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Mission unsellable? US embassies are auctioning surplus toilet paper, broken vacuum cleaners and stained furniture

US diplomatic missions in London, Lisbon and beyond have a dreary array of excess property for sale

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 July, 2018, 2:54pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 July, 2018, 10:14pm

Think of it as your chance to own a piece of history.

The US embassy in London – recently relocated from a Grade II-listed modernist building, site of a Vietnam war demonstration, visited by generations of US presidents – is holding an online auction of “surplus property” and you only have until Wednesday next week to bid for rare finds such as a pallet of toilet rolls, some broken vacuum cleaners and a scuffed coffee table.

It is a curious jumble of items: desk lamps, a Volvo S80, boring bookcases, a circular saw, 22 plastic stacking chairs, five broken Dyson vacuum cleaners and a defective photocopier. Price: £1 (US$1.31); condition: scrap.

Most useful, perhaps, is the pallet of 1,200 toilet rolls, which, at the time of writing, had no bids from its £100 starting price.

These aren’t even the strangest things being sold by US diplomatic missions. There are auctions happening, or about to happen, in other countries with a similar carboot-sale feel.

The US embassy in Yerevan, Armenia, has several rugs “with stains”, office chairs (also “with stains”) and a broken fridge among its 45 lots.

The embassy in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, offers several household appliances and a load of printer-ink cartridges, as well as computers and mobile phones “with cracks and scratches”.

The auction in Ankara, Turkey, has helpfully split its lots into furniture collections, with a curated set comprising beige armchair, office chair, lamp and end table. Tirana, Albania, wants to offload some generators; Lisbon’s auction seem mostly to include office furniture, but without pictures – so there is no detail as to what a “thermocummer” (price: €10, or US$12) is.

Stockholm’s catalogue is grander, with a lot of dark wood ornate furniture, chandeliers – and a step machine. Three of Belgrade’s five lots are all unused 2.5 metre ladders.

Why don’t diplomats simply donate their unlikely and unloved collections to a local charity shop? The US Foreign Affairs Manual states that if property based abroad is not returned to the US, it “may be sold if in the best interest of the US government”, with proceeds going to the treasury. Every cent counts.