check for the $22,000 bill, but the garage sent it back to him, saying he now owed $36,000 and gave him a different account number, the suit says.
Straus did so, thinking that secured his cars – but the different account number on the check was actually for spaces for two significantly less valuable cars he had at another garage owned by the same owners.
The garage then auctioned off both cars to its alter-ego for no money, and sold the Deusenberg to Leno for $180,000.
Straus, who was the grandson of Macy’s co-founders and Titanic victims Isador and Ida Straus, died this past may at age 88, and his adult daughters found out what had happened soon after.
“These were precious family heirlooms, and the family wants them back,” said another Straus lawyer, Andrew Solomon.
The suit falls short of accusing Leno of conspiring with the garage, but the lawyers said the comedian and his lawyers should have known something was funny after seeing the car’s auction price.
“Leno was far less concerned with the bona fides of the underlying purported auction and sale, then with achieving his long awaited purchase of this one of a kind Model J,” the suit says.
Leno has reportedly admitted going to great lengths to get the car. In a 2007 book, he said he made up a story about the car to keep other collectors away.
Goldberg said in addition to using trickery to auction off the cars, the garage – which collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees from Straus over the decades – didn’t follow the legal steps it was supposed to in carrying out.
Had the cars been auctioned off legally, he said, the garage could have kept up to the amount of money Straus owed, and anything over the amount would then have to go to Straus.