You lose some, you win some: The travelling public misplaces its property. Then it buys it back. John Windsor explains

Click to follow
On the last day of each school year, the head teacher of Brampton Down girls' boarding school in Folkestone, Kent, used to get a telephone call from 'a parent', asking which train the sixth form was taking on its way home for the hols. The parent, a titled but impecunious woman friend of mine, knew that by the time the train reached Victoria the school- leavers would have dressed as vamps, discarding a uniform of tunics and expensive Harrods flecked tweed overcoats on the train.

Days later, my friend would present herself at the railway lost-property office lamenting the behaviour of her 'wayward daughter' and asking to see any Brampton Down overcoats found aboard, say, the 4.56pm from Folkestone the previous Friday. She always managed to find one her own size.

These days, unclaimed lost property can be picked up so cheaply at auction that such scams seem unnecessary. Not only overcoats but nearly-new cameras, binoculars, radio-cassettes, personal stereos, calculators, computer games, jewellery, antiques, leather jackets and duty-free goods, not to mention forests of umbrellas and squadrons of luggage trolleys, can be had for half their second-hand value.

The auctioneer Michael Shortall, of Hawkhurst, Kent, last year won the contract to auction Gatwick airport's unclaimed lost property. He holds three 400-lot auctions a year with neither estimates nor reserves - there is one today at 10am. Although he targets dealers such as jewellers and camera retailers as his main customers, private buyers regularly carry off bargains.

At one of Mr Shortall's auctions this year pounds 28 (plus 10 per cent premium and 17.5 per cent VAT on the premium, making a total of pounds 31.29) bought a lot comprising three cameras: a cased Pentax PC35AF-M SE, a Kodak disc 4000 and a cased Ricoh FF-90 autofocus. Over the counter they could have fetched pounds 35, pounds 15 and pounds 15, a total of pounds 65. A cased Minolta 7000 with AF zoom 35-70mm lens fetched pounds 95 (total pounds 106.16) when its second- hand value is around pounds 200. A fiver bought a lot of 18 pieces of jewellery. Umbrellas sell for pounds 5- pounds 10 in lots of five; luggage trolleys, in half-dozens, cost about pounds 6 a lot.

The thousands of unclaimed items lost on British Rail between Cornwall and Kent end up at Waterloo. British Rail employees have a privileged pick of them: there is a staff-only twice-weekly price-tag sale which is neither advertised in BR house publications nor open to the public. The human brain left on a train never reached the sale, being claimed by a hospital courier. Nor did a sawn-off shotgun which was handed in to the police. But a selection of bondage gear, including whips and manacles, found a suitable home among BR staff.

The enterprising station master at Leeds, Gerald Egan, holds his own auctions. He picked up his gavel and held his second annual event this month. It was attended by 100 bidders and raised pounds 984. He sold tape players, bicycles, personal stereos, lap-top computers, suitcases (still containing passengers' possessions) and hundreds of umbrellas. He hopes that the pneumatic drill found in the ladies' lavatory, which failed to sell, will shift for about pounds 40 in a private deal.

British Rail recommends telephoning the nearest main station to find out where the auctions are. More auctions of railway lost property are expected after 1 April, when British Rail divides into 26 train operating companies, each with its eye on the bottom line.

The answer to the question 'Why do people lose so much gear?' is simple. They do not; they actually lose very little. Staff at Gatwick airport, for example, find 14,000-16,000 items of lost property a year - a small number compared with the annual 20 million passengers passing through. More than half the lost items are claimed. But Wendy Jefferson, Gatwick's lost property supervisor, formerly a WPC with Sussex police, still cannot understand why so many people never report valuable losses. Airlines are willing couriers of reclaimed property, she said, and she will accept proof of identity by fax.

Harassed passengers who have lost things tend to vent their frustration on her. 'They seem to think it's all my fault,' she said. 'Some are downright rude, and the desire to retaliate can be strong. You just have to keep your mouth shut and roll with it.'

Her least favourite lost property, even more loathed than false teeth, dirty clothes or dried fish from Africa, is luggage trolleys. Up to 250 a year are left behind. 'They fold and bite your fingers,' she said.

London Transport's lost property office at 200 Baker Street - temporary home to some 100,000 lost objects a year - is only a little less famous than 221b, Sherlock Holmes's mythical residence across the road. Number 200's forte is lost credit cards, musical instruments - and true stories. Such as the one about the businessman who reclaimed the same briefcase containing pounds 3,000 each month for three months. There are plenty of lost crutches. Or are they deliberately discarded? The staff at No 200 say, tongue-in-cheek, they are proof that miracles do indeed occur on London Transport.

Less famous are the premises of R F Greasby, the Tooting auctioneers, where property unclaimed by LT passengers after at least three months is offered in fortnightly Monday sales of about 1,000 lots. Viewing is on Saturdays, 10am- 4pm. Last Monday, a lost 40ft marquee came under the hammer and raised a top bid of pounds 300.

Lost property from Heathrow, British Airways, London taxis and the police goes into big, 1,000 to 1,200-lot monthly sales at Dowell Lloyd of Putney. Viewing is on Fridays, 9am-7pm. A gold-plated Leica fetched over pounds 3,350 this month, but Twenties gold Leicas can make more than pounds 30,000 at auction, and a 1979 gold N42 Leica is estimated pounds 4,000- pounds 6,000 at Phillips on 14 December.

Hard times mean that transport companies have become more businesslike about lost property. Long gone are the days when I could walk into 200 Baker Street, report the loss of an umbrella, reel off at random the name of a Tube line, a day and a time, wink and be told: 'Nar. But 'ow'd you like a nice malacca? Only a quid.'

Michael Shortall, Auction Centres (0580 754545), Dowell Lloyd (081-788 7777), R F Greasby (081-672 1100).

(Photographs omitted)

Looking for credit card or current account deals? Search here