Collecting other people's holiday snaps for fun and profit

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SOMETIMES YOU hear of old photos being sold for a lot of money, but you can also make money from modern everyday photography. The other day, a photograph of me was sold for pounds 50. You don't believe me? I'll tell you the whole instructive story.

First of all, you must know that I am an art collector, and occasionally go to art auctions. Well, once a year. And it is always the same auction, where by astutely reckless bidding I have built up over the years a wonderful collection of British photography. The auction is...

Perhaps it would explain things quicker if I quoted from a letter sent to me this year by my favoured local camera shop, Telescopic Len's. (Not a misprint. The shop is owned by a man called Len.)

"Dear Sir, as you are aware we have in recent years switched to a policy of making customers pay in advance for all development and print work. This was to avoid having large quantities of uncollected holiday photos on our hands. We assumed that people who paid in advance would also take the trouble to collect. As this has only partially worked, we still have a large backlog of uncollected photos which will be auctioned on 10 December at 10am prompt."

I was there, on the dot, in the narrow shopway of Telescopic Len's - closed to the public for the morning - with my catalogue, entitled "A Sale of Important Late 20th Century Photography: A Vital Addition to Our Knowledge of British Domestic Life."

Lot 1 was described as "An Ensemble of Photographs Depicting Unknown British Families on Holiday And Elsewhere, But Mostly On Holiday". Lot 2 was marked: "As Description for Lot One". Lot Three was marked: "See Previous Descriptions".

"You will gather from the catalogue," said the auctioneer, addressing us before the sale began, "that these photos would form the basis for a wonderful archive of British life at the end of the millennium. You might deduce that all the lots are roughly similar. Nothing could be further from the truth. Some are highly skilled, some display more of a rough, peasant technique. The locale varies from Spanish beaches to Swiss hillsides, and even to a car park in Munich where that particular photographer was trapped for three days..."

"Get on with it!" shouted one of my fellow bidders, a man called Graham who - I happen to know - only buys these photos for purposes of blackmail.

"Right," said the auctioneer, blushing slightly. "Lot one. A series of 81 photographs featuring a family with no dress sense, especially the mother. They are seen at home, at birthday parties and on the beach of an unidentified Greek island. What am I bid?"

The auction got underway and the lots fell rapidly under the hammer. Most of them fetched no more than pounds 5 or pounds 10, but considering they had all been paid for already, that represented pure profit for Len, and some of them went higher than that...

"Lot 37 contains assorted black and white photographs of steam engines in Poland or possibly Portugal," said the auctioneer. A man in the corner who had not so far bid suddenly came to life and said "pounds 20!" loudly and stared fiercely at the rest of us. We let him have it for pounds 20. "There's always one steam nut," Graham muttered to me.

And so the auction went on, until we were halted by an extraordinary interruption. There was a hammering at the front door of the shop, and when a member of staff went to see who it was, it turned out to be a Mr Whittaker who had come very belatedly to collect his summer holiday photographs.

"You've what?" he cried. "You've put my holiday snaps up for sale? But I've paid for them! They're mine!"

"Not now," said Len. "If not collected within a month, they belong to us. Anyway, I think they've already been sold. To this gentleman here."

To my alarm, Mr Whittaker was directed to me. He approached, dangerously red in the face.

"I am very happy to sell your holiday snaps back to you," I said, meaning to be conciliatory. "pounds 15 seem about right?"

"Why, you..."

He raised his fist. Then I seemed to see a bright flash of a light. In fact, that's just what it was. A flash bulb. Len had raised his camera and snapped Mr Whittaker on the verge of laying me out.

"One extra lot," said Len cheerfully. "Rare photo of physical violence in my photographic shop. Will anyone offer me pounds 10?"

I was prepared to go to pounds 30 but it eventually went to Mr Whittaker for pounds 50, who paid up and stormed out. Later, Len went halves and gave me pounds 25 of it.