Remember the stories about your Aunt Ava and Uncle Fred who lived in Missouri and lost their fortune when the banks failed in the Great Depression?
For 50 years, the government has been storing 1,605 cardboard cartons containing family records and keepsakes left unclaimed in bank vaults around the country following the wave of bank failures in the early 1930s. They may not have belonged to your aunt and uncle, but they were someone's property, and after some assistance from Congress, the government wants to dispose of them.
The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency said yesterday it was ready to release the material and announced procedures for filing claims.
The boxes have been in the custody of the office of the comptroller, the agency that performed the Simon Legree chores in the Depression, declaring national banks insolvent and handling the liquidation. Receivers, usually local attorneys, carried out the liquidation and usually were so busy that they may have had trouble finding the rightful owners of safe deposit boxes, trunks and lockers stored in bank vaults, explained Lee Cross of the comptroller's office.
Sometimes, because of the turmoil of those times, no owners materialized; then the contents were transferred to Washington, to a vault in the Treasury basement where they remained, apparently untouched and largely forgotten, until 1977. When Treasury decided to use the vault area for a computer center, the items were uprooted. (They now are stored at the office of the comptroller in L'Enfant Plaza.)
An inventory then revealed one important reason why the boxes have languished all these years--there wasn't much of value in them.
"The property is mostly financial and personal papers--letters, notes, bills of sale, copies of mortgages and deeds, contracts, insurance policies, and so forth," said C. T. Conover, comptroller of the currency. "There are also some bonds and stock certificates." But like the pre-crash stock certificates that have been passed down in some families for their curiosity value, most of those in the Treasury basement aren't worth much, said Cross.
But the lode does testify to the quirkiness of some Americans of those days, who squirreled away a bizarre assortment of objects, some of it now coveted by the Smithsonian's American History Museum..
"Most of it doesn't have much value, except possibly some sentimental attraction. But we haven't appraised it, so we can't be sure," said Dean DeBuck of the comptroller's office. Adoption papers and discharge records from the armed services could have importance, he said.
The comptroller's office yesterday released a list of names of 22,475 last-known owners of the material left in the national banks and several District banks that failed prior to 1933. (Beginning in 1934, the newly created Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation took charge of bank liquidations.) Copies of the list and of the procedures to be followed in claiming the material are available from the comptroller of the currency's Claims Processing Unit, Washington, D.C. 20219.