En español | Many people get a safe-deposit box at some point in their lives, and some forget about them entirely — and that could be a big mistake. If you haven't visited your safe-deposit box recently, perhaps you should.
The nation's 25 million safe-deposit boxes house whatever is valuable to the owner — which can be everything from gold bars to a baby's umbilical cord, says David McGuinn, president of Safe Deposit Specialists in Houston. If you haven't visited your safe-deposit box in a while — or if you inherit one — you may find some pleasant surprises. Here are a few potentially valuable things that you should check for:
1. Stock certificates
Very few companies still issue paper stock certificates. Most investors hold their shares electronically at brokerage houses. But you may have been issued stock certificates in the past and put them away in your safe-deposit box. Some could be quite valuable.
For example, the Walt Disney Co.'s stock certificates were printed with a picture of its founder, Walt Disney, surrounded by his most famous cartoon characters. Many people bought a few shares of the stock just for the certificate. Disney stopped issuing paper certificates in 2013. Shares bought at the end of 2012 for $52 would be worth $176 today.
Very old certificates require research — not only to see if the company still exists, but also if it was purchased by another company and still has some value. You can do some research via Google or Dun & Bradstreet to see if the company is still around but perhaps operating under a different name. You can also hire a research company, such as RM Smythe or OldStockResearch.com.
Even if the company has shuffled off to Palookaville, the certificate itself may have value as a collectible. For example, a 2000 certificate from collapsed energy company Enron (signed by then-chairman Kenneth Lay) currently sells for $250. A stock certificate issued by defunct search company Ask Jeeves sells for $80.
2. Savings bonds
If you've forgotten about your U.S. savings bonds, you can be forgiven. Series EE bonds were long a popular way to save — at least until interest rates fell to historically low levels more than a decade ago in the wake of the Great Recession. Current EE savings bonds yield just 0.10 percent. Nevertheless, the Treasury Department guarantees your savings bond will be worth at least twice the amount you paid for it after 20 years, which is an average annual return of about 3.5 percent.
If your bonds are more than 30 years old, they are no longer earning interest, so it makes sense to cash them in. Because interest rates were much higher 30 years ago, you may be surprised how much old savings bonds are worth. Most banks will redeem savings bonds, so you can just walk from the safe-deposit box to the teller and cash them in. The U.S. Treasury stopped issuing paper savings bonds in 2012.
You may want to hold on to I bonds, which are adjusted for inflation twice a year. The recent boost in inflation has goosed the yield on I bonds to 3.54 percent the next six months. If you want to find the value of any of your paper savings bonds, the Treasury has a handy calculator.
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Locating a lost safe-deposit box
If you have a safe deposit box, McGuinn recommends that you visit it every few months, to make sure the key still works and that everything you put in the box is still there — especially if the box has multiple owners. Safe deposit boxes aren't federally insured, as bank accounts are, and mix-ups with keys or box numbers are uncommon but not unknown.
If you have forgotten a safe deposit box, you may be able to find it, or at least get some of the value of its contents. States require that banks wait as many as seven years after it has stopped getting rental payments on a safe deposit box. After that, the contents typically go to the state's department of unclaimed property and, eventually, to the auction block. States then hold the proceeds until a claimant can be found. “No state is looking to hold on to this money,” says Mark Bracken, Assistant Treasurer and Director of Massachusetts’ Unclaimed Property.
A good place to start looking for a lost safe deposit box is at the bank where you opened it, if it still exists. The bank will be able to tell you what was done with the contents. You can also search the website of your state's unclaimed property department or try the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators. Although you may not get your grandmother's tiara back, you will get its auction value back. “Everyone should look up the unclaimed property in their state,” Bracken says. “You never know what you're goiong to find."
If you have a stack of $20 gold double eagles in your safe-deposit box, you're unlikely to forget them — although gold coins are often found in abandoned safe-deposit boxes, typically because the owner has died.
But not all coins are gold. The U.S. Mint frequently creates commemorative coins that you may have purchased and stashed in a safe-deposit box. For example, a 1983 Olympics silver dollar that was minted in San Francisco sells for about $30 in uncirculated condition. A two-coin 1999 George Washington commemorative dollar set is worth $1,050 in uncirculated condition.
And even if the coin is dinged, its silver content is always worth something. The silver in a 1922 silver dollar, for example, is currently worth about $21. A $10 roll of 40 pre-1965 quarters is worth about $203. You can check the value of circulated gold and silver coins at a coin dealer or at coinflation.com. If you're going to sell your coins, get bids from several dealers.
Just because something is old doesn't mean it's valuable. But it never hurts to check. For example, to some people, campaign buttons and political memorabilia might be important enough to put into a safe-deposit box. Although campaign buttons are cheaply mass-produced, some are worth keeping. Some Eisenhower campaign buttons, for example, sell for about $25 apiece; a McKinley-Roosevelt button (from 1900) sells for about $50.
Baseball cards also frequently find their way into safe-deposit boxes. Although it's unlikely you'll find a Honus Wagner — the Holy Grail of baseball card collectors — a 1954 Hank Aaron rookie card could get as much as $300,000. A 1960 Carl Yastrzemski rookie card currently sells for $150 to $200 on eBay. And a Derek Jeter rookie card goes for around $110.
And you may find forgotten jewelry in a safe-deposit box as well. A February 2020 auction of abandoned Bank of America safe-deposit box contents offered an unmounted star ruby (sold for $6,875), a gold medusa ring ($6,250), a white gold and diamond pendant ($5,312), and a gold pocket watch ($11,250).
Manage your expectations
Sometimes people really do find valuables in safe-deposit boxes, either their own or ones they have inherited. “My godparents (and my parents) were Depression Era babies — my godparents had already experienced one bank that was closed and they lost some money,” says Patricia Hausknost, a financial planner in Long Beach, California. “So when they passed and I cleaned out their safe-deposit box I found silver certificates, some gold coins and about $5,000 of U.S. currency.” (Silver certificates are an old form of money, once redeemable for silver.)
"I'm not sure why they thought that would help them out if there really was a banking catastrophe, but there it was,” she says. She ended up distributing the silver certificates and gold coins to her godparents’ beneficiaries and used the cash to get their home ready for sale.
But people put all sorts of things in safe-deposit boxes, and not all are valuable — at least to anyone but the owner. Your pog collection may not have held its value, and your Mickey Mantle baseball card may be creased beyond recognition.
Inherited boxes aren't necessarily treasure chests, either. “When I was in my 20s, I worked at a bank,” says Melissa Brennan, a financial planner in Plano, Texas. “One year the bank manager asked me to be the witness when the guys came to drill the locks on abandoned safe-deposit boxes. ... What I vividly remember is not finding anything of substantial value.”
One box contained a few pieces of low-quality costume jewelry, she says, one contained love letters, and some contained miscellaneous paperwork and a few silver dollars and half dollars. “I guess that's why they were abandoned,” Brennan says. “Customers moved on, no longer wanting or needing what held value to them in their past.”
John Waggoner covers all things financial for AARP, from budgeting and taxes to retirement planning and Social Security. Previously he was a reporter for Kiplinger's Personal Finance and USA Today and has written books on investing and the 2008 financial crisis. Waggoner's USA Today investing column ran in dozens of newspapers for 25 years.