REPORT

Inside a London bankruptcy auction

By Lewis G. Parker

On Sunday 26 January, WLC bankruptcy and liquidation auctions rolled into the Hilton hotel in Brentford, offering 448 items from 18 bust companies in six hours of mad flogging fun. Facebook adverts for the Manchester firm’s auction promised Rolex watches, iPads and crates of French wine, all offered without reserve.

When I arrive at 12.30, half an hour before the auction’s start, it was already standing-room only in the Hilton London Syon Park’s conference suite. Rolex watches are mounted in glass cases, next to the kind of artwork one often sees in commercial galleries that invariably don’t stay open for long.

Auction man

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When the WLC staff appear onstage, they certainly look like the real deal – if, by real deal, one means job applicants to a payday loans company.

They wear white shirts and blue ties. The ringleader, Wayne Cooper, looks as though he has previous experience with bailiffs. His face is Liverpool FC red, and he runs the show with a kind of old-working-men’s-club humour. Cooper is a natural mountebank, but his humour is sharpest when he’s being rude, vulgar or politically incorrect, which is frequently.

One of the first items under the hammer is a Kashan Persian rug. “You’ll need two strong men, or four of my team to lift it into your house,” quips Cooper. The three stooges stage-left address Cooper as “Sir,” and draw the warm cheer of the audience as they appear to be scurrying around to make sure all the clobber appears in the right order.

When two of the three flunkies lift the rug to show the audience, they are completely submerged beneath it – a visual gag that will be repeated throughout the afternoon.

“One for the perverts”

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One of WLC’s assistants is a pretty young blonde woman who trips over a cord at the front of the stage while checking the price of a Tiffany-style lamp. “You’re a natural blonde, aren’t you, Lindsay?” hoots Cooper. Male members of the audience laugh. Next up, it’s a telescope: “One for the perverts!”

While many of the people I questioned came here for a bargain, the onstage drollery is certainly better than a lot of light entertainment in hotel resorts, and about on a par with some children’s TV shows – like a post-watershed Chuckle Brothers, although there are children in attendance.

“It’s a good craic, isn’t it?” says carpenter Gary Howard, sipping a coffee after narrowly losing a bid for a Rolex watch. “They’re good lads. Whatever they make, they’re worth it.”

Thirty minutes in, with crates of wine sold to punters by the multiple and some bottles just given away, the crowd fizzes when the snooker-ball-faced auctioneer, who has come to resemble one of those fellows who sells perfume through a loud-speaker on the high-street, announces the next item, four iPhones. “We’ve had 38 iPhones in total,” says Cooper. “We sell three or four in each auction. We’re coming to the end. I’m sick of selling iPhones.”

Wearing my Rolex

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The bidding for the iPhones becomes so frenzied that, as it reaches £240, Cooper steps in to warn the hoard that they’re approaching the retail price, but the bids continue anyway, because an auctioneer is legally obliged to accept bids.

The MC-with-a-hammer delivers more bawdy banter

“The most sought-after watch in the world!” is how Wayne describes the Rolex Daytona with original diamonds going under the hammer. With a retail price of £9,250, it sells for £5,950, which is just above my new friend Gary’s budget. I saw him take his bid all the way to £5,850, before somebody went that extra hundred pounds to win the bid.

When I ask Gary why he didn’t go the extra hundred quid to get what he came for, he says, “The limit’s the limit for me. People come here and get carried away by the atmosphere, but you have to stick to within your budget.”

As I’m speaking to Gary, the crowd erupts into laughter as Cooper’s two assistants announce, “Lot 69, Sir! A set of three Samurai swords,” and the MC-with-a-hammer delivers more bawdy banter.

“Imagine you’re asleep in bed. A knock goes at the door. You tiptoe downstairs, not sure who it could be. What would you sooner be holding – your ‘John Thomas’ or one of these?”

The Keyser Sose of auctions

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To Cooper’s credit as a showman, I stay longer than I’d planned, despite having no interest in any of the items on sale. But it’s perhaps not to my credit that, as a professional observer, I didn’t smell a rat until I got home from the circus and began to reflect on what I’d seen. Like the moment in The Usual Suspects when the detective suddenly snags that Kevin Spacey is the supervillain Keyser Sose, it dawned on me that I could have witnessed a masterful distraction.

Many of the lots at Cooper’s auctions were said to be either ‘bought’ by an audience plant, or turned out to be rubbish.

Looking into the auctioneer’s history doesn’t fill me with confidence. Wayne Cooper was one half of the infamous father-and-son auction duo who, with his father Alan Cooper at the helm, made their way around the UK for years under several names, from Nationwide Auctions to Cooper’s International Auctions.

People who went to Cooper and son’s theatrical events reported all the classic tricks of the trade, from the son’s banter – picked up when he joined his father’s auction business aged 15 – to using plants in the audience. Many of the lots at Cooper’s auctions were said to be either “bought” by an audience plant, or turned out to be rubbish.

When the BBC’s Rogue Traders showed the watches and other antiques on sale at Cooper’s auctions to experts, they were deemed to be knock-offs, and they were frequently reported to Trading Standards, even going so far as to bankrupt themselves, but the duo would always reappear in the function rooms of hotels under a new name.

Cooper’s auctions also held an event at a London hotel on Sunday, flogging many similar items as Wayne’s offshoot enterprise, so alarm bells were certainly ringing.

Reputational damage

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When I spoke to Wayne Cooper on the phone and in our email follow-ups, the auctioneer insisted that he had severed all ties with his father Alan’s companies.

“We have been battling cases of mistaken identity since first trading,” said the junior Cooper, whose new business is just over a year old.

“I was fully aware at the time of working for Cooper’s of the bad press and negative attention it attracted. So when the opportunity arose, I wanted to do things right and fair. We are slowly progressing through it with every auction as the client following grows with happy satisfied customers.”

The companies Cooper claims to have acquired his items from appear to have been genuine before going bankrupt. Unlike Wayne Cooper’s public image, which still somehow has plenty left in the bank.