I saw it as soon as I entered the lift in New York's Drake Hotel. Sitting in the corner of the elevator floor was a small pink fabric purse.

Inside were half a dozen rings, pendants and a pearl necklace.

As soon as I got to my room, I called the front desk and reported my discovery. Less than five minutes later a plain-clothes security officer was at my door. He brought along another officer, who was there to act as a witness while he inventoried the contents of the purse, recorded my name, the time and the date.

A week later the purse was claimed by a woman who had been a guest at the hotel. She was not only amazed that the purse had been found (she had dropped it in the elevator on her way to checking out), but was astounded that it had been returned.

The woman was lucky. Thousands of items are left in hotels each year by guests, and most are never recovered or returned.

In many cases, the guest didn't want the item, or, when he/she realized it was missing, assumed it was lost forever.

But that's not necessarily true.

Examine the contents of the lost-and-found department of an average hotel, and you will most likely find: jewelry, cameras, hair dryers, cologne, perfume, make-up, shaving supplies, nightgowns, pajamas, undergarments, credit cards, hats, shoes and books.

In l984, approximately 5,000 items were turned in to the lost-and-found department at the 500-room Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix. The booty included everything from six sets of false teeth, to diamond rings and a now-famous stuffed chicken.

At the Biltmore, a found item becomes the responsibility of security officer Diane Thill, the hotel's lost-and-found coordinator.

Whether it's a hair dryer or 50,000 worth of jewelry, a found property report is filled out. The item is tagged with the report and kept in a large box in Thill's office.

She then sends a letter to the last two guests who stayed in the room where the item was lost. If either responds, he or she must be able to identify the item.

Not everybody responds. Currently Thill is surrounded by overflowing boxes holding more than 200 lost items.

In some cases it might be difficult to make an exact identification of an item. In the case of the stuffed chicken -- not the kind delivered by room service, but the kind stuffed by a taxidermist -- that was recently left behind, the owner wasn't found after the mandatory six-month waiting period. (The chicken was given a new home.)

When it comes to lost-and-found items at hotels, Patrick Board has seen it all. Board has travelled the world managing Intercontinental hotels throughout Europe, the Middle East and the Persian Gulf states.

"People not only leave some pretty strange things in their hotel rooms," he says, "but the hotel staffs often have to go through some rather strange procedures themselves to try to identify who owns the items and then to get the stuff back to them. And that assumes that they want the items back."

When Board worked at Claridge's a few years' back, some of the lost unidentified property held dated back to World War I.

When he was in the Middle East, a bullet-proof vest turned up at the Intercontinental in Amman, Jordan (it was never claimed, but Board kept it handy, just in case), and a gun was discovered at the Intercontinental in Accra, Ghana.

After investigating, Board deduced that the gun had been mistakenly left by a security guard employed by an African airline to prevent hijackings. It was never claimed, Board says, because to do so would be to admit the flight had taken off unprotected. The gun stayed locked (and still does) in the manager's desk drawer.

At Board's current hotel, the Mayfair in London, if an item isn't claimed in six months, it is auctioned off to the staff or donated to charity.

"What amazes me," says Board, "is how many people leave entire suitcases filled with clothes and never claim them. We also get lots of cameras left. When we write the guests to tell them that we've found them, we often get no reply."

In the last three months the Mayfair's housekeeping staff discovered among dozens of pairs of undergarments, prescription drugs and eyeglasses, the following: a rubber sheet, a pair of pliers, casino chips and some video cassettes ( no, the staff has not yet played them, but rumors are rampant and curiosity is growing, Board reports). In one room, a maid found a large bag of oats.

But not every item left is a frivolous conversation piece. Recently, a maid found a black wallet containing 180 Swiss francs and 150 Saudi riyals. The Intercontinental tracked the guest to his next three foreign destinations through Intercontinental hotels in those countries and wired him his money.

"There is a consciousness among our maids," says Sally Bennett, director of public relations at the Fairmont in San Francisco. "They have been known to turn in any item of any value, whether it is a half-used package of cigarettes or a full-length mink coat."

The value of an item is not always obvious. One woman who left her hot-water bottle insisted on getting it back, claiming it had tremendous sentimental value. At the Plaza in New York, what appeared to be an old, tattered and frayed nightgown turned out to be a nightgown that a woman had also worn on her wedding night 50 years earlier at the same hotel.

Lost-and-found stories don't always have a happy ending, however, and not every member of a hotel staff is honest. As a general rule (which means, of course, it can be broken at any time), hotels in Asia have an excellent record of finding and returning lost items. In other parts of the world, the hotels' performance is less impressive.

Lately, a number of hotels in Rome have been receiving more than a comfortable number of complaints about lost items that have never been found. One hotel, part of a large American chain, is currently conducting a secret investigation of its own staff.

Sometimes hotel staffs are willing to go to extreme lengths in order to happily reunite owner and lost item. It is not always as easy as mailing the item back to the person who lost it.

Not long ago a female guest was taking a shower in her room at the Fairmont Hotel wearing a pair of elegant diamond earrings. After she checked out of the hotel, she realized she had lost one of her earrings. She told hotel staffers she was convinced that it had gone down the drain. The Fairmont swung into action.

Building engineers took the drain apart and looked in the drain -- no earring. They went down to the room below, drilled a hole in the ceiling and looked in the bend in the pipe -- still no earring. The woman was frantic. Then one of the engineers had a hunch. He asked if any new guests had used the room yet. They hadn't. He rushed back to the guest's room and found the earring on the inside of her shower cap.

You can't always remember everything you left in a hotel room. One recommendation: Do most of your packing the night before you check out. And, pay particular attention to the bathroom and the shower. The most common items left behind in hotel rooms are bathrobes left hanging on doors.

In a number of cases guests will lose things but will never admit that they lost them. "That's why we practice discretion," says Linda Adams, spokeswoman for Honolulu's upscale Halekulani Hotel. "When we find something in the room we contact the departing guest by sending him a vague letter." (The letter only says "we think you may have left something behind" and asks the guest to contact the hotel.)

Just a few days ago, maids at the Halekulani found a pair of black leopard-skin panties, a family-size bottle of pickles and a marriage certificate. The hotel won't discuss whether all of the items were found in the same room. But if you lost them, the hotel will gladly send them back to you -- no questions asked.