What’s in the vault?

Illustration By Octavio Diaz

Like those who have held the post before him, state Controller Steve Westly has used the unclaimed-property program of his office to generate media coverage by traveling the state handing out checks to lost-property owners. Last December, Westly publicized that his office had returned a rare Patek Philippe pocket watch worth more than $1 million to its rightful owner. On the same tour, the controller showed off other precious heirlooms, such as an 88-carat blue-star sapphire ring, a Victorian ruby-and-diamond crescent-moon brooch, and 100-ounce silver bars.

Since the state sells and then spends the proceeds of the vast majority of the unclaimed property it takes in, SN&R wanted to find out what happened to the 88-carat ring and other property. So on September 5, SN&R made a request under the California Public Records Act for, among other things, a list of the unclaimed property auctioned in 2005 and 2006 and the price each piece sold for. The government is required to respond to such requests within 10 days. That 10 days came and went. After some prodding by SN&R, the controller’s office implied the records would be provided by October 6. By press time, SN&R had yet to receive them.

In its 2003 audit of the Bureau of Unclaimed Property, the state auditor gave several examples of unclaimed property auctioned by the state. Louis XIV sterling-silver flatware was auctioned for $897.62, an uncirculated St. Gaudens $20 coin was sold for $503.26, and a gold-nugget tie tack and ring went for $290.48.