Surrounded by cabinets full of of Glenmorangie, Rolex watches and secondhand dining sets, I feel like I've stepped into either an illicit version of The Antiques Roadshow, or otherwise some ultra-hip south London speakeasy.
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 stood in the same spot since being established by Henrietta Greasby in 1919, and remains a family business, now owned by Christine Sachett. 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 on Greasby's books, but only after TfL has held it for three months and made attempts to reunite you with.
Glass cases are crammed with devices from iPads to cameras to plastic bags bulging with chargers — which sell for around 20% of the usual resale value. All devices are wiped before going 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, stacks of empty wallets.
As a licenced waste disposal carrier, Greasby's has long standing 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 misplaced suitcase online. But after three months, most of Heathrow's monthly haul of 200 unclaimed cases will materialise at the auction house.
Luggage lucky dip
Once any electronics or premium items have been removed to be auctioned off separately, the bag is logged as either men's, women's or kidswear, and given a lot number for deal seekers to bid on. The catch with these lots is you won’t know the case's contents until you've paid up and popped the clasp. It's a luggage lucky dip.
I spoke to one bargain browser, Abdul Laher (51) from Norbury who said he loves the element of surprise: "You never know what you’re going to find here, it’s exciting.
"Once I paid £28 for a suitcase, inside there were Moschino jeans and lots of Zara tops which fitted my wife."
However, another suitcase revealed mostly Primark's finest and unwashed socks — so now Abdul prefers to bid on what he can see.
"I’ve bought records, a laptop, golf clubs, a grill- all from here. It’s better than eBay!" says Laher.
The viewing room is a treasure trove of miscellany, with tailors' dummies stationed next to paintings and an assortment of chainsaws. There’s also a wall packed with a booze selection Threshers would envy, labelled up next to designer trainers and posh handbags.
In Greasby's unassuming yard stands a plethora of garden fountains alongside row upon row of bicycles. These are most likely from police evidence, as goods seized by the law are sent to auction if not reclaimed. Items include stolen goods, property seized as part of criminal investigations and lost property. Depending on the force, evidence is kept between 28 days and six months after the case is closed, before being shipped out to find a new forever home.
"If they didn't come here, they would have to be chucked"
Snapping up a bargain facilitated by someone else's misfortune might seem opportunistic, but the alternative is these items going to landfill, as Greasby's administrator Victoria Morbey explains to me: "With every item that we sell from salvage," she says, "someone has tried to reunite that item with its owner. The people that handle this stuff at lost property offices have to log the items, update their databases, make enquiries and pay for the space which is a lot of work and a lot of cost.
"After 90 days, these companies just can't afford to keep the items, they can't store them indefinitely, so if they didn't send them to auction, they would just have to be chucked."
Victoria, who is the owner's daughter and has worked at Greasby's for many years tells me technological advances such as tracking and 'find my phone' apps mean far fewer people lose their goods nowadays, but sometimes the owners just can't be found. Finding these items new homes means they don't go to waste, reduces manufacturing emissions and yes — gives Londoners the chance to snag a stellar deal.
Auctions are held every fortnight and since Covid, take place exclusively online, with hopeful patrons placing their bids by 5pm the night before. Victoria explains that as a general auctioneers, the police auctions and lost property sales are only a small part of their portfolio: "We work a lot with probate solicitors and house clearances, if a family is downsizing or someone has died.
"We also clear a lot of stuff for local authorities. We're a general auctioneers, so we sell anything from a suitcase to a sofa."
This explains the array of domestic items; even the most absent-minded Londoner would struggle to leave their piano on the night bus. There are numerous box lots which are clearly swept from inside a household cupboard, spilling over with calculators and coasters.
Rajaan Sajay (49) from Clapham is in the market for new furniture for one of the properties he rents out. He tells me he completely kitted out another flat with Greasby's offerings.
"In 2018 I bought everything for the place, I got a whole three-piece suite for £68, and a dining set and two bed frames for under £100. I even bought a box which had loads of cleaning products, almost full," says Sajay.
Curious what could be lurking in the lots, I rifle through a box brimming with old mugs, batteries and a tempting collection of old board games, including a rather stylish chess set. Luckily, I don't come across any dentures, which apparently pop up frequently amidst the bric-a-brac.
While stocking up at Greasby's will take considerably more time than an Amazon order, there is a thrill in voyaging into the unknown of the viewing room. From air conditioners to absinthe, bureaus to bangles, whatever you're seeking will likely be stocked. You just don't know where, exactly.