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Public gathers for Missouri's unclaimed property auction

Metal toothpick, fanny pack among items unclaimed in safe-deposit boxes
Monday, September 20, 2010 | 12:51 p.m. CDT; updated 5:12 p.m. CDT, Monday, September 20, 2010
Jeff Cochran of Johnston Auctions displays a baseball autographed by Pete Rose during the Missouri Unclaimed Property Auction at the Stoney Creek Inn on Monday.

COLUMBIA — Joanne Sazama knew what she was looking for.

She passed an appraising eye over the glass-topped display cases and pointed at different items, denoting their value as she went.

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"You have to know your prices," Sazama said, pointing to stamps and entertainment booklets. "And I could flash through these — 10, 15 minutes tops."

Sazama was just one of many collectors who gathered for Missouri's unclaimed property auction preview Sunday night at Columbia's Stoney Creek Inn. A little more than 100 people came to the auction Monday morning to bid on the 923 sets of unclaimed property.

The first lot Sazama examined Sunday night was Lot 50: The "Gone With the Wind" theater booklet. The booklet was worth 25 cents in 1939. Now, more than 60 years later, the booklet showed a fair amount of handling, with brittle pages, water-stained edges and torn corners. Even the original inserts and the well-preserved, colored pictures could not impress Sazama. She flipped through the pages once, then put it back in its plastic bag.

"I don't waste my time," she said, then quickly went about her business.

Sazama is a philatelist. She collects stamps and sells them to other collectors. Her experience has taught her what sells and what doesn't.

"There's always a chance you'll find a jewel among all the thorns," she said as she carefully fished a tiny stamp from the bottom of the lot bag. She glanced at it then dropped it back. "Nope, that's ordinary."

True to her word, she breezed through the collection in under 10 minutes and promptly left the preview. 

The first lot for sale Monday morning was the "Gone With the Wind" theater booklet, which sold for $15.

Unclaimed property consists of money or other valuable items that have been left in abandoned accounts or safe-deposit boxes with no documented activity for at least five years. The property is then turned over to the state, and the office of the state treasurer tries to find the owners. The state is required by statute to have an auction for unclaimed items. The last auction was held four years ago.

The proceeds from the auctions are kept in vaults and bank accounts under the name of the original owners of the valuables, State Treasurer Clint Zweifel said.

"State law recognizes that over time we will collect too many physical items to be safely stored. So it requires us to auction items from Unclaimed Property, and we ensure all proceeds are held in trust forever," Zweifel said in a news release before the auction.

This auction was the first in which military medals or honors were not sold. Zweifel worked to develop and pass the Veterans Medals Bill this past year, which put a stop to selling any military medal or honor.

The state treasury now has a specific process to deal with military medals: It tries to find remaining family members to take the medals. If it can't, it gives the medals to veterans museums. The process of returning the medals takes a great deal of time, but Zweifel said it's important to "give proper honor and respect to military veterans and heroes."

Zweifel said his favorite items are the baseball cards.

"Well, you know, I'm a big baseball fan, and there is a baseball card that's signed by Mickey Mantle that I'm pretty interested in," he said. "But obviously I won't be bidding today."

Among the typical collectors' items were a few more unorthodox ones, including one fanny pack, three Hot Wheels cars with one Matchbox car, a November 1985 edition of Sports Illustrated magazine and a metal toothpick in a plastic holder.

"Oh, it will sell," Zweifel said about the stranger items. "My team's experience with these auctions is pretty deep, and they understand what it takes to get these items out the door."

The auction company, James L. Johnston Auction & Real Estate of Madison, did know what it was doing. The auctioneer's hypnotic chants rang through the spacious salon of Stoney Creek Inn, rushing through more than 100 lots per hour. The fanny pack sold for $1. Rob Smith bought the metal toothpick for $7.50.

"I've always wanted one," Smith said with a laugh. "I've got a problem with things getting stuck in my teeth."

Caitlin Wherley contributed to this story.


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