San Diego It's one of those urban legends everybody has heard: the police auction. Porsches can be had for $500, 48-inch TVs go for under $100, and mountain bikes sell for $20. To test the legend, I went to the San Diego Police Department's Auction at the Scottish Rite Center in Mission Valley.
The bidding is scheduled to start at 10:00 a.m., but viewing of the wares starts at 9:00. When I arrive at 9:15, the parking lot is full and I have to park a quarter-mile down the street. Inside, a line of people waiting to see the merchandise extends out of the Corinthian ballroom and into the foyer of the building.
Along the front and left sides of the parquet-floored room, tables lined up end to end hold boxes of clothes, jewelry, stereo equipment, and tools, plus the occasional TV. This is a household-goods auction, so there will be no $500 Porsches. On the left side of the room, to the inside of the tables, a double row of bikes standing side by side stretches from the back to the front of the ballroom. Twenty rows of chairs on either side of a center aisle fill the middle of the room.
At 9:30 the ballroom is already crowded yet hordes of people still pour in. As they enter, they're handed a piece of paper explaining the rules of the auction -- cash or local check only, all sales final, no warranties -- then they file past the tables, inspecting the goods. Everything to be sold bears a lot number, which the auctioneer will call out before he starts the bidding. Small items such as clothes, jewelry, and radios are packaged together in boxes. Large items -- TVs, bikes, computers -- will be sold individually. The auction-goers write down the lot numbers of things they want on the paper they were given at the door. That way, even if they can't see an item when the bidding starts, they'll know it by number.
The legend of the police auction takes its first hit when the auctioneer, a medium-sized man around 50 with sandy blond hair and mustache, announces from the raised podium, "You may have heard some amazing stories about police auctions, but the truth is people pay fair prices here. It's not a giveaway auction. Look around you; you've got high rollers everywhere here. So if you think you're going to stay and there's something you want to bid on, you'd better be thinking about getting a seat now. Otherwise, you'll have to stand in the back."
Leaning against the back wall, 23-year-old Shawn Moran, who lives in Mission Valley, says he "saw the ad in the paper and thought I'd show up."
If the price is good, he may buy a bike or maybe some stereo equipment. But he's not hopeful. Pointing at the crowd in front of him, now up to 500 with more piling in every second, he says, "I'm guessing that with this auction, because there are so many people, things are going to go kind of high. The last auction I went to was in a small town in New Jersey, and you could get bikes for $5. Here, I think everything is going to be expensive."
Scott Sanderson of La Mesa has attended two police auctions before today's but has never bought anything. "They usually end up going higher than I want to pay," he explains, delivering another hit to the legend. "I'm here for deals."
Sanderson, 42, has brought $160 with him today, "but that doesn't mean I want to spend it all. I saw the Gibson guitar over there, which is pretty nice. But if it goes over $100 I'm not going to bid. I'm not going to pay that kind of money at an auction. You can't really inspect the thing, so the risk is you get it home and find out it doesn't work. The TV over there with the speakers, I'd pay $150 for it. But it's going to go, I bet you, for $400 or $500. But you never know; that's what's weird about these auctions."
Twenty-seven-year-old Arturo Martinez from Chula Vista has heard the police-auction legend. "I've heard that there are real good bargains and a lot of good stuff here. So I figured I wanted to see it myself."
But Martinez doesn't plan on bidding this morning, even though he saw "a lot of good stuff" on the tables. "I'm here to observe," he explains. "That way I'll be prepared for next time. I don't want to make a mistake and end up buying something for $400."
Ted Jarvis, 37, drove in from Campo with his young son to attend this morning's auction. "I've lived in the San Diego area a long time, and every year I hear about it. I happened to read the Union-Tribune yesterday and saw it was going on this morning. So I figured this time I'd hit it and see if there are any good deals. But I'll be surprised if any real good deals are had, especially on the electronics. The number of people here today is going to drive the prices up. It looks like there are 600 people in here. I think people are going to pay more than what the stuff is worth."
Despite predicting high prices, Jarvis still plans on bidding. "My hand will go up," he says. "Getting in on the bidding is the fun part. If I see a big car stereo amp with a Sony CD player, I'll go up to 50 or 75 bucks. I'm not going to go much more than that because for 200 bucks I can get a good system with a warranty. If the price goes too high, I'll back out. But if I put in a bid, I may just get a good deal."
At 10 o'clock, uniformed police officers clear people away from the tables and bikes and out of the aisles. The seats are all full and standing auction-goers cram the back and right side of the room. The auctioneer gives some last-minute instructions.
"We don't use bidder's cards, so you just hold your hand in the air or wave that paper you got when you walked in to get my attention. If I don't see you, make sure you yell. If you keep going like this," he gestures up and down with his hand, barely raising it above his head, "you're taking a chance. I might sell it to someone else when your hand is down. So keep your hands up until the bidding gets too high for you."
Instructions given, the auction gets underway. Three workers bring items up to the podium and tell the auctioneer the lot number, which he announces, followed by a short description. "Got a Sony car stereo here. Good brand. Got some speakers that go with it and three or four CDs. Let's start at $20."
A score of hands go up.
"Got 20, bid 30."
"She's 30, bid 40...you're 40 sir, bid 50...50 straight back, who'll bid 60? Sony stereo, bid 60...60 on the right here, bid 70...70 up here in front. She's 70, how 'bout 80? Eighty right in the middle there. He's 80, bid 90...Sony stereo, bid 90... got some speakers, bid 90... sold 80 in the middle. Come up here to the cashier's table and ask for lot number 237."
Over and over, the auction workers roll up bikes or carry boxes up to the podium and display the contents while the auctioneer, whose chatter is not so much rapid as constant, drives the bids up and up. His voice never grows hoarse; I never see him take a drink of water.
Prices are high on most things and oddly low on others. One mountain bike, which I'm sure you could buy for $125 at Costco, goes for $185. Another junker sells for $200. But a Trek road bike, which would sell new for over $500, sells for $40.
The Gibson guitar Scott Sanderson said he'd buy for $100 goes for $375, and the TV/speaker combination he said he'd pay $150 for sells for $475. A fierce bidding war breaks out over a Gary Fisher mountain bike, and it finally sells to a young man for $400, earning him a round of applause from the crowd. A man bids $375 for a video camera and wins. But when he gets to the cashier's table he discovers it's not the one he wanted and refuses to pay. When the auctioneer hears about this, he asks the crowd, "Where is that guy who bid on the wrong camera?" Twenty fingers in the back left area of the audience point him out. The auctioneer extends a condemning finger at him. "You can't do that here. Pay attention!"
On another occasion, he chastises someone else for winning the bid but not owning up to it. "Don't do that again! It slows down the whole process."
By 11:30 the crowd has thinned to a third of its original size, and I find a vacated seat in the middle of the fifth row on the right. Standing through an hour and a half of the auction has given me the bidding bug. I bid on a few bikes and some craft stuff my wife would like, but only while the bidding is in the $30 to $40 range. I never win. The price always ends up around $100. At 12:30, a Giant mountain bike comes up. I raise my hand at $35 dollars, just for the fun of it. Lesser bikes have sold for $200 today so I'm not expecting to win. "He's 35, bid 40," says the auctioneer, "Giant bike, bid 40...nice-looking bike, bid 40...sold 35 to the young man in the middle. Ask for lot 232."
The legend lives.