White bankers boxes line the racks of metal shelves in the basement of the old Golden Rule building in downtown St. Paul.
The state’s “vault” for unclaimed property houses just a fraction of the $606 million in unclaimed property the state is safeguarding. The room is reserved for the contents of abandoned safe-deposit boxes. After five years of missed rent on the boxes, banks are required to drill out the locks and turn over whatever is inside to the state Department of Commerce.
Most of the tens of millions of dollars of unclaimed property transferred to the state each year is less tangible stuff, such as money from inactive bank accounts or forgotten amounts that businesses owe each other.
The boxes hold precious items left behind through life’s twists and turns: old pocket watches and rings, forgotten stock certificates, abstracts, wills, coin collections and diaries. Erotic prison letters are not uncommon, said Ben Stoebner, a Commerce employee who works with unclaimed property.
There are hair cuttings, fingernail clippings and a “surprising” amount of silverware, Stoebner said.
Stoebner shows off an oversized dollar bill from 1923 that hasn’t been appraised yet, safe in a zip-close bag.
A manila envelope he untapes contains a collection of colorful matchbox cars still in their packaging.
The vault isn’t as packed as it was. In last year’s public auction, the first in a decade, it sold off scores of coin collections, jewelry, pistols and other valuables generating just under $700,000. Auction records show that 1.3 pounds of used dental gold, caps and crowns sold for $10,500. A copy of the Anarchist Cookbook, the how-to for making explosives and drugs first published in 1971, fetched $100.
An attention-getting baseball signed by Babe Ruth turned out to be a fake.
When the next auction will be held isn’t clear. State law requires the public sale at least once every 10 years. Commerce is considering holding it more often.