Every year there is an auction of items lost on Sydney trains and not reclaimed. These are the objects that have languished in the lost property office too long, the mobile phones, earrings, skateboards, cameras and violins that no one came in search of.
At Pickles Auctions in Milperra people follow the signs to the Sydney Train auction as, overhead, light planes quiver their way towards the Bankstown Airport next door. The caryards that surround Pickles go almost up to the edge of the airport. In the furthest lot is a section of burnt-out and damaged vehicles that I can’t imagine anyone buying. Auction houses can be a revelation in how anything can be useful or desireable.
A steady procession of people follow the path to the auction room, where rows of white plastic chairs have been lined up in preparation for tomorrow’s auction. Around the perimeter of the room are the lost objects, a pallet of prams shrinkwrapped in plastic, skateboards neatly divided into lots of five. One of the boards is decorated with stickers peeled from train carriages: “keep clear of moving doors” and “please vacate this seat for elderly or less mobile passengers”. Karma, perhaps, for it to end up here, beside the box of yoga mats and arrangement of fishing rods.
“How can you leave something like that on a train?” people say, staring at the guitars and sets of skis. There’s a cluster around the mobile phone cabinet, where lots of 5 iPhones have been bundled together with rubber bands. There are thousands of mobile phones, all displayed in a glass case. People peer into eagerly at the rows of dead, black screens.
As long as there have been trains people have been leaving things behind on them. In the 1940s 500 pairs of women’s gloves made their way to the lost property office every month. This description of lost items from the railways in 1909 is still accurate: “Apparel of all kinds, from hats to socks and boots may be seen there; watches and chains, and more or less valuable trinkets of every description; whole forests of walking-sticks, umbrellas and parasols innumerable… bags and purses, tools of trade and domestic utensils…”
In these earliest reports of lost property there is a familiar disbelief as to the number and range of objects left behind. In 1909 the Evening News reflected “no one would think, for example, that so bulky an article as a shovel could be conveniently mislaid by its owner”. In 2010, the Sydney Morning Herald reported a similar sense of bewilderment about a fibreglass boat in the lost property that year. The bemused auction manager that year had no explanation, only that it was “more the sort of thing you would row out to” than leave on a train.
Next to the endless iPhones in the cabinet are two stacks of vinyl records, one pile topped with Nana Mouskouri’s 20 Solid Gold Hits, the other with the soundtrack to On Golden Pond. Closer inspection of the LP spines reveals Tchikovsky, Val Doonigan, Transvision Vamp, and the artist that every op shop has in abundance, Phil Collins. The records are behind glass but the CDs and DVDs are stacked in boxes in the musical instruments section. Poking out from a box of DVDs is the film “The Great Escape”, a fitting title for a lost item.
Seal top bags full of earrings and watches fill another glass cabinet, along with cameras, which a man is inspecting one by one. Some of the people viewing are seriously buyers, others merely curious, wanting a look at what people leave behind. A tall guy in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles t-shirt takes notes on a ring-bound notepad as he examines the prints and paintings, which fill six tables. Landscapes, lacquered puzzles, a framed poster from the 1980s warning against the perils of improper film classification. It is hard to imagine how anyone could leave such items on a train, unless perhaps they were deliberately getting rid of them.
In the book section, on top of one of the pallets of assorted books, is a book with a bookcrossing sticker. While incarceration in the lost property office is probably not what the person who set free “Daughter of the Crocodile” by Duncan Sprott intended, it does provide something that is lacking from the other items in the auction, a bit of backstory. Looking it up on the Bookcrossing site reveals it had been last found on the Sea Princess cruise ship.
Out of all the objects, it’s the unusual ones that attract the most attention and speculation as to how they came to be here. Not claiming a phone or a Nana Mouskouri record seems like a reasonable thing that might happen. Leaving your chainsaw or your melodion behind forever seems a little more unlikely, and how come so many hundreds of bikes are abandoned? People walk from table to table, wondering and discussing. The musical instruments can perhaps be explained by kids leaving them behind so they won’t have to go to lessons anymore, although some, like the 1865 Franz Diener violin left on a Countrylink train and auctioned in 2011 (selling for $11600), will remain forever a mystery.
Tomorrow morning the room will fill with bidders and by the end of the day buyers will be found for these boxes of sunglasses and bags of silver jewellery, the boxes of hats (from it a man picks up a top hat and holds it for a moment, a questioning look on his face). The skateboards will find riders and the clarinets, flutes, harmonicas and ukeleles will sound out notes again. Someone will buy the “pallet of assorted umbrellas” and never need feel a raindrop again.