Bidders hope for treasure in auction's odds and ends

Banks' offerings range from a sole cigar to jewels

August 18, 2002|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Looking for a way to beat the heat and boredom of a torrid August afternoon, Karen Severson landed at what she called a "really cool" auction at the Columbia Hilton yesterday.

Minutes into the state comptroller's sale of the contents of 200 unclaimed safe-deposit boxes, the Mayo resident owned an 1899 dollar bill and several Liberty head nickels.

"I don't collect anything, but I had $20 to spend, and I thought this would be fun," Severson said. "I am hoping they get to the jewelry before too long."

Banks across Maryland clear out safe-deposit boxes that have been abandoned for four years or longer -- next year, it will be three years -- and notify the state comptroller's office.

The state tries to locate the owners, but with limited storage space of its own, it periodically turns to auctioneers. More than 1,400 pieces went on the block yesterday and were selling at a rate of 200 per hour to several hundred bidders.

The state holds the proceeds in a general fund should any owner or survivor wish to make a claim. The sales total yesterday was $29,000 -- out of a total value of $33,000 -- with the most expensive item being an 18-karat gold men's pocket watch that sold for $1,750.

"This is entertainment for most of us," said Joe Pometto of Crofton, who checked out jewelry with a magnifying glass. "It is not stressful. You just settle down, mind your P's and Q's, and watch for what you want to bid on."

Bidders vied for coins, silver flatware, gems, gold watches and assorted oddities, including high-button baby shoes, a sterling silver purse and an ivory tooth. Many arrived hours before the auction to comb through plastic bags with letters, empty boxes, old letters, photographs, canceled checks and yellowing baseball cards. There were deeds, divorce decrees, insurance policies, wills, but no identifying documents, such as birth certificates or Social Security cards.

"If you find a deed, it is just paper and does not mean a thing," said Lynn E. Hall, manager of the state's unclaimed-property unit.

One lot held batteries, watch parts and a small tin of aspirin. Another had a frayed cardboard box with a single, sad-looking cigar -- both left over from a previous auction and unlikely to attract any bidders, no matter how low the auctioneer started.

"It will probably go back into storage," Hall said, adding the state is persistent in its efforts. "We can't destroy this stuff."

Jim Finnegan, owner of Capital Auctions, ran the sale yesterday. Capital Auctions conducted the state's last such sale in November 2000, when proceeds reached $21,527.

Elliott Kindred, director of unclaimed property for Washington, came to make a few comparisons. "We had an auction two weeks ago and sold everything for about $130,000," he said. "Of course, we had a lot of diamonds and gold."

While searching for silverware in her pattern, Barbara Law of Clarksville came across a heavy, brass door hinge, wondering why it ended up in a safe-deposit box. She also found a single white sock, devoid of money.

"I love to poke around in other people's junk," said Law. "This is what happens to all the collectibles people buy. They put them away and forget about them."

The most serious bidding centers on the coins, said Hall. Avid collectors studied lots sorted by year and denomination before deciding which to target. Bob Argauer of Kensington, among the most spirited bidders, frequently landed the Roosevelt dimes, Liberty walkers (50-cent pieces) and silver dollars he was after. But he grumbled, "I am paying market prices."

Nearly two hours into the sale, Greg Parma, a collector from Alexandria, Va., had still not bid. After referring to his encyclopedia of U.S. coins, he had selected a few lots. "I found a few with rare coins," he said. "But, whether I get them depends on who is here and how sharp they are."

The auction nearly two years ago included a 1 1/2 -carat diamond ring that went for $1,800. Carol Sullivan of Severn was there, bidding on that ring. At her husband's urging, she passed when the price hit $1,200.

"I didn't bring him back this time," she said, adding that she planned to stay in the fray for a small ruby ring. "Men just don't understand a good buy."

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