Behind an unmarked blue door in a Leytonstone railway arch, past all the corrugated iron and smoothed over stacks of sandpaper, you'll stumble across a place where lost belongings find a new home. Here, Frank G Bowen’s police and lost property auction offers a treasure trove of the misplaced, the unloved and the stolen. Clinique foundation, Barry M nail varnish, and NYX glitter are bulked together in transparent bin bags. Lines of stolen bikes with yellowing foam falling out of the seats are piled up. There are Regatta coats, Ghostbuster video tapes, hamster cages, espresso machines and 36 NHS leg crutches stacked on top of each other.
Frank G Bowen’s is not unique. Catering to societal carelessness, these auctions are spread across the UK, selling a mixture of unclaimed baggage from airports, police evidence, storage container stock and the leftovers of dead people who left neither a will nor living relatives. In the queue for a plastic cup of £1 tea, I make a friend. Steve, 37, has been hungry for deals ever since he was washing rich people’s shiny BMWs for pocket-money. Like most people, he grew up to work a boring job he hated (credit consultant collector).
“I hated the rat race,” he tells me. “All the bodies on the Tube packed in like sardines. The work was turning my brain to mush and the worst thing about 9-5s is they are actually always 9-6.” After watching an episode of BBC1’s Del Boys and Dealers, he decided to try reselling auction house silver. Eventually, he got so good at it he was able to make a decent living.
One time he bought some collotype images of Mecca from the 1800s for £120 and sold them for £7,500. On another occasion he found a Spanish impressionist watercolour painting, of ladies in silky blouses shading themselves by a river, for £400 and sold it at Christie’s auction house for £2,500. He’s even found unidentified sapphires.
Before the auction starts, Steve walks up to the glass counter and asks to see “the jewels”. “They have to keep them locked up because lots of these people have sticky fingers, they slip diamonds into their pockets,” he says. Using a microscope he looks for 95 stamps that'd confirm sterling silver, or 375 marks for gold. Sometimes rings are unmarked but he knows they’re real by the feeling of the metal against his skin. He takes a gold ring with a brown stone and places it on his small scale.
We start chatting to John, a 65-year-old with snowy white hair. His wrists and fingers drip with emblems of past wins: a dainty horseshoe necklace, a signet ring with an unrelated family crest, a charm bracelet with icons of dogs, a car, and a tree – the latter came from his pocket because it’s too small to fit around his wrist. “This will all be melted,” he assures me.
I ask Steve and John whether they ever feel guilty about destroying jewellery. Hundreds of wedding rings welded together into one brick of gold; a token of love becoming an object of loot. “The more you think about it, the worse you feel,” Steve says. “Sometimes items are marked ‘by order of trustees' where someone passed away and their relatives have put it up for auction. When I see a ring that has been snipped I think, 'Oh no they haven't’ – right off their finger.”
John shakes his head in disagreement. “There can be no dignity in death. I met a nurse from Belgium who used to stuff dead patient’s orifices mouth, nose, you name it, so they didn’t leak. She did that every day, she's probably still doing it now. When you die they tax you, there are death duties. You don’t die for free. Selling this stuff could help your family pay for the funeral. You can’t take this stuff with you.” Steve nods in a way that makes it hard to tell if he’s agreeing, “It reminds me of that Beatles lyric” he says, “‘Declare the pennies on your eyes. Cause I'm the taxman, yeah, I'm the taxman’.”
Even after reasoning that “maybe it’s good that belongings live on through someone else,” Steve still sometimes goes above and beyond to perform heroic acts of reunification. He once bought a bag of dictaphones and, after realising one of them still had audio on it, spent hours finding the owner. “It was this military expert who was touring around the Philippines, interviewing a general about planes and weapons they had bought from the Americans. I managed to reunite the fella with it. The thing is: I’m not keen on what the Americans have done around the world in the last 50 years – suppressing uprisings that have nothing to do with them, arming militia groups… Maybe I should have asked this geezer for more than 20 quid.”
