Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

It fell off a plane, honest!
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The Independent Travel

Need a holiday? How about Kings Langley? You can't miss it: just look for the untidy straggle of suburbia jostled by Watford, Hemel Hempstead and the M25. With a bit of luck, you'll be able to get a room at the Kings Langley Premier Lodge, though on the middle Saturday of each month it could be tricky.

"Half a dozen of the regulars book in there, and a woman from Manchester brings her whole family." The speaker is Chris Small. He is also the reason that travellers flock from all over the country for his sessions, which start with a bang, at 9am precisely, usually on the middle Sunday of each month. "The last one was quite a short one - we finished at 8.30pm," says Mr Small, who in private is a quiet, thoughtful man. "But recently we went on to 11.45pm, and there were a dozen people who stayed all the way through." Modestly, he neglects to mention that, on that occasion, he was called upon to perform on stage constantly for almost 15 hours.

Like many in the travel industry, Mr Small's job is to sell dreams. The difference is that he deals in broken dreams - auctioning the property that travellers leave behind at Britain's biggest airport - "from Timex watches to Rolex watches," says the auctioneer.

The amount of high-value stuff, from cameras to computers, that travellers abandon is simply amazing. At last month's sale, an Olympus Camedia digital camera with a list price of more than £400 went under the hammer for just £100. A superb violin made £200: "I suspect that the buyer was very happy and has since made a handsome profit on it," says Mr Small.

"The quality of things that get lost is usually very, very high," says the man who takes 10 per cent commission on the lost loot that goes under his hammer. "It always includes a lot of designer clothing, and jewellery. That," he says, holding up a weighty bin-bag, "is jewellery that has yet to be sorted out."

Airlines are often criticised for the amount of travellers' possessions they lose. But judging by the booty that Mr Small sells, passengers are equally adept at separating themselves from their luggage - often purchases made only a few minutes earlier from the departure-lounge shops. "A lot of people lose their duty-free shopping, usually because they're carrying other things. They just put their bag of duty-free down somewhere and then forget all about it. We get a lot of wines and spirits, and also perfume."

Mr Small's company is licensed by Customs and Excise to sell drink that has not been taxed. In the mid-December sale, the last before Christmas and New Year, bids for alcohol and creep up until they are not far short of shop prices. But outside the festive season, malt whisky is available at, well, duty-free prices.

When fellow passengers or cleaning staff hand property in, the airport keeps the goods for three months in case they are claimed. Most are not, so the airport sends unclaimed property to Mr Small's company for disposal at bargain prices.

The location of this everything-but-the-kitchen-sink drama is an anonymous-looking and heavily-guarded warehouse adjacent to Kings Langley railway station. Once the auctioneer steps up to the front of the hall, where about 100 bargain-seekers are pressed close together, his manner changes instantly.

Mr Small is no longer in the travel business - he is in the entertainment industry. He becomes an exuberant showman: theatrically coaxing a few extra pounds out of bidders one minute, delivering deadpan one-liners the next, always finding the energy to make even a humble pair of trainers sound the most desirable commodity in Hertfordshire. Even for goods that are still in the manufacturer's packaging, exactly as they left the duty-free shops, the successful bids are well below market value. Ray-Ban sunglasses and Sony Discmans routinely sell for about £10, while the usual going rate for a digital camera in mint condition is just one-third of the shop price. An implausible number of power tools, computers and prams are left behind at the airport, too. If you can't find what you want at Mr Small's auction, you're probably better off without it.

"It's busy, it's electric, it's the best day of the month," says one impatient buyer who is waiting for the sale to get under way. Like everyone I speak to here, he prefers not to reveal his name. "It's the best day for bargains, the best day for quality as well. Each month, there are something like 250 mobile phones, camcorders and the like. How people manage to lose them is totally beyond me."

But Mr Small believes that there are understandable reasons that cause people to leave possessions behind - and not bother to reclaim their lost property. "A lot of people are visiting this country, maybe from Australia or from the States, or whatever. They're over here on holiday. If they lose something at the airport on their way back home, chances are that it's probably insured under their household insurance. It's an awful long way to come back here to get that item back when it's insured anyway."

A forgetful holidaymaker in unfamiliar and stressful surroundings is one thing - a business traveller who absent-mindedly leaves a laptop behind is another. Yet every month around two dozen computers are abandoned by their users. Could the losses be subconsciously deliberate? "Laptops go out of date very quickly, and if you've got a salesman who perhaps loses his laptop, provided it's not got too much information on it that he's going to miss, it's probably easier for him to claim for a new one under his company's insurance. He's not going to be too worried about losing the old one - especially if his colleagues have the latest version."

Mr Small has to work hard to earn his cut, and in every auction there are hard-to-sell goods. This month, for example, "we've got a sewing-machine. If you tried to take that on board a plane you'd probably end up with hundreds of pounds to pay. People don't want to pay the excess baggage, so they just leave it behind." In the past, Mr Small has found himself with generators that have been abandoned for the same reason.

He usually finds a buyer. "Everybody wants a bargain. The prospect of buying something that someone else has lost is pleasing, especially if you can buy it for a lot less than they paid for it."

Airport Sales usually take place on the Sunday closest to the middle of each month, at Kings Langley Auction Centre in Hertfordshire. The next is on Sunday 22 June; call 01727 846 090 or visit www.stalbansauctioncentre.co.uk for more details. Kings Langley Premier Lodge: 0870 990 6372; from £54 per room per night

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