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Unclaimed Baggage sells items in lost luggage at steep discounts

Live snakes, a mounted ram head, a Halloween card signed by Richard Nixon.

Those are some of the most fascinating items found in lost luggage in 2023, according to a new report by Unclaimed Baggage, a store that buys lost items from airlines, sight unseen.

The company also found a 13-foot vaulting pole, gruesome props from the “Saw” movie franchise, and a $12,000 pair of Louis Vuitton Nike Air Force 1 sneakers.

Those items and more are detailed in the company’s first “Found Report: A Look Inside America’s Lost Luggage,” published April 1.

“We thought it’d be fun for us to publish an annual report that captures the most common items, the most expensive items, and the weird and the wonderful,” CEO Bryan Owens told CNBC Travel.  

The most expensive items found this year, according to the list, are a diamond ring (appraised at $37,050), a Cartier Panthère watch ($26,500) and a Hermès Birkin 25 bag ($23,500).

The company has long-term contracts to buy unclaimed items from airlines, as well as hotels, trains and rental car companies. It processes tens of thousands of items per week; about one third sell, another third are donated, and the rest are recycled, he said.

“We live in the world of all things lost,” said Owens. “It’s a little bit like Christmas every day.”

A loyal customer base

The company was founded by Owen’s father, Doyle Owens, in 1970, after Doyle received a tip that a local bus company was struggling with a growing number of bags left behind by passengers.

So he borrowed $300 to buy the unwanted bags, slapped price tags on the contents, and sold the goods from his home in Scottsboro, Alabama — population: 15,700.

After that, “it was off to the races,” said Owens.  

Today, Unclaimed Baggage’s retail store in Scottsboro is larger than a city block, and the company employs more than 250 people, he said. The thrill of the hunt — of the sheer possibility of what may be found — attracts people from near and far.

“We have a million people a year … from every state in America and in 40 countries,” he said. “We have customers from the West Coast, they’ll fly out a couple of times. There’s a couple, I remember, from the U.K. that would fly over once a year just to shop.”

Unclaimed Baggage opened a “Found Treasures” museum in Scottsboro, Alabama, in 2023 to showcase the oddest items acquired through the years. This display shows replica shrunken human heads, similar to the real ones once found inside a lost bag.

Source: Unclaimed Baggage

Discounts range from 20-80%, depending on the item, said Owens — clothes are discounted more, Rolex watches less. The company wants to give customers a deal, but without incentivizing a resellers, he said.

One customer, presumably a cruise ship employee, was buying “a ton” of Kindles and reselling them at port cities, Owens said.

“We want someone to get a deal that they can’t get somewhere else, but … we’re not in the business to be arbitraged.”

Bestsellers and ‘returns’

From AirPods for $54 to an HP 15.6-inch laptop for $175, electronics sell the fastest, said Owens.

But fine jewelry sells well too — even online, he said.

The company acquired some 20 Rolexes this year alone, said Owen. One of his favorite items was a 40-carat emerald found wrapped in rag in an unassuming bag.

Lost something on a plane? It may end up helping someone in need

Authentication is an important part of the business, said Owens, be it for Louis Vuitton luggage or a pair of Balenciaga sneakers. He likened identifying items in lost luggage to an “archaeological dig.”

On rare occasions, items get returned — to their rightful owners, he said.

“We had a guy from Atlanta who … bought a pair of ladies snow skiing boots for his girlfriend,” he said. “She pulled back the tongue … and deep inside the boot was her name. She had lost her boots, been paid by the airlines. Then he found them at Unclaimed Baggage and brought them back to her.”

Luxury goods — from brands like Louis Vuitton, Jimmy Choo and Yves Saint Laurent — on sale at Unclaimed Baggage’s retail store in Scottsboro, Alabama.

Source: Unclaimed Baggage

The company also finds items with Unclaimed Baggage’s price tags on them, meaning they were lost once, bought by the company, sold to a new owner and subsequently lost again.

Finders keepers

But what of angry travelers who claim that items in the store are their lost belongings?  

“By the time we get the property, it’s been through a pretty extensive search process, and they’ve settled all their claims,” said Owens, adding that this typically takes about 90 days.

How not to lose your luggage

For every 1,000 passengers, 7.6 bags are mishandled, according to SITA’s Baggage IT Insights 2023 report. Of those, 80% are delayed and will eventually be returned to their owners; 13% are damaged or pilfered; and 7% are lost or stolen, it said.

“The airlines actually do a good job of reuniting passengers with bags,” said Owens. “It’s a fraction of a percent of the bags that are shipped that ultimately wind up lost.”

Hoggle, a puppet from the 1986 film David Bowie film “Labyrinth,” is in Unclaimed Baggage’s “Found Treasures” museum in Scottsboro, Alabama.

Source: Unclaimed Baggage

According to Unclaimed Baggage’s “Found Report,” the most common reason that bags are lost is a lack of identification on or inside the bag.

The company recommends travelers attach a durable luggage tag to their suitcases, and place a sheet of paper or a business card with their contact details and travel itinerary inside.