Baring Their Assets: The Department of Treasury’s Division of Unclaimed Property

State Records archivists Paige Neal and Roger Christman (foreground) and personnel from the Virginia Department of Treasury examine boxes of unclaimed property, 2001. “Lost and Found,” the Library of Virginia’s new exhibition, explores how the loss and discovery of items affects personal and collective memory. The exhibition was inspired by the records “found” in bank safety deposit boxes by the Department of Treasury’s Division of Unclaimed Property. In Virginia, the Unclaimed Property Act (Code of Virginia, 55-210.1 to 55-210.30) establishes the Department of Treasury and its Unclaimed Property Division as the official custodian for property left in safety deposit boxes when no owner or heir appears to claim the assets.

By 2001, roughly 300 cubic feet of Department of the Treasury records sat unused in the stacks of the Library of Virginia. Changes in the retention and disposition schedule for this series of records have allowed State Records archivists at LVA to review their contents and make them available to the public for the first time. These records, managed by the Unclaimed Property Division, consist of personal papers culled from abandoned safe deposit boxes throughout the state. Previously, the collection was scheduled to be retained permanently, but was restricted and could be used only by Treasury employees.

Should attempts by Treasury employees to locate the owners or rightful heirs of the unclaimed property prove unsuccessful, the property in question legally reverts to the state. As the contents of abandoned safe deposit boxes arrive in the Unclaimed Property Division, each box is assigned a lot number. Items contained in the safe deposit boxes are reviewed by Treasury staff, who separate valuable items easily converted to cash, such as silver, jewelry, coins, and stamps. These are removed and sold at auction. Other property found may come from banks or various other financial institutions, courts, local governments, insurance companies, state agencies, utilities, corporations, or nonprofit organizations, and may consist of real estate, financial instruments, cash or personal papers, and property. Real estate is sold, accounts are liquidated, stocks and bonds are converted to cash, and valuable items are auctioned. The funds collected from such sales are deposited into the state’s Literary Fund, which was established in 1811 as a means for educating the state’s poor children. Presently, the fund finances public school construction throughout the Commonwealth.

What treasures remain in the safe deposit box are the personal papers collected, and these are the records that eventually make their way to the Library of Virginia for safekeeping. These remaining personal papers are bundled, arranged numerically by lot number, packed into boxes, and transferred to the State Records Center. The current retention schedule permits destruction of these records after twenty years – pending examination by archivists and removal of any documents deemed to be historically valuable.

In June 2001, State Records archivists reviewed the first 30 cubic feet of unclaimed personal property records that had reached the end of their retention period. Each lot was carefully examined and evaluated to identify papers with historical, legal, informational, or intrinsic value. During this examination, some items determined to be of low value were discarded, such as receipts and car insurance policies. Other items, while unremarkable, were kept for their potential informational value, such as deeds and life insurance policies. Also discovered were numerous documents containing vital statistic information, including birth, marriage, death, and divorce records. Other unexpected finds include military and naturalization records, family correspondence, patents, photographs, business records, and estate papers. Two of the most notable finds to date include Civil War letters (Bushrod W. Lynn papers, 1862-1911, Acc. 31473, Lots 106-108) and the 19th-century papers of the Robinson family (Robinson family papers, 1836-1886, Acc. 31473, Lot 255).

State Records archivists processed these papers and created catalog entries for each individual lot in order to provide increased access to each of these distinct collections. Several noteworthy groups of records and informative documents have already been discovered and made accessible to the public. Each year more boxes of unclaimed property will reach the end of their retention period and will need to be examined by State Records staff. Hopefully, many more treasures remain to be uncovered.

“Lost and Found” can be viewed in the Exhibition Gallery and West Lobby of the Library of Virginia from February 27 to August 25, 2012.

-Paige Neal, State Records Program Manager

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2 Comments

  1. Raptured From LVA said:
    29 February 2012 at 5:07 pm

    You guys have the greatest job ever! I think it would be so much fun to rummage through other people’s stuff and still be respecatable at the end of the day.

  2. Cheryl Cayemberg said:
    3 March 2012 at 12:17 pm

    Another great post, Roger! It’s wonderful work that the Library is doing and it is greatly appreciated!

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