Do I Hear $500 for the White Ford SUV Parts?

Shopping at a police auction.

How much is that car in the auction?

In the age of eBay, auctions are thriving online. Indeed, for many of us, the word auction now conjures mouse-clicking more than anything else—hitting “refresh” on the listing for a sweet 1984 World B. Free jersey or an original set of pogs. The old-fashioned, offline sort of bidding seems like an anachronistic rarity, useful only for such out-of-the-norm purchases as, say, Impressionist art or farm animals. As it turns out, state and local governments are still in the live-auction game, particularly to offload seized cars, or outdated police and maintenance vehicles. Recently, I spent a morning at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where the New York City Police Department holds its monthly public sale, and observed a still-flourishing tradition.

Government auctions of seized goods date back as least as far as the Romans, who sold off the spoils of war to the highest bidder. Once, Rome itself was put up for auction: Post-coup, the victorious Praetorian Guard transferred control of the empire to one grabby senator for the low, low price of just 25,000 sesterces per soldier. At the Brooklyn Navy Yard, there were no vast crumbling kingdoms, but there were vast, crumpled cars for the taking: A big boatlike Chevy with a smashed-up hood, a large white Ford SUV that wouldn’t start, and the sort of wide-hipped sedans you might see in a cemetery parking lot. I arrived a few minutes after the auction’s 9 a.m. kickoff and joined a crowd of perhaps 200, all looking to take a chance on a dirt-cheap car.

A police auto auction is not a place for the indecisive, the picky, the self-conscious, or, especially, the unprepared. (I am all of those things by nature. I did not leave with a car.) The city posts images of the vehicles online in advance, along with vehicle identification numbers, so you can do your due diligence and get a rough sense of pricing. But research will only help you so much: Many of these cars have been handled roughly, and the city leads its information packet with a warning that “no guarantees or warranties apply.” Buyers have 30 minutes before the sale to inspect the cars, but there’s no way of checking, for instance, whether a vehicle might pass an emissions test. (I overheard one man telling another about an auction he’d been to in Atlanta, slightly pricier, where you could test-drive the cars—his companion seemed disinclined to believe such a tale.)

Once the bidding started at its fast clip, there was no way to re-inspect the goods, though a few enterprising souls scrambled under caution tape to peer through dusty windows before officials halfheartedly swatted them away. The auctioneer drove a van, and with his head craned out the window like an overeager puppy, crisply disposed of each lot in approximately 30 seconds apiece. He used a megaphone, and seemed rather more interested in economy of time than in doing the city’s coffers a solid—herding bidders along with the meditative koan “The faster we move, the faster we proceed.” I didn’t witness any dramatic bidding wars, nor did I see more than a few hands raised for any one vehicle. If you’re victorious, you walk up to the passenger window of the barely rolling van and fill out some paperwork. There’s an initial small deposit, and then you’ve got 24 hours to come back with the rest of the cash and claim your prize.

A gambler’s gut and a Y chromosome seemed to be the only attributes the remarkably mixed crowd shared. I saw but a handful of women—a pair of friends in their early 20s dressed in killer boots and J-Lo-glam puffer coats who seemed as tentative as I felt, bobbing in and out of the fringes of the auction, poking desperately at the info packet. (They could have used the encouragement one white-curled gentleman in a leather jacket gave me when he misinterpreted my lurking and assiduous note-taking—”Don’t be shy! No big deal to raise your hand!”)

There were a few thrifty couples biding their time, waiting for the passenger cars in good condition. (You can supposedly get a markdown of as much as 40 percent over the retail price, and unlike on eBay’s auto auctions, shipping isn’t an issue.) One man trying to sell his Ugg-wearing, blond-highlighted wife on the auction experience worked harder than the auctioneer ever did. A woman flying solo had an argument on her cell phone post-purchase: “I don’t CARE; it was still a good price!” There was an older woman, alone, whom I mistook for an out-of-her-element librarian type, until she walked away and I saw the Teamster’s logo on the back of her jacket. A well-dressed middle-aged woman listened indulgently to a rough-around-the edges young man describe a boozy evening that didn’t end well. The pair were waiting for the Priuses, as was a thirtysomething woman with a large left-hand sparkler who, though it was her first auction, knew exactly how much she expected her car to set her back—she was hoping to spend $6,000 for a recent make.

But the customers were mostly men, and mostly men who seemed to know what they wanted from a car without preliminary Internet futzing-around, whether they were wearing dusty work boots or mysteriously well-cut overcoats. In many cases, they wanted car parts, not the car itself. A large number of the vehicles were up only “for salvage,” though they were often just as, or more, expensive than the working ones.

The experience reminded me of my high-school AP physics exam. At both events, a male-dominated group strove eagerly toward a well-defined goal, whether Caltech or a carburetor. And in both cases, I worried I could never wrap my mind around the bedrock calculus: It was $8,500 to salvage a 2010 Toyota sedan, for instance, while a 2007 Chevy sedan, ostensibly drivable, went for just $900. An apparently well-preserved 1986 Ford station wagon was $1,400. A car with no dashboard was $10,000. As in my physics days, these numbers seemed to surprise no one else.

Unlike the AP physics boys, however, the bidders at the police auction handled setbacks rather well. One group of business associates, covered in construction dirt and speaking the same Brooklynese as the auctioneer, took a tough loss in stride. One guy poked the designated bidder: “You f—-d it up,” he said, smiling. It wasn’t such a big deal, after all: A dinged-up red 2007 Ford Focus might be superior to a pristine-looking blue one, but both are cheap. There’s no such thing as true love at an auto auction.