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State auctioning off lost treasures

Tue., May 17, 2011

Unclaimed gold among safe deposit box items

OLYMPIA – Nearly 3,000 items that someone locked away for safekeeping and either forgot about, or forgot to tell anyone else about, will be auctioned off this week for the state Department of Revenue.

From gold coins and jewelry to baseball cards and arrowheads, the items were found in safe deposit boxes whose owners have either died or moved, and the bank couldn’t track down. The banks turned the contents over to the department, which spent more time trying to find the owners before placing the items in the latest lost treasures auction Wednesday and Thursday.

The catalog for the auction reads a bit like the lineup for an upcoming episode of “Antiques Roadshow”: An autographed Michael Jordan baseball. An 1846 U.S. Navy powder flask. A carved ivory cribbage board. A Dick Tracy pocketknife. A First-Day Issue envelope and stamp for the 1946 “Operation Crossroads” atomic bomb test on the Bikini Atoll.

“Anything that fits in a box that people think is important,” Patti Wilson, the department’s unclaimed property operations manager, said Monday.

Under state law, banks turn over the contents of unclaimed boxes to the state after five years of unpaid rent and attempts to contact the owners are unsuccessful. The state also tries to contact the owners for at least a year, but must auction items off after five years.

Sometimes it gets lucky, department spokesman Mike Gowrylow said. State workers recently tracked down the owner of some Picasso sketches that had been turned over by a bank. The owner was in Europe and apparently didn’t realize the rent wasn’t being paid.

The department auctions items every three to four years, “when enough builds up,” Gowrylow said.

James G. Murphy Auction Co. will hold a two-day auction in Kenmore, Wash., starting Wednesday. Monday and Tuesday were set aside for public viewing at the auction house’s suburban Seattle location.

The lots are in plastic bags, so potential bidders can examine them, Wilson said. “There’s some serious people here … some brought scales to weigh the gold and silver.”

Buyers who can’t make it in person can view each item on the company’s website and bid.

The deposit boxes can hold curious things, Wilson said. One had a half-eaten sandwich, another an opened bottle of Pepto-Bismol and a used spoon. They weren’t auctioned.

The most unusual item this year was probably a set of casket keys. “I can’t say I’ve ever seen one of those,” Wilson said. State workers didn’t know what they were, but the auctioneers did.

Gold and silver coins often are found in the boxes and this year’s auction probably has about the same amount as previous auctions, but with soaring metals prices, they may bring record bids. “We don’t play the market,” Wilson said. “But obviously we’re going to get pretty good prices.”

The auction house has experts on some items, like the coins and currency, but it can’t verify the authenticity of everything. The auction is “as is, all sales final.”

There are many pieces of jewelry, some with potentially high monetary value and some that probably had higher sentimental value, she said.

After giving the auction house a 10 percent commission, the state deposits the auction proceeds in the general fund, but keeps the records of the items and the sale. If an owner surfaces and submits a valid claim after the auction, they’ll receive the monetary value their lost item fetched in the auction. The sentimental value is out of the department’s hands.

If no claim is filed, the state keeps the money it receives.

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