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Volume 15, Issue 23 ~ June 7 - June 13, 2007

Going, Going, Gone …

Lynn Hall displays some of the unclaimed safe deposit box contents to be auctioned on eBay.

State uses eBay to rid its vaults of unclaimed property

by Bethany Rodgers

Imagine a yard sale where the whole world is invited. A Berliner is looking through your childhood coin collection, while a Tokyo citizen is buying a necklace you forgot you had. Your ruby earrings just sold for a tidy sum.

Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot’s eBay page lined with pictures of gleaming collectibles for auction is not so different from a global yardsale.

But your ruby earrings are safe … unless you’ve stopped paying the rent on your bank safe deposit box. The items on the eBay account Mdcompfranchot are the contents of abandoned boxes. The state used to liquidate all such unclaimed property in live auctions, until last July, when then-comptroller William Donald Schaefer turned instead to eBay, where anyone — anywhere — can click and scroll through Marylanders’ forgotten treasures.

In 11 months, the state has sold 640-plus items, adding more than $100,000 to the General Fund.

About your ruby earrings: Too bad they’re gone. But you can reclaim the selling price by proving your claim.

And you’ll get a better price.

eBay’s hot bidding brings premium prices, according to Lynn Hall, manager of the Unclaimed Property Unit of the Comptroller’s Office. “At the live auctions, there were only 150 to 170 buyers at the most, but on eBay, the items are potentially exposed to billions of people,” Hall says.

Maryland’s record so far is $12,000 for a diamond brooch.

Eclectic Treasures

A treasure chest — overflowing with fake doubloons and gold goblets — dominates the entrance of the Unclaimed Property Unit of the Maryland Comptroller’s Office.

Next door, the gold is real.

Before my eyes, Hall slices open sealed bags from abandoned safe deposit boxes, making piles of jewelry, coins and baseball cards. One is full of pocket watches. Another contains war medals. From a bundle of rough cloth, Hall pulls a set of dusty sconces and a couple candlesticks. Each bag reflects the personality of someone, somewhere.

The savings habits of some of those personalities are inexplicable. Hall recalls a deposit box overflowing with lottery receipts; another safeguarded a crocheted toilet paper holder. One held only a single clean diaper, remembers Irv Sass, auctioneer for the Baltimore Auction Company. In another, he found 20 gold and diamond rings.

Live vs. Virtual

During the 1990s, Sass auctioned safe deposit contents for the Maryland Comptroller. “It was like a treasure hunt,” he says. “It wasn’t just like going through an attic. There was excitement.”

Live auctions could have been high bidding as well as exciting, had the state been willing to pay the price, Sass says. Auction houses were paid flat rates instead of commission, so the houses had little incentive to advertise the auctions. Without advertising, fewer bidders came.

Then came eBay.

At live auctions, bidders can see and size up the competition. On eBay auctions, competition is shadowy and detached with buyers identified by number or screen name. Over the course of six days, buyers with aliases such as rudyboy2 and mrjackieo have driven up the price of a gold and sapphire bangle bracelet to $100. They have until June 7 — two days and 23 hours from this writing — before one takes home the bracelet. Or, more precisely, has it shipped.

On eBay, Sass says, the “treasure hunt” spirit is lost. “Live auctions were warm and fuzzy-feeling, but now, it’s kind of cold,” he says.

What Were They Thinking?

Wherever it ends up, this bangle is already well-traveled. The journey property takes from the safe deposit box to the virtual auction block begins when the owner stops paying rent on the box. If the bank can’t find the owner after three years, state law requires that the box’s contents be turned over to the comptroller.

The state must then seek the missing owners by searching their income tax returns to find current addresses and by publishing their names in a biannual Unclaimed Property newspaper insert. Sellable items still unclaimed are then offered up to Internet buyers, while valueless property — including the diaper and the pile of lottery tickets — is stowed away in the state’s vault.

Who would sock away a diaper or toilet paper holder? Then again, who would rent a safe deposit box only to forget about it?

The most common reason, Hall says, is death. A box renter dies, leaving heirs in the dark. Somebody, however, held the key to the box found with the ashes of its owner.

“There’s a story with every box,” Hall says. “You wonder, What were they thinking when they decided to store that?”

Hall’s favorite item is a violin — and case — each less than a foot long. If employees of the comptroller were allowed to bid, she says she would buy it herself.

As she combs through the bags of unclaimed items, Hall comes across a record collection and reads the names of musicians, like Frank Sinatra and Benny Goodman, off the faded labels. When two names are unfamiliar, she Googles them. “This record must be from the 1920s or ’30s,” she concludes.

Lost stuff has a funny way of involving people.

After our tour, Hall reseals the artifacts. It’s all going back to the vault now, away from sight. In a week or two, though, when the items end up on eBay, thousands of people from all over the world will be involved in imagining the story of the tiny violin.

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