BANGKOK • Thai Customs officials sold off hundreds of seized luxury vehicles yesterday, including dozens of supercars - although many lots were removed at the last minute after it emerged they were stolen from abroad.
Thailand's role in the global grand-theft car trade has received fresh attention in recent weeks after British police said dozens of stolen supercars had been whisked to the South-east Asian kingdom.
Police in Bangkok have since launched a crackdown, seizing dozens of illegally imported vehicles, including at least seven stolen from Britain, and arresting a handful of car dealers.
The country places a more-than- 300 per cent tax on top-end vehicles - a surcharge that investigators say fuels a lucrative black market aided by corrupt buyers, dealers and government officials.
Thailand's Customs Department holds an annual auction for vehicles seized in criminal cases.
Yesterday, buyers raised bids for a variety of gleaming sports cars, including Ferraris, Aston Martins, Lamborghinis, luxurious Rolls- Royces and Bentleys.
Most were confiscated because they were illegally smuggled, or because owners had tried to avoid paying the full import tax, while others had been seized from drug gangs and other criminals.
But 95 cars were pulled from the auction sheet in the weeks running up to the bid, after checks showed they were stolen from overseas and did not belong to the Thai state.
Deputy Customs Department spokesman Kreecha Kirdsriphan insisted the oversight was an innocent mistake.
"When we discovered that those cars were stolen in those countries, we moved them out from the auction list," he told AFP.
Most of the stolen vehicles came from Britain, Malaysia, Singapore and Japan, all countries that drive on the left-hand side of the road like Thailand.
Among the vehicles removed was a McLaren 650s supercar with a starting price in the auction of 30 million baht (S$1.2 million).
British police contacted Thai officials to say it had been stolen, Mr Kreecha said.
Even without those vehicles, the Customs Department was hoping to make some US$14.6 million (S$20.2 million) from around 300 cars which went under the hammer in yesterday's auction.
The Customs Department would then be able to use the funds in its own budget.
The most expensive car on the list yesterday was a bright red Ferrari California with a 20.6 million baht starting price, but that proved too expensive for bidders who made no offer above the reserve price.
The vehicle has a base price of around US$235,000 in the United States.