Police offering bargains for back of your lorry

Forget high street sales, or even eBay. Where else can you buy a bike for £1 or a Nintendo DS for £20? Brian Brady ventures into the world of official auctions
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The Independent Online

What am I bid for this child's Mongoose mountain bike? It's had one careless owner. In the shops it would set you back anything up to £200, but here it's yours for a fiver.

And a Nintendo DS? Do you really want to pay 100 quid on the high street or get it for £22? Got an older relative? How about £20 for a mobility scooter?

I am hunting for Christmas bargains, but not in a warm shopping mall. Instead, I am looking for deals under some freezing railway arches in east London – courtesy of the Metropolitan Police.

The first things to hit me as I arrive at Frank G Bowen Ltd for my first auction are the bikes: rows and rows of them. A few, recovered from railings and lamp-posts, are new and will command the best prices – up to £30. The rest, a little rusty or downright dilapidated, will struggle to reach £5.

The auctioneer moves briskly through more than 500 lots ranging from bicycles to iPods and computers to cars – almost half of them from police storage. Many of the bidders – such as Mr Butt, casually hoovering up dozens of items with regular waves of his catalogue – are clearly professionals, stocking up with goods to sell on. A younger man announces that he will sell his purchases on the auction website eBay.

However, the arcane world of auctions has increasingly been opened up to the ordinary punter in recent months, as families struggle due to the effects of the credit crunch. Government auctions, where police forces and Whitehall departments dispose of millions of pounds'-worth of lost, stolen and surplus property every year, offer impressive returns.

And an increasing number of forces are using their own eBay-style websites. The police site Bumblebeeauctions.co.uk sells direct to the public, with prices as low as £1 for a bike.

One drawback is that, unlike conventional auction sites, most Bumblebee purchases have to be collected from the selling force. And with the parlous state of many items, it may be better to see them first.

"There is about a half-and-half split between the stock traders and the ordinary people who come in after a replacement for something they've lost," said Jason Chapman, the auction manager at Frank G Bowen, which disposes of property on behalf of the Metropolitan and City of London forces.

It is a learning process. One woman who snapped up a bike for her child had to take home three – for less than £10 – after the auctioneer decided to bundle several lots together. Then there are the buyers' premiums and VAT, which can add 30 per cent to the hammer price. And all items are sold as seen, with no comeback for buyers.

The Met has made almost £300,000 from sales of found property alone since 2003. Add to that revenue from sales of crime-related property and you are looking at a substantial figure. "In the financial year 2007-08," a force spokesman said last night, "the Metropolitan Police Service generated approximately £350,000 from the sale of lost and crime-related property at auction. This money is then distributed, in the form of grants, to projects across London."

Met's best buys

Fancy two one-wheeled bikes? Look no further:

Sample auction lots and selling prices: Nintendo DS pink, £22; garden strimmer, £3; Louis Vuitton wristwatch, £150; Shoprider red mobility scooter, £20; curling tongs, £8; Casio digital camera with charger, £12; red Mongoose bike and Apollo bike (each with one wheel missing), £5; Levi Strauss 501 jeans, £18; Ingersoll portable DVD player, £16; wheelchair, £3; petrol lawnmower, £22; Philishave Coolskin shaver, £18; PlayStation 2 and framed picture of a car, £15.