Ritual lost as police auctions move online

Balto. Co. among departments that have stopped live sales

April 13, 2006|By NICK SHIELDS | NICK SHIELDS,SUN REPORTER

For more than a decade, jeweler Marc Schauder was a regular at the Baltimore County police auctions of stolen goods and other unclaimed items. He would join the crowd outside the police headquarters on Joppa Road and look for a bargain.

He still remembers his biggest coup. He bought a 6-carat diamond for about $7,000 - and, he says, sold it a week later for more than twice as much.

"It was something people looked forward to every year," Schauder said.

But the annual police auction in Baltimore County has gone online. The department is among the hundreds of police and sheriff agencies across the country, including six in Maryland, that are disposing of evidence that is no longer needed by auctioning it over the Internet, on PropertyRoom.com.

The county Police Department likes the arrangement because it's profitable and gets rid of the items without all the work that goes into staging an auction. But what's lost is the ritual of parents coming to the department to buy bikes for their children, do-it-yourselfers looking for bargains on power tools and businessmen, like Schauder.

The auction had been going on for more than 20 years. And for people like Schauder, seeing it online makes it tougher to find a deal.

"I just can't see bidding many hundreds or many thousands of dollars on something that I can't physically see," he said. "I just refuse to do it online."

The county Police Department has followed the path of about 630 police and sheriff departments nationally and sells hundreds of items each year over the Internet. It's the same stuff the agency used to auction off itself: tools, televisions, comic books and other items, much of them stolen and later recovered but never claimed.

The department made its first shipment, with about 570 items, in August 2004. Since then, it has shipped about 1,500 items from the police headquarters to PropertyRoom.com.

For years, county police held an auction in September at police headquarters in Towson. The auction drew hundreds of collectors and bargain hunters.

"People would come out of the woodwork," said Irv Sass of the Baltimore Auction Company, who served as an auctioneer for the event from the late 1980s until the department halted the auction in 2004.

Roxane Casto juggled the roles of cashier, clerk and bidder for about five years before the auction ended.

"I am very disappointed that it's not there anymore," she said. "Believe me, it was not your typical auction."

She said about 30 people have approached her since the Police Department held its last auction. Many were wondering when the next one will be held.

"People like to see it up close and personal," she said. "It's good for the county. I just think it brings the people together."

But each year the county police found its evidence room filling up more quickly. And the amount of time needed to prepare for the auction grew.

"There were power tools in various stages of decay," said Bill Toohey, a Baltimore County police spokesman. "There would be hundreds, maybe thousands, of pieces that had to be out there, from television sets to old, rusty handsaws. Just the physical act of putting the auction together was quite a challenge."

"We would store everything for a year," said Lt. Frank Rongione Jr., who works in the department's evidence management unit. "A year's worth took up a lot of space."

On a recent morning, Rongione stood near a dimly lit gated cage containing 70 bicycles and a motocross bike. A tag on the motocross bike said it was seized in March 2004 after a burglary. Rongione said most of the bikes would be sold on PropertyRoom.com when their cases are closed.

"Property rooms are not meant as huge storage facilities," said Tom Lane, chairman and founder of PropertyRoom.com. He said the Web site, which began staging auctions in 2001, sends a truck to police departments and collects the unclaimed items, and prepares each one for sale.

Company officials estimate that more than 3,000 items are sold on a typical day.

Barry Neeb, a spokesman for the Ocean City Police Department, said his department has used PropertyRoom.com for about three years.

"It's certainly easy to use," he said. "Previously, we just held auctions for the items, which was also fairly easy. But it did take time to get ready for an auction and monitor it."

Not all departments in Maryland send their items to be sold online. Kim Natcher, property manager for the Anne Arundel County Police Department, said her department has a contract with Sass' auction company. She said she receives two or three calls a week asking when the agency's public auctions will be held.

Still, Natcher said the online concept is worth considering.

"I think it would be nice to have a change," she said. "That way you wouldn't have a waiting period, and a lot of times there are things the auctioneer would prefer not to take."

Rongione said PropertyRoom.com requires that the company receive 50 percent of the profit for items sold for less than $1,000 and 25 percent of the profit for items sold for more than $1,000. He said the annual auctions at police headquarters raised about $20,000 to $30,000.

Rongione said that last year about $16,600 was raised from the Web-based auction. He said that money raised goes to the county's general fund and that any profits lost are offset by gains in time, storage space and convenience.

"It's a little less, but it's in the ballpark," Rongione said of the revenue from last year. "It all depends on what you have and what gets released. Maybe this was a bad year."

nicholas.shields@baltsun.com

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