Ton and Allen are rock stars of the storage unit auction subculture. It’s crazy. Amateur treasure hunters fawn over this dynamic duo of abandoned storage unit buying and appraising of people’s discarded items. Grown men ask Allen for flashlights tips; Ton ends up signing an autograph on a woman’s breast. The TV twosome has that classic chemistry of a mismatched buddy pair.
“Two heads are better than one,” says Allen Haff—the clean-cut, fast-talking half of the auction-hunting dream team. Along with his 6’3″, 370 lbs, laid back, heavily tattooed counterpart, Ton Jones, these self-proclaimed nerds’ common bonding factor: the love of bidding on abandoned storage units and making a hefty profit on Ebay.
If you’re not familiar with the Spike TV’s Auction Hunters—learn to love it. The show follows the exploits of Ton and Allen as they prowl storage unit auctions across the country—taking a spin of the wheel by bidding on the unknown boxed contents; hoping it will harvest such lucrative treasure as Abe Lincoln’s stove top hat or a hidden crate of gold left behind by an eccentric millionaire—who fell behind in his storage locker payments. Think of Auction Hunters as Treasures in the Attic meets Pawn Stars with a little Price is Right thrills thrown in for good measure.
Outside of Extra Space Storage, on the outskirts of Vegas, a crowd of a few dozen treasure-seekers have now gathered for the 11am auction. Numerous auction hunters sport beards; almost all have flashlights; several look like Ton doppelgangers.
“I can tell you who has money in their pocket,” Allen says while eyeing the competition. “The silent ones are the ones to look out for.”
Like those “goddamn Rodriguez brothers” from the movie Repo Man, I ask, “Do you guys have arch-rivals on the circuit?”
“Yes,” Allen replies without hesitation. “They live in the San Fernando Valley and never bring less than 15 grand to an auction. They’ll spend five grand just to put us out of business. (Pause) When the cameras are not around—that’s when it gets good.”
“Everyone is afraid of you guys,” says a girthy man with a poised flashlight as the beloved TV pair holds court amongst the other auctioneers. “Have you guys done Vegas before? You know how shitty this stuff is—look at the area: This isn’t Henderson.”
“People leave Vegas for many reasons—it’s a migrant culture. If they are paying $250 a month for a storage unit, after a few months they realize that their $300 in stuff isn’t worth the price—that’s why they walk away. At some point it’s all crap.”
According to the pair, strippers and gay men have the best stuff: “They have immaculate taste. I love hunting tools, military memorabilia, and off-road stuff,” Ton says.
“I love money,” Allen interjects. “I love the mystery; all the signs say there’s money in that trunk; it’s opening up those crates!”
On one occasion the Auction Hunters cracked open a box filled with trash bags mixed with old cans of food. They cracked open the bag and hoards of money fell out. “I got tired of seeing dollar bills,” Allen laughs.
The Holy Grail auction-hunting was obtained by a man who, inside a storage locker, found Beatles lyrics handwritten by John Lennon—which sold for $2 million a piece. “1 out of 10 storage units are great—double and triple your money stuff,” Allen says. “Know what you’re buying or else you’re playing poker blind—know the value of stuff. Don’t spend more than you can afford to lose.” He adds, ““We think we’re the best in the business. We lick our chops on garbage just to throw the kids off.”
What to look for:
- Brand new boxes from a storage facility
- Professional packing—especially with one strip of tape over the top of the box
- Guitar cases and musical equipment
- Belongings packed in Budweiser boxes
- George Foreman Grills
- Ikea furniture: it shows a disposable lifestyle
- Cockroach smells
- Those ugly bags you buy at the dollar store
The white-bearded auctioneer positions himself at the gates of the storage unit. “Good luck. Good hunting. Open ‘r up,” he tells the anxious group.
“It’s going to be a bloodbath,” Allen says. “I’m ready. I want to do some damage.”
The crowd is steered inside the storage unit building. Passing row after row of identically locked orange door storage units, each auction hunter gets roughly a minute to shine their flashlight inside the storage unit to determine whether the contents are worth bidding on. The faster they move away—the lower the quality of the items inside.
Allen notes out a large man getting an aerial view: “That guy brought his own stool.”
“That’s impressive,” Ton says.
Maneuvering with the pair to the front of the line, the storage unit’s contents looks like something from a deranged episode of Hoarders. Allen points out the notable red flags with his flashlight: “A Louis Vuiton box with papers inside—that’s always a bad sign. Three chairs, not four: you can’t sell them as a set. Dollar store spices inside a bag. Stuff packed in beer boxes. Rite Aid bags.”
The wheels in Allen’s head rotate a quick calculation. “That’s a washer and dryer. The Rockstar Energy Drink cooler shows the owner was a collector.
“My grandma used to have the same model,” Ton says, regarding the refrigerator.
“It’s a `70’s room.”
Hurling out an early bid to throw everyone off, this unit of crap sells for $1,400
“That’s $300 too much,” Allen reasons for not taking it. “The value wasn’t there—he bought junk.”
The other storage units are plain weird—one simply contains a hot water heater and nothing else. It looks like today is going to be a blowout. That is until we come to unit # 556. TV’s Auction Hunters confer; all eyes are on them.
“We might have something to talk about here.”
“Are we going to do it?” whispers Ton
“Let’s do it and get it out of our system.” Allen replies.
Inside the storage unit lays two TVs, a Christmas tree, a baby stroller, stained chairs, and lots and lots of boxes. Allen’s enticed by the four Rubbermaid containers: “Most likely they are filled with children’s toys but part of the game is the ‘what if” factor.”
Time to spin the wheel. He throws out a bid, then with exaggeration he moves to the back of the group and immediately puts on his mirrored sunglasses—his signature TV move.
“We’ve seen that Allen!” heckles the crowd. “Good try Allen.”
But the ploy works: the mysterious pile of crap is theirs for $300.
“This is how we gamble,” says Allen about their purchase. “Instead of giving it to the casinos we buy storage units.”
Now the fun starts. The adrenaline is pumping. Allen and Ton start opening up boxes to see what treasure they got.
“Are you feeling it?” Allen says as he pries a crate open. Like kids on Christmas the Auction Hunters start sifting through the stuff; old photo albums taken from happier times, a high school diploma, a medical bathroom box, crutches, a baby stroller. Hopefully one of these boxes contains Abe Lincoln’s hat and handwritten Beatles lyrics! Jackpot: the owner was a collector. A crate is filled with Obama memorabilia: an Obama basketball, Obama plates, every Time magazine with Obama on the cover, an Obama/Biden voter’s registration door tag.
“If Obama gets reelected this will be worth something,” gleams Allen; happy he’s made back his investment.
For Ton it’s different story: “Dude Jackpot!” he exclaims. “Fireworks! Score!
“That’s the little kid in him.”
“That’s my weakness.”
“Will you sign my boob?” a large woman asks Ton as we make our way towards the parking lot. Ton pulls out a marker and goes to town. Aaah, there’s nothing like auction hunting groupies.
“I want to see you blow up shit,” a man carrying a safe says when he’s finished.
As we load up the truck Allen reflects on the Auction Hunter credo: “We’d rather lose $300 then say ‘what if’.”