The auction begins. A man bids £25 for a wedding dress – the taffeta has faded from white into warm cream. The auctioneer asks the winning bidder, “Does she know? Is that why she’s not here?” Later on, the man wins some feathered hats. Maybe he really is planning a secret wedding for his fiance, a rather strange wedding in which he chooses what everyone wears. Buyers raise their hands lazily, compelled to bid by the fear of a bargain slipping away. Someone buys a first aid kit; another pays £3 for a bike helmet; a man in a suit buys a tent for £5.
We are at lot 542 and Steve instructs me to bid on it. The listing is a Swarovski crystal ring which has been described as ‘white metal’, meaning other buyers might not know its value. He tells me to go up to £10 as I could resell it for £20. I’m nervous, there’s no sound in the room bar two women slurping Pot Noodles. Before the auctioneer even has a chance to announce the starting price my yellow laminated card shoots up. Behind me someone yells, “£100 to her with the pink hair.” My cheeks flush and I rescind my claim on the object. I should have been good at this; my mum used to pick me up from school with legless chairs and smashed mirrors on the back seat from when she pulled other people’s scrap from skips in their driveways. I have a lot to learn.
I sense an addiction growing. An unquenchable thirst for that one fortuitous bargain. I find myself searching how much crutches sell on eBay (£13.99 for those of you with broken legs) and dreaming about emeralds hidden in the strands of my bedroom carpet. Within a few days, I’m heading to another auction house. Near the crumbling graves and wilting daffodils of Lambeth cemetery stands Greasbys, which resells items on behalf of numerous police forces. I walk in to hear a group of men in fleeces boasting about their spoils: “I got £300,000 on an Islamic scroll, I didn’t even know what it was,” says one man before bidding on a cracked TomTom. “Welcome to the billionaire's boys club,” someone jokes. A man called Dan, 50, strokes his bald head and says, “I washed my hair with Wash and Go shampoo, and all my hair fucked off.”
Dan says the auctioneer Christine knows him so well that all he has to do to bid is raise a finger. I’d argue it was even more subtle than that, merely a gentle narrowing of the eye sockets. He warns me that this work is addictive once you break into it. “Before you know what’s hit you, you’ll be coming back in a week with bust veins in your nose from nicotine, a flat cap and a sheepskin coat,” he tells me.
Christine announces lot 127, a bag of 40 pairs of spectacles – most likely worth nothing, but there’s a chance some Prada or Chanel might be hidden amid the rubble. I bid, and then I bid, and then I keep bidding until we hit £20 and the hammer hits the wood. I collect my winnings but there’s nothing in there except Specsavers frames with blotchy lenses.
As the auction at Greasbys comes to an end, I find my old friend Steve again and we go and for a coffee at a greasy spoon. I ask about his plans for the future. “The dream is to find that Picasso painting. I think we might have it you know, the other day me and my brother found this painting: a watercolour of an old church abbey with willowy trees and clouds. The auction house labelled it with 'We cannot guarantee this is JW Turner’, but it has his signature and it’s in his style. Apparently he used to sketch his drawings before and there are pencil outlines all over the arches. Imagine that: I would have tens of thousands, it would do me.”
If the painting was real and he was a rich man, Steve would buy a van and tour around all the undiscovered auction houses, covering the walls of his room with other people’s lost things. “I’d have old maps, a ravens claw, an antique bookshelf full of books I can’t read cos’ they’re all in Latin, a quill and ink – a proper man cave.”
On my way out of Greasbys a man smirks at my sack of spectacles from beneath his Lonsdale cap – “Not even the RSPCA will want that crap,” he says. He was right – a week later and the frames won’t even sell on eBay, but I’m glad I found them. I feel I am looking after them for their past owners: people whose guts shuddered and clenched when they realised they'd let their glasses slip down the crack in the train seat. I wish I could return them home, but until then I find some comfort in knowing they can sit in the cupboard under my stairs for a while. Hopefully, one day they will find there way to someone who needs them more than me.