OK, Kevin, here's the story. The Water Torture Cell did indeed sell for $150,000 plus premium and Nevada sales tax...which was half the hammer price at the time of the auction.
Just prior to the sale, Sid Radner informed the auction house that he was raising the reserve on the Water Torture Cell to $300,000 and that if the new reserve was not met, he intended to donate the escape to a museum which specialized in Jewish history and culture...presumably the Center for Jewish History in New York City where the cell had been exhibited in the summer of 2002. However, this change in the reserve was not announced nor made public in any way. You will recall that the pre-auction estimate had been from $150,000 to $200,000.
The Conditions of Sale allowed the auctioneer to open the bidding on behalf of the seller and place subsequent bids up to the amount of the reserve and the auctioneer did so. He opened the bidding at $200,000. There was one phone bidder...and his successive bids were met with raises from the auctioneer until the amount reached the new reserve of $300,000. The phone bidder and most of the people in the room did not realize that the bidding was against the new reserve, not the museum. The hammer was brought down at $300,000 and most accounts of the auction highlighted this amount -- the highest amount ever bid for a piece of magic apparatus.
After the sale, the phone bidder asked the identity of the underbidder (which was a condition of his final offer). Informed that he had been bidding against a new reserve, he reminded the auctioneers that the Conditions of Sale clearly stated that the reserve was never to be higher than the low pre-auction estimate...in this case, $150,000. The seller and auction housed subsequently adhered to these conditions and the sale was consumated at $150,000 plus premium, sales tax, and presumably shipping.
The successful bidder was David Copperfield and the Water Torture Cell is now part of his collection. To see what else David bought...and to get a pretty detailed picture of the auction, the events that precipitated it, the controversy that surrounted it, and its final outcome, take a look at the January Genii (Volume 68, Number 1, pages 34-42) "Going, Going, Gone! The Sidney H. Radner Collection & The Great Houdini Auction." You might also find the rather lengthy sidebar on the myth and mystery of the Water Torture Cell of some interest. Let me know what you think.