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Unclaimed treasure at Washington state auction may be Picasso’s sketchpad

Sketches the state of Washington will auction off Nov. 20 may be drawn by Picasso. The auction house handling the sale has no idea what the sketchbook is worth. (Courtesy of James G. Murphy Comp)
Sketches the state of Washington will auction off Nov. 20 may be drawn by Picasso. The auction house handling the sale has no idea what the sketchbook is worth. (Courtesy of James G. Murphy Comp)

OLYMPIA – For the right bid, you could own a Picasso later this month. Actually, you could own 27.

Then again, maybe they won’t be Picassos. But that’s a chance some bidders might be willing to take at the state’s “lost treasures” auction in Kenmore, Washington, on Nov. 19 and 20.

Every few years the state Revenue Department auctions off items found in safe deposit boxes that have not been claimed by owners for more than five years after the box renters stopped paying their fees. Like most such auctions, this year’s will have a wide variety of coins, jewelry and watches squirreled away and forgotten in the locked boxes. There are some gold teeth, a few baseball cards, comic books and a ticket for the 1948 rematch between Joe Louis and Jersey Joe Wolcott at Yankee Stadium.

But the star of this year’s auction at the James G. Murphy Co. in Kenmore will likely be a sketchbook with 27 drawings dated in March 1912 thought to be the work of Pablo Picasso. They’ll be up for bid on the second day.

“It’s definitely unique,” Ray Gombiski, advertising coordinator for the auction company, said.

The sketchbook has Picasso’s name on it, as do some of the sketches, and they appear to be in line with what he was sketching in that period, Gombiski said. “They were meticulously stored, with a sheet of paper between each page.”

But the auction house has not had the six months to a year it could take to authenticate them, he said. The Revenue Department was told the process might cost as much as $10,000, which would come out of its budget if the sketches weren’t Picassos.

“It’s just one of those balancing acts we have to do. We decided let’s let the market determine the value,” department spokeswoman Kim Schmanke said.

The auction house will schedule appointments for prospective bidders or their art experts to view the sketches, Gombiski said. When it comes time to bid, however, the sketchbook, like everything else at the auction, is caveat emptor, and all sales are final.

The state auctions off the items that have been turned over to the Revenue Department after sitting unclaimed in safe deposit boxes for at least five years. The department typically spends another three years trying to track down the owner or a legal heir, Schmanke said.

The department maintains a website where people can check for any unclaimed items the state is holding in their name. State law doesn’t allow it to reveal the person who rented the box with the sketchbook, but Schmanke said at one point the department located someone who claimed to be the legal owner. When it came time to present proof, however, that person didn’t show up and the state hasn’t been able to reconnect.

So the notebook, like thousands of other items, will be auctioned off and the amount received for each box’s contents will be held by the state until the owner or legal heir shows up to claim it. The department has more than $1 billion in unclaimed funds.

Gombiski said the auction house has no idea what the sketchbook is worth. The Museum of Modern Art in New York wouldn’t guess. Neither would Christie’s Auction house, which only offers estimates on items it is auctioning, a spokeswoman said.

A sketchbook by the artist stolen from the Picasso Museum in Paris in 2009 was valued at $11 million. It had 33 sketches – and they were definitely Picassos.

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