Words Amicia de Moubray Photographs William Ford
‘A 5ft-long leather hippopotamus is the weirdest item I have ever sold,’ says Duncan Holliday of Swale Auctions.
A gleaming new jam saucepan, 40 Ladybird books, several packets of toothpaste taped together, a portrait of Lester Piggott, a camera tripod and a funky shaped guitar are among the eclectic assortment of some 500 lots on offer at a recent Swale Auction.
Held on the first Sunday of every month, the auctions are ‘very much a community event,’ says Duncan, who with his wife Rachel started them in 2001. Originally held in Bobbing, they moved to Boughton Village Hall, near Faversham in 2015.
Extremely friendly, both Duncan and Rachel are brimming with ‘people skills’. From 9.30, when the doors open and viewing starts, the hall is teeming with people, sometimes as many as 200: some are serious buyers, others have come to meet their friends and some are just there for the crack. A catalogue is only available on the day. The kitchen tucked to one side of the church hall does a brisk business in cups of tea, huge wedges of sponge cake, hot dogs and fried egg sandwiches. A jolly relaxed atmosphere pervades before Duncan starts the auction briskly at 11am.
Rachel tells me how the idea for the auctions originated. ‘One day Duncan was at the local rubbish tip and saw a chap putting a perfectly good coffee table into a skip. He asked him what was wrong with it to which the answer was “nothing, but I don’t need it and don’t know where else to dispose of it.”’
‘Traditionally, most provincial towns hold regular general household auctions but I realised that there was nothing in Swale despite its big population,’ says Duncan, adding: ‘it took a lot of work to get it off the ground, distributing flyers through letterboxes – it was before the internet.’
What makes the auctions special is that several lots are regularly consigned by Kent Police. If criminals are caught and their stolen goods located but the goods are not subsequently claimed, the Hollidays sell them for the police. Kent is divided into nine different police areas. ‘When one area has, say, half a van load, or the stuff is getting in their way, they contact me,’ says Duncan. After the Hollidays have taken their commission, the proceeds are donated by the police to local charities.
This line of business came about when an erstwhile neighbour who worked at Sittingbourne Police Station spotted Duncan’s picture and an article about the auctions in the local paper. ‘We never know what is going to come from the police, all sorts of weird and wonderful things,’ says Rachel. ‘Often we get things stolen from shops. By the time the trial has gone through the courts it may be last year’s stock, such as new designer clothes, perfumes and handbags. Obviously we get a lot of garden tools from the police as it is almost impossible to prove ownership of them.’
The Hollidays say that ebay has not had much impact on the auctions. However, what is notable is that now ‘everyone knows what things are worth.’
‘We try to make the event not too serious. We want people to enjoy the experience,’ says Duncan. First-time visitors sometimes admit to finding the prospect of an auction scary. ‘What happens if I comb my hair, will you think I am bidding?’ is the sort of question asked by a nervous first-time attendee.
‘For a small auction it is very slick,’ says Duncan. Buyers do not have to wait until the end of the auction to collect their purchases. If you are setting up house or want to dispose of items, Swale Auctions is the place.
Text: Amicia. Photographs: William Ford