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For Sale: Your Lost Luggage

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Women's accessories are among the 7,000 items the Unclaimed Baggage Center receives daily. (Courtesy of the Unclaimed Baggage Center)

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The 40,000-sq.-ft. Unclaimed Baggage Center resembles a major department store, with the unusual addition of this concierge desk, whose clocks are set to time zones around the globe. (Courtesy of the Unclaimed Baggage Center)

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Even the mannequins used to model these jackets and sewing accoutrements were unclaimed cargo. (Courtesy of the Unclaimed Baggage Center)

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About 60 percent of the Unclaimed Baggage Center's merchandise is clothing, yet the store also receives unexpected items such as this set of oversized teeth. (Courtesy of the Unclaimed Baggage Center)

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The Unclaimed Baggage Center is the biggest tourism destination in Scottsboro, Ala., and receives nearly one million visitors annually. (Courtesy of the Unclaimed Baggage Center)

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The Unclaimed Baggage Center has a small museum highlighting some of its most unusual and valuable items. (Courtesy of the Unclaimed Baggage Center)

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The Unclaimed Baggage Center has a very quick turnover, and the selection changes throughout the day. (Courtesy of the Unclaimed Baggage Center)

Having to fork over possessions at airport security checkpoints has become a common nuisance for travelers carrying liquids or objects sharp or heavy enough to wound a fellow passenger. But a traveler’s loss is increasingly a savvy bargain hunter’s gain.

At state-run retail centers in Americus, Swainsboro and Tucker, Ga., $1 bins overflow with confiscated nail clippers, and brand-name power drills max out at about $10. Then there’s the knife selection.

“I’m always amazed at the size of the knives we get,” said Steve Ekin, director of Georgia’s surplus-property division. “I can understand pocket knives, but I’m talking 10-inch sheath knives, and after six years, we’re still getting them,” he added. Sticter rules on carry-on objects were put in place after Sept. 11, 2001.

The foiled terrorist attempt at London’s Heathrow Airport in August 2006 unleashed another round of confusing carry-on restrictions. One result has been a surge in the number of items confiscated by the Transportation Security Administration and collected by 56 state-run surplus agencies. Chain saws, 20-pound dumbbells, bowling pins and kinky handcuffs are in a typical truckload, and each state has its methods for disposing of such goods. Georgia, which coincidentally opened its stores around the time of the London plot, gets about 250 pounds of goods from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport every two or three weeks.

“It’ll be interesting to see if Thanksgiving and Christmas travel gives us more,” Ekin said, but he’s hoping it doesn’t. “We don’t really want to deal with it. It’s not a huge profit boon.”

Washington and Texas also operate retail stores, while Illinois holds auctions and other states resort to eBay. Pennsylvania (user ID: pastatesurplus) recently had a 3-foot-long International Cricket Council World Cup souvenir bat going for $14.65, and bids on an Eddie Bauer roadside-emergency kit offered by Oregon (user ID: oregontrail2000) approached $20.

The restrictions have also contributed to an increase in lost luggage. Some travelers, aware of the carry-on crackdown, are checking more bags--and if a piece remains unclaimed for more than 90 days, its contents are sold. Between May and June, more than 1 million bags were lost, damaged or delayed by U.S. airlines, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Yet Derek R. Hanna, who works in corporate communications for U.S. Airways, stressed that only about 1 percent of mishandled bags fail to be reunited with their owners.

Most of the time, baggage is lost because of a “lack of identifying information on or in the bag, or the customer never filed a report for their missing baggage,” Hanna wrote via e-mail.

Kirsti Thomas and her husband, Jherek Swanger, of Seattle flew to Venice, Italy, in February, taking with them replicas of 16th-century carnival costumes that they had painstakingly sewn: a red silk hoop skirt with a petticoat and black dress for her, and a jacket with puffed, slashed sleeves for him.

They flew separately, and Swanger, who was traveling to Philadelphia on U.S. Airways then continuing to Italy on Lufthansa, packed the costumes. But his suitcase didn’t turn up in Venice, and neither did a bag carrying a harlequin skirt with fake pearls stitched by a friend traveling on a different flight.

At first, Thomas was hopeful, she said, as she had tucked their contact information inside the suitcase. But as she called the airlines repeatedly from Europe, to no avail, she grew frustrated. Thomas launched a Web site, USAirwaysLostMyCostume.com, and discovered that she wasn’t the first person to wonder where luggage goes when it can’t be traced to its owner.

The improbable answer is Scottsboro, Ala., home of the Unclaimed Baggage Center. In 37 years, the 40,000-square-foot store has received some headline-worthy goods: a suitcase full of Egyptian artifacts dating to 1500 B.C. (sold to Christie’s) and a 5.8-karat solitaire diamond ring (bought by a couple from Tennessee for $23,000). Among the 7,000 items dropped off daily, the best third goes to the store, another third goes to charities like Lions Clubs International and the remainder is discarded.

“We hang on to some of those things of historic value because they’re worth having for when a photographer comes down to see us,” said Brenda Cantrell, director of retail sales and marketing. A Harper’s Weekly print from 1836 hangs in her office not far from a 10-foot-long collapsible “dungchen,” a trumpet used in Tibetan Buddhist ceremonies.

The privately owned business has seen a recent uptick in volume, according to Cantrell, and has what she termed “long-term, exclusive contracts” with various airlines including, Hanna confirmed, U.S. Airways. Cantrell refused to divulge further details of the Unclaimed Baggage Center’s arrangements with airlines.

As Thomas learned when she called, the UBC won’t take requests to search for specific items, and it has only one documented case of a customer's finding lost possessions (monogrammed ski boots).

If Thomas had nonetheless gone to search in Scottsboro, she might have been surprised to learn that UBC has a local competitor: T&W Unclaimed Baggage. The small family business was founded 31 years ago by Tony Stewart and his father. When asked where he obtains his goods or how he competes with the Goliath down the block, Tony Stewart replied, “I ain’t got nothing to hide. I just would rather not talk about it.”

Thomas--like many incensed travelers who share tales of lost items through her Web site--has given up trying to find or buy back her possessions. She is taking a new approach to flying. “I haven’t checked a suitcase since February,” said Thomas, who recently carried everything she needed for a two-week trip to Japan onto the plane. “At some point I’ll have to, but it’s going to take me a while.”

E-mail: ksa2109@columbia.edu