For sale: old riot helmets and shoddy gas masks. 

Seller: New York City.

An auction running through Aug. 25 on the municipal sales site Public Surplus features 30 riot helmets, 11 white and 19 black, described as “worn and old — Great for movie props or collectors.”

Opening bid? Five bucks for the entire lot.

“Items have broken straps, missing pieces and [are missing] various parts for protection,” the sale description by the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS) notes. “These items are old, broken and beyond repair and of no monetary value.”

An earlier auction, which expired on July 31, featured one lot of 13 gas masks “deemed inoperable, broken with missing pieces” for an opening bid of $5. It was unclear what a reputable buyer might do with such items, let alone a disreputable one. 

Since no one bid on the masks, they ended up being destroyed, according to DCAS.

In a year rocked by racial-justice protests and the coronavirus pandemic, the sale of such items raises a few questions: Why would anyone consider buying such merchandise? Why would the city sell it?

‘Grossly Insensitive’

Jeffrey Fagan, a law professor at Columbia Law School, epidemiology professor at the Mailman School of Public Health, and the director of the university’s Center for Crime, Community and Law, called the auctions “at a minimum, grossly insensitive.”

“The optics are just terrible,” Fagan told THE CITY. “The police have just committed terrible acts of violence against protesters. You use this equipment to beat the hell out of people and then ask people to buy it? This just fails the smell test.”

As for the inoperable gas masks, Fagan added, “Who’s going to buy a broken gas mask in the middle of a pandemic?”

Financially, the auctions made no sense, either, Fagan noted. 

“Maybe an old, retired NYPD officer remembers using that particular riot helmet,” Klisiewicz said. “It all depends on how it’s marketed.”

“They’re not going to make a lot of money, so why bother?” he asked. “Everyone understands the city is facing a huge budget shortfall, but this is small potatoes.”

Nick Benson, a spokesperson for DCAS, said the city doesn’t ask buyers to explain why they are interested in auctioned items. 

“By law, the city sells surplus items that it no longer needs,” Benson said. “When a city agency doesn’t have use for an item, it is first offered to other agencies. If it goes unclaimed, it is typically made available for sale to the public.

“Anecdotally,” he added, “sometimes items are purchased to be used, sometimes they are repurposed in some way, and sometimes they may be kept as collector’s items or because they have some special significance to the buyer.”

A Cold Example

As an example, Benson cited a DCAS sale of abandoned newspaper dispensers collected by the city Department of Transportation. 

 “A local public relations firm purchased them for the novelty and to use them as decor pieces,” Benson said. “There was once an artist who claimed old parking meters and painted them to use them in an art installation.”  

But old newspaper dispensers and parking meters aren’t likely to be potentially used in a life-or-death situation. 

Among its current auctions, DCAS is also hawking two refrigerators and a freezer “used to store biohazardous materials” that were discarded by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, the agency that performs autopsies and investigates deaths. Opening bid: $15 for the lot.

A refrigerator used to “store biohazardous material” was put up for sale on a public surplus site by DCAS. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The condition of all items is always clearly marked, Benson stressed, and they “are sold ‘as is’.”

The city’s Public Surplus auctions often include the disclaimer, “All materials are of no use to this agency. In addition, there is no alternative use or transfer potential to another agency of the City of New York for this property. The property has no resale value or revenue generating potential for the CIty of New York.”

No Bids So Far

As of Aug. 18, no one had bid on the helmets. If the items do eventually sell, the successful bidder is responsible for pick-up from the premises of the agency unloading the goods in 10 business days. The gas mask auction was removed after it expired. 

In the case of both the helmets and gas masks, the agency of origin is the Department of Correction, according to DCAS. The pickup location is a storehouse at Rikers Island. 

Correction referred all questions about the sale items to DCAS, which in turn referred particular questions about the masks and helmets back to Correction. Public Surplus, the auction company, also referred all questions about items posted on their site to the seller. 

“Corrections is a law-enforcement agency, so it’s not surprising that they have these items,” said a source in that department. “Who knows why someone would buy them.”

‘Way Stranger Things’

R.J. Klisiewicz, operations manager for Buffalo-based Auctions International, which bills itself as the largest online government-auction provider in the state, was not surprised by any of New York City’s recent sales.

“It may seem odd, but I’ve seen way stranger things that have sold,” Klisiewicz said. “We once sold a pallet of unused adult diapers. Also old surgical equipment. Basically, a bunch of crazy stuff.”

Online auctions account for at least 80% of government surplus sales in New York State — and that number is growing, Klisiewicz said. Interest among bargain-hunting buyers is also up amid the economic downturn, he noted. 

Most public auctions are conducted by an assortment of public and private companies, Klisiewicz noted., for instance, which is operated by the federal General Services Administration, will transition to on Sept. 30. 

Property Room hawks confiscated items in police custody. A hodgepodge of other private websites, such as Auctions International, GovDeals and US Gov Bid, team with local municipalities or agencies to unload surplus property.

‘Maybe an old, retired NYPD officer remembers using that particular riot helmet. It all depends on how it’s marketed.’

As long as the items being sold are clearly marked “as is, where is,” a legal term used to disclaim liability for an item being sold in its current condition, Klisiewicz sees no problem.

Klisiewicz suggested the helmets or gas masks might have nostalgic value for someone in law enforcement. 

“Maybe an old, retired NYPD officer remembers using that particular riot helmet,” Klisiewicz said. “It all depends on how it’s marketed.”

Jill Smith, a spokesperson for Auctions International, added, “Believe it or not, stuff sells. What’s the saying? 

“One person’s junk is another person’s treasure. Maybe they’ll want to use it for Halloween.”