For sale to the highest bidder: a baseball signed by Babe Ruth. An autographed Joe DiMaggio picture. Gold and vintage jewelry. Old coins and stamps. Paintings by 20th-century modernist artist Jenny de Bloot.

On Wednesday evening, people milled about the ballroom at the Sheraton Minneapolis West at a preview of the Minnesota Department of Commerce’s Unclaimed Safe-Deposit Box Auction, searching for part of someone else’s history that might pique their interest.

Coin collector Reed Keeney traveled from Seattle for the once-a-decade event. “They wait 10 years, so there’s a lot of material,” Keeney said. “You’d be hard-pressed not to find something you liked, with the sheer volume.”

The preview was also available online, where people from around the world began their bidding.

The auction, which begins at 8:30 a.m. Thursday and Friday at the hotel, will feature the contents of an estimated 5,000 unclaimed safe-deposit boxes. Other items up for bid include autographed baseball cards of Sandy Koufax, a Tiffany cigarette lighter, 52 big-league chewing-gum wrappers from the 1930s and historical Minnesota bank notes.

“There are a lot of valuable things,” said Mike Rothman, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Commerce.

Mike Schultz, head auctioneer with Schultz Auctioneers, said nothing has been appraised. “The buyers establish value,” he said.

Keeney attended the 2003 auction and brought home various vintage coins. This year, he has his eye on a lot with 50 Barber Half Dollars, rare coins designed by Charles Barber in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.“It’s real special to be able to look at really nice-quality coins, and there are a number of lots like that,” Keeney said.

The 2003 auction brought in $258,000. Money from items sold stay in the original owners’ accounts, ready to be claimed.

One in 20 Minnesotans has more than $100 in the state’s Unclaimed Property Fund, officials say.

Generally, if the lease or rental period on a safe-deposit box has been expired due to nonpayment for three to five years, it is considered abandoned. The financial institution then must open the box, inventory the items and send certain items to the state’s Unclaimed Property Program.

The state makes every effort to locate the property’s rightful owner, said Julia Miller, spokeswoman for the state Department of Commerce. All tangible property is listed online at

To date, the state’s Unclaimed Property Unit has returned 31 percent of unclaimed property to its rightful owners. This year’s auction follows a record year of reuniting almost 21,000 Minnesotans with their unclaimed property.

Even for those who aren’t interested in attending such an auction, its existence can serve as a reminder for people to discuss their finances and personal wishes with family members.

“People pass away without telling their family members that they had a safe box with their valuable things in it,” Rothman said. “They may not have family, or it might be that [if] it’s abandoned after five years, people might have forgotten about it. Who knows how it happens?”

Oftentimes, the contents of safe-deposit boxes have sentimental value. “It’s important that Minnesotans discuss with their loved ones where and how they can be accessed,” Miller said in an e-mail.

Lydia Coutré • 612-673-4654