Miscellany — From the May 2014 issue

Found Money

Televised auctions and the Great Recession

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Every day, all across the country, people travel near and far to assess exteriors — of homes and luggage and corrugated-iron cubes — and fantasize about what might be, but probably isn’t, inside. Then they bid at auction so that maybe, just maybe, they’ll get more than their money’s worth. There are television shows that purport to document this suspense — of the cautious turned lucky and the confident crushed. Sorry characters compete against one another for the privilege of owning abandoned property they know nothing about: houses with nonexistent plumbing, suitcases more likely to contain spilled toiletries than precious jewels, storage units stuffed with junk.

Storage Wars (A&E), Auction Hunters (Spike), Baggage Battles (Travel Channel), and Property Wars (Discovery Channel), all of which have premiered in the past four years, use the competition of the auction as a plot device for exaggerating their characters’ eccentricities and activating the audience’s schadenfreude. Dubious windfalls keep things from becoming monotonous. Bags forgotten at airports turn out to hold not just cotton sportswear and travel-size bottles of facial cleanser but also pocket watches and rare coins. We learn that vintage electroshock-therapy machines and nineteenth-century replicas of Czechoslovakian mechanical toy banks are “worth a lot.” Dinky fixer-uppers are fitted with Sub-Zero refrigerators. McMansions, still stinking of new vinyl siding, can be pristine — Italian marble, Jacuzzis, stainless-steel appliances — but at least as often they are empty: plastic shells abandoned in the desert.

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