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The Remains of Their Visiting Days

Cameras or Cash, Tourists' Lost Loot Finds Protective Guardians

By Manny Fernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 27, 2005; Page A08

After the last of the Good Friday worshipers filtered out between the limestone pillars of Washington National Cathedral, Capt. Vincent G. Scola walked slowly up the center aisle, peering under the rows of wooden-legged chairs for things left behind.

Over the years, the commander of the cathedral's police force and church staff have found family Bibles, sunglasses, money, a D.C. license plate and a cushioned cooler containing bottles of breast milk.

Capt. Vincent G. Scola, commander of Washington National Cathedral's police force, peruses some of the items left behind, including stocking caps. (Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

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On Friday, Scola discovered a yellow umbrella underneath a seat and a red-covered Book of Common Prayer on top of another chair, a portrait of St. Teresa of Avila taped to a page inside. Their owners were nowhere in sight, but an elderly woman paced up and down the aisle, looking for one brown leather glove.

"After Easter, I imagine, we'll get more stuff in," Scola said, shrugging.

Thousands of tourists from around the world will flock to Washington in coming days as the cherry blossoms herald the spring, a mere fraction of the roughly 17 million people who visit the capital each year. They will stroll down the Mall, check out museums and leave with a renewed sense of patriotism and an FBI baseball cap. Weeks and months will pass and they might forget Washington, but Washington remembers them, because Washington has their cell phones, their wallets, their designer shades.

Every day, hundreds of items are lost in the city. People leave behind purses, earrings, scarves, gloves, umbrellas, cameras, envelopes stuffed with money, birth certificates, strollers, backpacks, watches, books -- everything, it turns out, including a kitchen sink, which was found on a Metro train years ago.

Of the 50 to 100 items received daily at the Smithsonian Institution's central lost and found, which holds wayward belongings recovered at its museums and the National Zoo, the most common include jackets, cell phones and cameras. The most uncommon was a prosthetic leg.

Yet Washington residents and tourists are not alone in their knack for losing things. At Florida's Walt Disney World, someone lost a glass eye on Space Mountain. Urns containing human remains have been left at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. A couple of years ago, a Chicago taxi driver discovered a green sack left by a passenger from Austin. It was filled with 18-karat gold earrings and necklaces with sparkling walnut-size sapphires, aquamarines and rose quartz worth an estimated $230,000. (The taxi driver later found the owner's name and e-mail address in the bag, and the man and the jewelry were reunited.)

"To lose things is to be human," explained Michael Solomon, author of "How to Find Lost Objects." Solomon, who oversees an after-school program (and helps run the lost and found) at a Baltimore high school for the arts, developed 12 principles for finding misplaced items, including No. 2, "It's Not Lost -- You Are: There are no missing objects. Only unsystematic searchers."

It's advice that the person who left a pair of dentures at the National Gallery of Art could have used. At the Library of Congress, a security officer recalled the time an out-of-town family misplaced two envelopes with $800 in vacation money -- only to leave the cash behind a second time at the lost-and-found office.

This steady stream of stuff often stays behind in Washington as the owners vanish to the skies and highways. It is kept in lockers, drawers and boxes deep inside some of the city's most popular attractions, watched over by security guards and catalogued in thick logbooks.

Some of it is valuable, some of it is not, yet most of it still ends up under lock and key. A handful of the 2,300 items that have turned up at the International Spy Museum since it opened two years ago has been kept in a safe in Bree Hagan's office, including a large pocketknife with a pearl handle found last Sunday.

Hagan and other staff workers at the capital's museums and tourist sites say they pride themselves on handling lost objects responsibly. She has scrolled through the numbers in lost cell phones for clues, looking for listings for "Home," "Mom" or "Dad," and has wandered the building looking for strangers' wallets and scarves. "I put myself in their situation," said Hagan, the museum's senior guest services manager, who knows the feeling all too well, losing her car keys and a wallet at Starbucks on separate occasions.

There is a sense of mystery attached to all this material, as mysterious as a pair of dentures and a prosthetic leg can get. Susan Mittleman wonders what happened to the owner of the Lexus who left his or her keys at the National Building Museum. "We wonder, 'How are they getting into their cars?' " said Mittleman, who works at the museum's information desk.

Much of the lost stuff goes unclaimed. Only about 10 percent of what turns up at the Smithsonian's lost and found is reunited with the owners. Most attractions in Washington give people 30 to 90 days to claim lost property. After the deadline passes, little is put to waste. The vast majority of items are donated to local charities.

Last year, a Building Museum volunteer collected a few months' worth of forgotten hats, coats and clothes, washed them and donated them to the Salvation Army. "We could have just thrown everything away, but I don't believe in just throwing things away that could be reused," said Rose Marie Kirwin.

At the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which 500,000 people visit annually to watch money being made, tourists' unclaimed lost cash finds its way back to its creator, getting turned over to a fund operated by the bureau.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company