Forgotten treasures for sale

Auction: Abandoned items from Maryland safe-deposit boxes are sold off by the state.

February 08, 2004|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Once upon a time, everything here was somebody's treasured possession: The bear-claw necklace. The wad of ancient Argentine bank notes. The Marilyn Monroe medallion. Even the cluster of keys to forgotten locks on the plastic Al's Tire Co. key tag.

Somebody cared enough to hide them away in a safe-deposit box. And somebody then died or moved away or grew too broke to pay the rent on the box. Their treasures ended up on the auction block yesterday in a Hunt Valley hotel, pawed over by strangers looking for a bargain at the Maryland comptroller's unclaimed property sale.

"Lot 18!" announced Russ Scherrer of Auctions International. "This is the one with the gold teeth!"

"Yeah, 11 gold teeth!" chimed in Ann von Forthuber, his fellow auctioneer, holding up a plastic bag containing an old set of rosary beads, a tarnished pocket knife, a Navy pin, three crucifixes - and the teeth.

"Thirty-five!" Scherrer called. "Thirty-five! Do I hear $35 for the teeth?"

Nothing. About 60 bidders sat motionless in their chairs.

"Thirty," Scherrer called. "Do I hear $30?"

Nothing.

"Twenty five! You're all snoozing here!" Scherrer cried, sounding a little desperate.

Finally, Jerry from Washington (no last name offered) waved his hand. Teeth, etc., sold to Jerry for $25.

And so it went at the state's sale of the contents of unclaimed safe-deposit boxes, under Title 17 of the commercial law section of the Maryland Code, Disposition of Abandoned Property.

Yesterday's auction covered the contents of 168 boxes considered abandoned, which meant the rental fee had not been paid for five years and no one had responded to notices from the state. The law was amended in 2002 to cut the grace period to three years.

By the end of five hours of bidding at the Marriott Hunt Valley Inn, the sale of coins, jewelry and miscellaneous stuff had grossed $24,163. Dozens of items not sold can be purchased until March 14 at www.auctionsinternational.com.

Maryland's safe-deposit auctions, which take place every year or two, account for a tiny portion of abandoned property collected by the state, which totaled an impressive $88 million in the last fiscal year, said Lynn E. Hall, manager of Maryland's unclaimed property unit. Most comes from unclaimed bank accounts, insurance policies and stock certificates, she said.

The proceeds from such sales remain forever the property of the original owners or their heirs, who may claim it by contacting the comptroller's office. Owners turned up to claim more than $16 million last year, she said.

If abandoned safe-deposit boxes produce a modest financial harvest, they are rich in human mystery.

"We've found petrified fruit. Once there was a diaper - a clean one, thank God. An umbilical cord," Hall said.

Only with prompting does she describe one abandoned box discovered five years ago that has become legendary in the comptroller's office. Evidently rented by a prostitute, it contained explicit photographs and audio tapes of the woman with clients, whose names and job titles were carefully recorded, Hall said.

"Had that box gotten in the wrong hands, it could have caused a lot of damage," she said. The photographs were shredded and the tapes destroyed, Hall said.

At yesterday's abandoned property sale, few people bid with abandon. Among the bidders was Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, who sat in the second--to-last row and tried unsuccessfully for Lot 16H, four Liberty Head silver dollars from 1921.

"It's my birth year, 1921," said Schaefer, who noted that he'd consulted the attorney general's office to make sure his bidding wouldn't create a conflict of interest. "I went to $20, but they went for $50."

Some bidders were professionals like Mary Lee Grymes of Kensington, who runs a wholesale jewelry business and two pawn shops.

"I'm getting all the good stuff," she said. She noted, however, that her husband, Richard, sat vigilantly at her side, prepared to grab her arm "when the auction dynamic kicks in" and she is tempted to bid too high.

The auction also drew plenty of amateurs, such as Uriah Robins, a 24-year-old systems engineer from Bowie, who had his eye on a gold wedding ring.

"I don't need one yet," he said. "But I do have a girlfriend. I may propose one of these days."

Only after he won the bidding - for $15 - did Robins examine his purchase and realize he'd mixed up the lot numbers. He'd bought a large men's ring.

"Oh, well," he said. "I can melt it down and make it into earrings."

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