Baggage Battles: How to fund your travel by bidding on unclaimed luggage

Travel Channel’s new dose of auction action is set to begin, and the show’s presenters and antiques experts Laurence and Sally Martin run us through the tricks of their trade

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More than £25 billion worth of property travels around the world every day. When it goes unclaimed it’s put up for public auction, and people like Laurence and Sally Martin are often there to snap up a bargain. The pair has travelled travel thousands of miles thorough America, Canada, Africa and Europe to pick up valuable items left in suitcases.

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“We don’t go to Las Vegas, because we don’t gamble,” explains Sally, “instead we gamble in our everyday lives at auctions.”

But don’t be fooled, the pair do have a pretty good idea what they’re doing. They have an antique shop in California, called Studio Antiques, “It’s a bit like Steptoe and Sons,” says Laurence, “we have been buying and selling for the past 26 years.”

Bags go up for sale approximately six months after they’ve been unclaimed, and at baggage auctions potential buyers are allowed to go to a preview day to inspect the goods, but there is one vital rule. Buyers are not allowed to open the cases, bags, packages or boxes. “It’s junk or jackpot, anybody could be carrying anything,” says Laurence, who believes that choosing the right bag to bid on comes down to instinct. 


Pick up antiques on holiday with Radio Times Travel, see here for more details 


“It’s really hard to tell,” he says, it’s better to stick with a nicer looking bag, you might like the make, the colours or the design,” he says. Whereas Sally likes to feel and smell her potential purchases. “Weigh it and smell it, explains Sally, “you want to see if there is anything funky going on in there. Also, try to decide whether the bag is coming or going. If you are returning from a journey you might have better contents than if you are just leaving. There may be gifts in there. But it can go both ways; if they are returning somewhere it could be full of dirty underwear. Then again, if it was our luggage returning, it could be full of antiques.” 

Another tip is to search every crevice of the bag, or you may miss something. “At one auction a man bought a bag, and inside was a book on how to grow marijuana,” remembers Laurence, “he was going to throw it in the bin, but he flicked through it and there was $500 dollars between the pages.” 

Laurence and Sally have made some profitable purchases recently. Laurence bid on a case in Boston, which had documents from John Adams proclaiming that after George Washington died there should be a national holiday. “We had an offer from a guy this week who offered £5000 for it, but I think it’s worth a lot more,” he says.

Meanwhile, Sally got her hands on a very valuable tin in London, at lost luggage hotspot Greasbys in Tooting. “A silver tin had a watch in it marked by Godard. With it was a pile of postcards and in that pile of photographs with the man who owned it in a portrait with his family, and he was wearing the watch. The photo was taken around 1883,” says Sally, “We did sell it, for about $1800, we bought it for £40.”

Anyone can go to baggage auctions around the world, which are listed online. For Laurence and Sally, it’s a great way to actually fund their travel; “Wherever we go we buy a couple of things that fund our trip, and our food and so on. Anyone can do it, and then sell it on Ebay,” says Laurence, “for us it’s like a disease, every new town we go to we have to go in the thrift shop.” 

Although the pair also loves dabbling in antiques and watching shows like the Antiques Roadshow, they get more of a kick from buying baggage, and think Baggage Battles is more exciting. “It’s the intrigue, the reveal; it’s a bit different from the Antiques Road Show, because you don’t know what you’re going to buy. In Baggage Battles you don’t know what you are going to find until you open the suitcase, and that’s really entertaining.”

Apart from the suspense factor, there’s a humorous element. Eccentric Laurence has a David Dickinson meets  Captain Jack Sparrow thing going on. In one episode Laurence and Sally find a case with a bunch of coconuts in it, and decide to do an off-the-cuff puppet show with them. “They were from Trinidad and Tobago or somewhere like that,” explains Laurence, “and as it turned out, they all looked like one of us [the presenters of Baggage Battles]… it was really funny and pretty bizarre.”

The amusing duo leaves us with some final important advice: “before you shut your case put a really big letter in there with your name and address on it”, urges Laurence. “If the one on the outside comes off you’ve got the one inside. Although staff will try really hard to find the owners of cases, they have to get rid of them or there would be thousands and thousands of suitcases around the world and people would be tripping over them,” he chuckles.

Watch Baggage Battles 7pm, September 1, on Travel Channel – freeview 42, freesat 150, Sky 249, Virgin 288


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Pick up antiques on holiday with Radio Times Travel, see here for more details