Big Nation, from The Herald Magazine
IT was a beauty, that ornamental crocodile. A majestic, fearsome swine with teeth like dwarves’ gravestones. I’d envisaged it on sentry duty on my tenement landing, warding off Avon reps. They’d abruptly reconsider interrupting my tea break to expound the benefits of Clearskin Invisible Blemish Corrector if they were confronted by the death stare of a six-foot reptile.
A bastard in a boiler suit scuppered my plan, though. A pawnbroker, by the looks of him. Canny type. If I bid two pounds, he’d go four. When I reached six, he’d stake eight. When we breached £16, I threw in the towel – otherwise I’d have been short for the bus fare home.
This wasn’t your average decorative crocodile. It had history. Personality. Authority. For starters, it was the property of Strathclyde Police – one of countless items accrued in the lost and found departments of west-coast police stations or used as evidence in criminal trials. The croc ended up in Ayrshire to be flogged off at a police auction and then, alas, into the mitts of the boiler suit.
Strathclyde Police’s quarterly sales take place at Wilsons Auctions in Dalry. Lothian and Borders Police – who are holding a sale at Wilsons today – and the Irish Garda also use the firm. All in, the Strathclyde sales recoup upwards of £60,000, money which is reinvested in community policing.
In theory, the auctions are clinical and businesslike. Eye up the lots, however – some 1,500 appeared at Strathclyde’s last auction – and we’re talking haberdashery in earth’s base wares. The goods range from shoplifting staples (DVD players, cordless drills, hi-fis, iPods) to curios (a wheelchair, a box of life jackets, a toilet seat, size five pink flip-flops).
There are unwieldy combinations: “quantity of socks and Sony VCR”; “snooker cue, hoe and one other item”; “two dog ornaments and three garden gnomes”; “cricket bat, walking stick etc”. Then there is the downright meagre: a £1 Tesco voucher, sports socks, Christmas cards, candlestick, tights, razor blades. There are even two CCTV home security systems up for grabs.
Sparklers, it turns out, are a major draw: necklaces, rings, earrings, pendants, bracelets, brooches and bangles in a fusion of designs and finishes. A few bear inscriptions: “F loves D”, “J&M forever”, “To my love Debs”. Here, squatting in clear plastic bags with little lotnumber tags, they are no longer symbols of intimacy, their vulgar idiosyncrasies serving only to mark down the price.
Whether it’s walking sticks or dog ornaments, Jim Forsyth isn’t at all surprised or overwhelmed. “After a while, you don’t get shocked. The unusual has become, well, usual, ” says the head of Strathclyde Police’s unclaimed property department.
With such a diverse bag, however, the odd bad lot does slip through. Strathclyde Police itself sold PC hard drives containing hardcore pornography two years ago. West Yorkshire, meanwhile, profited from specialist hydroponic lights used to cultivate cannabis. Even the Crown Prosecution Service accidentally sold exhibits from a burglary trial, causing the case to collapse.
Such mishaps, it has to be said, are uncommon, and the regular patrons at the Strathclyde auction care only about the bargain. A ragtag of facial scars, notepads, ponytails and substandard dental hygiene, they are crammed into the hall, each clasping a bidding number.
Jim Scott, a pinstriped auctioneer of 20 years’ standing, surveys the Dickensian scene. Crowds of this scale are commonplace nowadays, he says. “eBay has created a real auction culture. And with all the daytime TV shows, they have a far higher profile. People come out of curiosity.”
A few minutes later, hammer in hand, Scott climbs to the stage. By the second lot, he’s found his rhythm. The mob is in thrall to his scattergun sales pitch.
“Start me at twenty ten five. Fiver? FIVER? Two. Two? Two pounds. No? Anyone? Yes, sir! Two! Thank you! Two. Coupleofpoun. FOUR, anyone? No? Two. Two. Two. ONLY two. All done? Two. Twopoun. Going once. At two. Two. TWICE. All done? SOLD for two pounds.” This guy talks the way rabbits make love.
The lots are dispensed with quickly – Scott estimates his rate at about 100 an hour. Lot 1,222: toy model of A-Team van, £28. Lot 1,626: family Bible, £2. Bang. Bang. A catalogue of swindles and perversions, junk and genuine steals. Proof, too, that Mr T is 14 times more popular than John the Baptist.
I never did find out how the saltie came into the hands of the polis, but I’d like to think it was suitably dramatic – the clinching prosecution exhibit in a murder case, perhaps. “I put it to you, m’lud, that the fatal injuries sustained by grandmother-of-17 Senga McPhumpherty, battered in cold blood as she watched Deal or No Deal, could only have been inflicted courtesy of a severe and frenzied battering with this here ornate beast . . .”
Then again, perhaps not. But as Strathclyde Police knows only too well, stranger things have happened.