Surrounded by closets full of Glenmorangie, Rolex watches and second-hand dinnerware, I feel like I’ve stepped into a pirated version of The Antiques Roadshow, or otherwise an ultra-hip speakeasy in South London.
In fact, I’m in Greasby’s auction house in Tooting – where everything from unclaimed luggage to police evidence appears for bargain-hungry Londoners to bid on.
Greasby’s has been on the same site since its founding by Henrietta Greasby in 1919, and remains a family business, now owned by Christine Sachet. What sets this auction house apart from the capital’s 300 or so others is its trade in lost property or unclaimed items. If you’ve ever left your phone on the tube, chances are it will end up in Greasby’s books, but only after that TfL held it for three months and made attempts to reunite you.
Glass cabinets are full of devices, from iPads to cameras to plastic bags bulging with chargers – which sell for about 20% of the usual trade-in value. All devices are wiped before being put up for sale, while personal data such as IDs or bank cards are destroyed. Countless lots are formed of misplaced paraphernalia; Oyster cards, phone cases, piles of empty wallets.
As a recognized waste management company, Greasby’s has longstanding connections with TfL, as well as museum and railway lost property offices, the Met Police and Heathrow. When it comes to lost luggage, owners are advised to contact their airline and report their lost bag online. But after three months, the bulk of Heathrow’s monthly proceeds from 200 unclaimed cases will end up at the auction house.
Baggage lucky dip
Once any electronics or premium items have been removed to be auctioned separately, the bag will be registered as mens, womens, or children’s clothing and given a lottery number for deal seekers to bid on. The advantage of these lots is that you only know the contents of the suitcase when you have paid and loosened the closure. It’s a lucky dip for luggage.
I spoke to a cheap browser, Abdul Laher (51) from Norbury, who said he likes the element of surprise: “You never know what you’ll find here, it’s exciting.
“When I paid £28 for a suitcase, it had Moschino jeans in it and loads of Zara tops to match my wife.”
However, another suitcase mainly contained Primark’s prettiest and unwashed socks – so now Abdul prefers to bid on what he can see.
“I’ve bought records, a laptop, golf clubs, a barbecue, all here. Better than eBay!” says Laher.
The viewing room is a treasure trove of all kinds, with tailor dolls alongside paintings and an assortment of chainsaws. There’s also a wall full of a selection of booze Threshers would envy, labeled alongside designer sneakers and chic handbags.
In Greasby’s humble garden, an abundance of garden fountains line row after row of bicycles. These are most likely from police evidence as goods seized by law are sent to auction if not recovered. Items include stolen property, property seized as part of criminal investigation, and lost property. Depending on the force, the evidence is kept for between 28 days and six months after the case is closed, before being shipped off to find a new forever home.
“If they didn’t come here, they should be thrown out”
Making a bargain facilitated by someone else’s misfortune may seem opportunistic, but the alternative is for these items to go to the landfill, as Greasby’s administrator Victoria Morbey explains to me: “With every item we sell from the salvage,” she says, “someone has tried to reunite that item with its owner. The people who handle this stuff at lost property offices have to log the items, update their databases, make inquiries and pay for the space, which is a lot of work and a lot of expense.
“After 90 days, these companies just can’t afford to keep the items. They can’t keep them indefinitely, so if they didn’t send them to auction they would just have to be thrown out.”
Victoria, the owner’s daughter and has worked at Greasby’s for many years, tells me that technological advancements such as tracking and ‘find my phone’ apps mean far fewer people are losing their goods these days, but sometimes the owners just aren’t to find. Finding new homes for these items means they don’t go to waste, cut production emissions and yes – gives Londoners the chance to get a great deal.
Auctions are held every two weeks and since Covid they have been held exclusively online, with hopeful customers placing their bids before 5pm the night before. Victoria explains that as general auctioneers, the police auctions and lost properties are only a small part of their portfolio: “We work a lot with probate lawyers and house evictions, when a family is shrinking or someone has died.
“We also clear a lot of stuff for the local authorities. We are a general auctioneer, so we sell everything from a suitcase to a sofa.”
This explains the range of household items; even the most absent-minded Londoner would struggle to leave their piano on the night bus. There are countless boxes that are clearly swept out of a household cupboard and overflowing with calculators and coasters.
Rajaan Sajay (49) from Clapham is looking for new furniture for one of the properties he rents out. He tells me he has another flat fully equipped with Greasby’s offerings.
“In 2018 I bought everything for the business, I got an entire three piece suite for £68, and a dining area and two bed frames for under £100. I even bought a box with a lot of cleaning products, almost full,” says Sajay.
Curious about what’s lurking in the lots, I rummage through a box full of old mugs, batteries, and a tantalizing collection of old board games, including a rather classy chess set. Luckily I don’t come across any dentures, which apparently often pop up among the trinkets.
While stocking up at Greasby’s takes significantly more time than an Amazon order, traveling into the unknown of the viewing room is exciting. From air conditioners to absinthe, desks to bracelets, everything you need is likely to be in stock. You just don’t know where exactly.