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Need a six-sided harmonica? Try the unclaimed property auction

A six-sided "paddle wheel" harmonica is among an array of the state's unclaimed valuables that will be auctioned off during the Illinois State Fair. A sampling of the items was displayed Thursday at the Thompson Center. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

It might be a lock of hair, a baby’s tooth, a saucy love letter — perhaps a pocket watch or a handful of gold coins recovered from a shipwreck.

But then the aging owner’s mind corrodes, she dies — and those most-cherished items are forgotten forever within the darkness of a bank’s safe deposit box.

Not quite. Eventually, most end up in the basement of the Illinois capitol building, behind a 16-ton steel door that must be opened by two people — each of whom knows one-half of the secret combination.

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On Aug. 19, some of the state’s unclaimed valuables will be auctioned off during the Illinois State Fair.

“We try very hard to get this property back into the hands of the original owners,” said Illinois State Treasurer Michael Frerichs, standing in the Thompson Center, in front of an array of auction items. “Unfortunately, after about 10 years, if we’re unable to locate the owners, we start running out of physical space in our vaults.”

The treasurer’s office holds onto the proceeds from the auctions, keeping the money “forever,” in case the rightful owner should come forward.

Forgotten cash and stocks are also held in the state’s vault. Frerich’s office once returned $1 million to an individual.

“Their parents had sold a company to Walgreens decades ago, put the stock in a safety deposit box and did not tell their children about it,” Frerichs said. “I tell people that this job sometimes feels like playing Santa Claus. This is money people have lost. In many cases, they weren’t aware it was owed to them, and when you can reunite it to them, it is a great feeling.”

Teeth don’t go on the chopping block. Ditto for locks of hair. Neither do naughty letters.

Neal Hovasse, vault manager for the Illinois state treasurer’s office, displays some of the state’s unclaimed valuables that will be auctioned off during the Illinois State Fair. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

“The ones that stand out are a little bit vulgar and inappropriate,” said Neal Hovasse, the vault manager, leaving it at that.

There’s a little bit for everyone in this year’s auction: A 1983 Ryne Sandberg baseball card, Spanish coins from a 1622 shipwreck. Perhaps the most unusual item: A six-sided “paddle wheel” harmonica; and assorted necklaces, bracelets and earrings — among many other items. The total value of all items up for auction is estimated at $113,500.

The auction is set for noon, Aug. 19, at the Illinois State Fairgrounds, 801 E. Sangamon Ave., Springfield.

Gold coins from the 1622 shipwreck of the Atocha, recovered in 1985, each of which comes with a certificate of authenticity, are among an array of the state’s unclaimed valuables that will be auctioned off during the Illinois State Fair. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times