Airport baggage auctions

Inspired by the growing hype in the U.S, my colleague Boyd and I set off to discover the truth about airport baggage auctions in the Netherlands and, of course, the best and only way to do so is to sign up for one. Schiphol is the busiest airport in the Netherlands and by extension the world, accommodating over 50 million passengers a year. Given those numbers, it’s easy to imagine that a portion of passengers lose or forget their luggage somewhere at the airport. These poor souls often realize their mistake when it’s much too late and they’re half way to Kuala Lumpur where it would be too expensive or too much of a hassle to go back and retrieve their stuff. Other times passengers simply prove unsuccessful at finding their luggage for some reason even after giving a fair amount of effort attempting to do so. So what eventually happens to these lost and forgotten heaps of clothes and baggage? Well, Schiphol, being the ever sensitive corporation, finds it too much of a shame to. So, they auction it off to the highest bidder and keep the proceeds.

A growing hype has come into existence regarding airport baggage auctions sparked by “reality” TV shows such as “Auctions Hunters” and “Baggage Battles”. These series often portray a group of individuals regularly going to auctions and making their living selling the items they find. In several cases, these people find extremely rare and valuable items ranging from precious stones to antiques.

In general, the concept certainly has an air of mystery and excitement to it, however, there has been some debate over the authenticity of shows like ”Storage Wars”, ”Baggage Battles” and the kind. Although success is not beyond the scope of possibility. Case in point: a person from Long Island bought James Bond’s Lotus Espirit submarine-car from the movie “ The spy who loved me” at a blind auction for $100 and sold it later on for over $900.000.

In order to get an idea of how viable this concept is in the Netherlands as a steady income, we set off with about €450 in our pockets for the auction-house “De Eland” in Diemen to participate in a real life lost baggage auction. Every three months or so, all the lost and unclaimed baggage that Schiphol has collected gets sent to this one auction-house. Approximately 12 trollies with a volume of about 1.5 cubic meters (personal estimation) of baggage and clothes get auctioned off. The price for a single trolley varies between €200 to €700, excluding an additional 30% auctioneer fee.

It begins simple enough: you register and you get a number with which you can place bids for things. If you come early enough you can have a look trough the entire auction house and check out the various items to be auctioned off before bidding begins. It quickly becomes clear that the baggage auction is merely a small part of De Elands business. They deal mainly in antiquities and art with some items having a 5 figure price-aim. The found baggage is stored downstairs in the basement, with several boxes and crates of lost and found items from various places.

At first it’s all very exciting and curious seeing all those closed bags in these huge trollies, however almost immediately some red flags go up. The first thing that caught my attention was a jewelery-box with the brand Cartier on top. This got my heart pumping for about 4 seconds until I stuck my pinkie trough the bars of the trolley in order to get a glimpse inside this box of prospective profit (against the rules BTW). However, I was met with crushing disappointment when I realized it was empty. At this point I wondered if it had been stolen or if it was just an empty box that someone forgot. Moving on I noticed another item beaming with possibility, a fairly new laptop bag. Being the ever impatient and greedy person that I am, I used my pinkie for the second time, but again… bitter disappointment. The bag contained nothing apart from a textbook.

Boyd and I decided to do some investigating and met a more seasoned auction-goer who kindly allowed us to interview him, granted we keep his identity anonymous.

Immediately his tone regarding the profitability of the auction was less than enthusiastic. His initial response to the concept was that at these baggage auctions people often bid and pay much more than what they would have paid in a store or on e-commerce websites like Marktplaats. He went on to explain that the smart thing to do at these auctions was to get a lot with at least one item we liked personally or that we knew was relatively valuable, then we would have a cushion in the event our lot turned out to be worthless or, at the very least, some form of consolation. He followed by saying the thing we had been dreading since the moment we found the empty laptop bag and jewelery box: “you know Schiphol takes out all the valuable stuff first, right?” And suddenly everything became very clear as we looked around and noticed 4 boxes filled to the brim with electronics (iPhones, Bose headphones, etc.) and several bags of jewelery, stored within a glass display-case in the center of the room. Could it be that Schiphol removes these items first and sells them separately to make more profit?

At last, the bell for the auction rang and we took our seats in the front row, number in hand, and extremely deterred from bidding anything over €100, but we had resolved to use the full extent of our assets to get 1 of the lots. However, it soon became very clear that the other bidders had the same disposition and worse, more money than us. The lots went for staggering prices, some as high as €800 excluding auction fees. The average price including fees was about €500, which was still outside our budget. Not surprisingly the boxes with electronics and jewelery went for more than €2000. Was this the result of the “Storage Wars hype”? The answer to that, regretfully is still unsure. What is sure is that we were utterly defeated by the other bidders.

Thankfully, for the sake of journalism, we initiated plan B: we went outside and asked if we could film and interview someone opening his or her lot and we were eventually permitted to do so by a nice gentleman and his young son, who ,like us, were novice in the auction world. We asked if he intended to gain a steady extra income from these auctions. As he filled up the back of his hatchback he replied that theses auctions were simply a bonding activity for him and his son. We noticed that the majority of items in the trolley where old clothes. There were a few notable garments among them, like the brand new Tommy Hilfiger scarf with the tag still on and the (maybe real) Burberry coat, but that was about it. The Burberry coat was placed very neatly on top of the rest of the items in the trolley, which makes you wonder if Schiphol did so intentionally in order to boost up the price.

When the first closed bag was fished out of the sea of old forgotten rags we thought we would finally get to see some big profit. We were wrong, the bag, which by itself looked rather expensive, had been ransacked and was as empty as the promise for profit at these auctions. The same story went for all the other bags we found and opened. A plastic LED flashlight was the most advanced piece of technology in the whole trolley, which was also completely void of any jewelery. Summarizing, the trolley contained about 1 cubic meter of old clothes and broken bags, 1 umbrella, a Burberry coat and 2 stuffed pandas. Although the trolley didn’t contain any big money, it would probably still make some profit if sold correctly, however it would take a very long time to do so. It therefore stands to reason, given the evidence that Schiphol does remove all the valuable items from the baggage and sells them separately, that this type of auction would not be a viable method for students to gain some extra income.

Defeated, but victorious in the relief that we didn’t waste our money on this endeavor, we decided to spend a few minuets checking out the main auction. There, to our surprise, we witnessed antique chairs, tables and art go for as little as €18-€26 including auction fees. We even saw a functioning baby grand piano go at €200. So, we ended up buying an antique chair for a total of €26 and decided to put it on Marktplaats. If you’re curious if we made a profit off this item, check out our YouTube video, which will be released one week after this article has been published.


By Don Reiziger / Boyd Biersteker