Abandoned safe deposit boxes bring curious to auctions

  • Article by: BENJAMIN MUELLER , New York Times
  • Updated: September 2, 2014 - 4:15 PM

FILE -- Safe deposit boxes in the vault of a skyscraper, where the last tenant was Bank of America, Providence, R.I., Aug. 21, 2013.The 26-story Industrial Trust Building, Providence's tallest, an Art Deco skyscraper that has defined the Providence cityscape since 1928, has been vacant for months. (Gretchen Ertl/The New York Times) ORG XMIT: XNYT153

Photo: Gretchen Ertl • New York Times,

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Amid the gold pocket watches and glittering brooches, pearl necklaces and turquoise rings, there was the bland quarry of Lot 2039: a palm-size rock, a yellowing notebook, a knife decorated with neon tape, a smudged silver bowl and another rock bound by leather string to the end of a bone, creating a sort of primitive club.

The odd assortment appeared out of place in the gilded auction hall of Doyle New York, but it shared a common origin with the piles of jewelry and rare coin collections auctioned recently: Each represented an unclaimed safe deposit box.

The auction drew veteran collectors and profit-seeking dealers, who punched potential bids into calculators and raised their green placards in pursuit of good buys. But the mystique of rummaging through a life’s abandoned contents was not lost on even the most hardened bidders.

The fact that the boxes, from Bank of America or Deutsche Bank, had been unlocked and emptied into plastic bags did not diminish the charm.

“It’s like a treasure hunt,” said Soeilan Friedel, 65, a sometime jewelry collector who came in memory of her husband, a gemologist who once discovered a Russian garnet from the Romanov era in a safe-deposit box. “You never know what you’ll get.”

Tales were invented to explain the lineage of objects that had arrived shrouded in mystery. Lot 2039 attracted special attention.

Those who came seeking elucidation left empty-handed. The safe deposit boxes had been drilled open after lying forgotten for years. Banks are required to send warning notices to negligent renters after one year of overdue fees, and then must wait two more years before the property may be sold. (Personal papers have to be saved for at least 10 years.)

Everything that has value — from baseball cards to samples of baby hair to Tiffany silver — is then put up for sale. The recent auction, which included 121 lots from safe deposit boxes, fetched $249,456, double what Doyle had expected.

But in recent years, the glamour that once surrounded such sales has diminished, as has the use of safe deposit boxes.

As a result, auctions that used to uncover extravagant Tiffany brooches worth thousands of dollars now largely showcase coin and jewelry collections whose average asking price is in the hundreds of dollars. Doyle’s director of marketing says it has not received an “exciting discovery” from a safe-deposit box since the early 1990s.

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