The trustees of an impoverished Eastern Orthodox church in Bulgaria are trying to decide what to do with the gift of a pricey Rolex watch, courtesy of a wealthy donor, that they haven't been able to auction. But what's equally unusual is the identity of that wealthy donor, one of the church's own bishops.
The auction Sunday of the 11,600 lev ($7,700) watch donated by Metropolitan Nikolay of Plovdiv, Bulgaria, failed to attract a single bidder. If the auction had succeeded, Saint Marina Church would have been able to more than pay off its 3,000 lev electricity bill.
"I'd rather go to Heaven without a watch than to Hell with one," he told state news agency BTA.
Piety aside, the statement made for good public relations. As Europe's poorest nation, Bulgaria has been scandalized by the wealth of its top clergy. Besides the fact that Nikolay even had a Rolex to donate, a counterpart in the city of Varna is known to have the use of an expensive Lincoln automobile.
Journalists in Bulgaria have become increasingly critical of the wealth of the nation's clergy. Although some bidders had initially expressed interest in buying the watch when the auction was announced in February, media attention might have discouraged them, according to the Focus Information Agency.
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Another factor in the failed auction may have been Bulgaria's recent spike in electricity costs. That price hike not only caused tens of thousands to protest in the streets, it forced Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and Finance Minister Simeon Djankov to resign and has slashed the disposable income of potential bidders for the bishop's Rolex.
Apparently the government is paying attention: On March 5 the State Energy and Water Regulatory Commission (SEWRC) approved an emergency price cut, according to Bulgarian news agency BTA.
The failed auction recalls a recent scandal involving the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church who was photographed in 2009 with a $30,000 watch. After a public outcry, the church re-released the photo last year but with the watch excised from the picture.
Church leaders may try a second time to sell the watch.
"If after the sale of the watch, one of the few personal items of his eminency, we have a larger sum [than the bill], the difference will be used for charity," Archimandrite Arseni told Bulgarian news website Mediapool.bg in February, quoting a church official. Now the trustees of Saint Marina Church will decide if they'll hold a second auction.