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A sale of lost treasures

TAMPA — Dozens of bidders, dressed casually in T-shirts, Bermuda shirts and polo shirts, spent thousands of dollars Saturday with the flick of a wrist.

In a cavernous conference room at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay, they raised numbered cards to place bids on jewelry, coins and other valuables that once sat unclaimed in safe-deposit boxes.

The bidding for each group of items was usually over in seconds, but certain valuables elicited a silent battle as bidders clung to the hope that they would walk away with the prize.

"Six thousand! Seven thousand! Eight thousand!" the auctioneer yelled as two men vied for four coins, including a 1907 $10 Indian head gold coin.

To the untrained eye, they looked like a handful of old coins from under a sofa cushion. But to the successful bidder, it included one of only 5,500 coins commissioned by Teddy Roosevelt after he returned from a trip to Europe.

The winner closed the deal with a bid of $12,000. The crowd applauded, and he smiled.

Florida's Department of Financial Services put on the auction, which brought in $926,000. A pair of earrings, each with a 3-carat diamond sold for $16,000.

The goods have sat unclaimed in safe-deposit boxes for years. Typically, they're left behind when the owners die and relatives don't know about the box, said Walter Graham, Florida's chief of unclaimed property.

Banks are required to turn the valuables over to the state, which tries to track down the owners, but after two years, they can be put up for auction.

The state receives about $300-million in unclaimed property each year, Graham said. Most of that is money, not tangible items, but it still has enough valuables to fill a walk-in vault.

"We'd like to give them back," he said.

They're able to track down about 50 percent of the owners in the first year, he said. More claims trickle in later, and relatives can even file claims after the items are auctioned. In that case, they receive the money earned in the sale.

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2443.

A sale of lost treasures 08/02/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 6, 2008 5:14pm]
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