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Selling what the dead leave behind

Dozens of men and women surrounded the auctioneer, yellow bid cards in hand, whispering and vying for a glimpse of the latest lot for sale.

They were bidding on the unclaimed belongings of the dead, each tagged with the name of its former owner.

A 200-year-old German violin that belonged to a man named Leon David Cislin rested in a case of crushed red velvet. Hundreds of Hallmark Christmas ornaments once owned by a Thomas Young, many in unopened packaging, filled several tables.

Also on display were an autographed cymbal and other memorabilia from the collection of Dewey Martin, drummer for the ‘60s rock band Buffalo Springfield, who died in January at 68.

“Wow -- he didn’t have any heirs?” a bidder asked, scanning a lot that included one of Martin’s gold records. “That’s sad.”

If you die in Los Angeles County without heirs or a will, your worldly belongings will probably end up here, in a 122,000-square-foot warehouse along the railroad tracks in the City of Industry, protected by surveillance cameras and extra security. The walls are piled high with hundreds of 7-by-5-foot wooden crates. County employees and private auctioneers break open crates, divide the contents into lots and sell them at daylong auctions held on the second Saturday of the month, typically 10 times a year. Proceeds go back into the estate and often are used to cover burial expenses and other costs. Whatever is left goes to the state of California.

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Behind each name tag lies a story.

Rain beat down on the senior citizens’ high-rise in Long Beach as Caren Alvarez, a deputy with the Los Angeles County Public Administrator’s Office, broke the coroner’s tape on the door to Apartment 520 with rubber-gloved hands and stepped inside.

Stale cigarette smoke emanated from the carpet, sofa and worn chairs cluttering the one-bedroom apartment. On the kitchen table, roses wilted in murky water. On the balcony, a white robe draped over the back of a patio chair soaked up rain.

Jean Comstock, 79, a retired Long Beach city clerk, had died Sept. 24. It was Alvarez’s job to find Comstock’s heirs. If she had any, they would be responsible for her burial. But first, Alvarez had to see whether the dead woman had assets or a will.

Comstock was divorced, without children or close relatives, and lived on a fixed income. But she had indicated on her apartment application that she had a will and had made payments on a burial plot at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Cypress.

Alvarez searched methodically, opening dresser drawers, probing under the mattress and in the linen closet as Craig Hendrickson, operations chief for the Public Administrator’s Office, looked on. She found commemorative silver Disney and Apollo 11 coins, a silver gaming token from Laughlin, Nev., and some 30-year-old Batman comic books sealed in cellophane.

Alvarez did not find a will in the usual places, but she did not give up.

Hendrickson said staff members have discovered wills in all sorts of places: under a tarantula aquarium, scrawled on a manila envelope. They have also found voodoo dolls under mattresses, boa constrictors under sofa cushions, caches of automatic weapons and tin cans piled so high that they had to dig their way through.

“If we don’t find enough assets, we won’t be able to bury her,” Hendrickson said of Comstock. “We hope we find a bank account -- at least $7,000.” That would pay for a funeral.

If they found less than that, Comstock’s final arrangements would be more modest.

In the drawer of a table near the front door, Alvarez found bank statements but no indication of the balance in Comstock’s accounts. Nor were there personal letters or signs of family.

“That’s probably the hardest part -- to see how some of these people have nobody in their lives,” Hendrickson said.

Alvarez pulled a black plastic suitcase from a hall closet and discovered several yellowed Bibles inside, stuffed with relatives’ obituaries. It seemed like just the place for a will.

Under the Bibles were chalk drawings that showed Comstock as a girl in Ohio, with round cheeks and blond curls. Also inside were black-and-white photographs and certificates of appreciation from her days as a civil servant. But by the time Alvarez reached the bottom of the suitcase, she still had not found a will.

She packed up the bank statements and some silver coins and gold rings to take to a county vault in downtown Los Angeles, where they would be held until auction. The rest of Comstock’s belongings would be left for her landlord to sell.

Before leaving, Alvarez plucked a black plastic bag from the closet and emptied it on the carpet. On top was a manila envelope labeled “My will.”

On a single typed sheet, Comstock had indicated she wanted everything to go to the Arthritis Foundation and the American Cancer Society. She did not name an executor. Once all her assets were accounted for, the estate amounted to less than $500 -- too little to pay for a funeral or even a niche in a mausoleum. Comstock would be cremated by the county, Hendrickson said, and her ashes stored for up to a year for relatives to claim. If no one did, they would be buried in a pauper’s grave.

The Public Administrator’s Office mostly tends to those who die either very poor or very wealthy, either without heirs or with heirs locked in disputes. About half the estates the office handles are worth $30,000 or less. About a third are worth more than $100,000, including the estates of some celebrities.

After jazz singer Nina Simone died in 2003 at age 70, the county stored her belongings for years while her agent argued in court about who held the rights to royalties from her recordings.

When Danny Federici, 58, keyboard player for Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, died last year, county employees had to track down his heirs: his ex-wife and children. Hendrickson said the county is storing Federici’s belongings while the courts decide how to divide the estate.

The county is also handling the estate of Christopher Mims, a defensive end for the San Diego Chargers who died last year at 38. Mims, a Dorsey High graduate who played in the Super Bowl, is survived by his former girlfriend and his ex-wife, who have made conflicting claims on his estate, Hendrickson said.

Farida Nizam claimed to be a Persian princess, and although county workers could not verify her lineage after she died in 2001 at age 76, they disposed of her $3.5-million estate, including homes in Malibu and Palm Springs, a Rolls-Royce and various rental properties.

The county still receives royalty checks for the estate of actor Hervé Villechaize, best-known for playing the role of Tattoo on the television series “Fantasy Island.” Villechaize committed suicide at his North Hollywood apartment in 1993 at age 50.

Six boxes in the vault contain promotional fliers in Chinese and other documents from the estate of Zhang Hongbao, 52, founder of the Zhong Gong religious movement, which was banned as a cult in his native China.

Hongbao, who lived in Pasadena and had a worldwide following estimated at 30 million, died in a car accident three years ago in Arizona. Now the county is sorting through his estate, which includes homes in Pasadena and Texas and is valued at about $2 million, Hendrickson said.

Before sending estates to the county warehouse for auction, Hendrickson often hires appraisers to authenticate artwork, coins and other valuables. If the items turn out to be fine art, he transfers them to high-end private auctioneers to ensure they sell for full value.

Authentication can prove difficult. Lorraine Kronick of Beverly Hills, who died two years ago at 83, left behind an art collection that included works attributed to Degas, Rockwell and Picasso.

Experts authenticated several of the paintings, which were sold by the San Francisco-based auction house Bonhams & Butterfields. But verifying the purported Picassos was more complicated, especially a gouache-and-chalk drawing titled “Le Pere Noel.”

Appraisers said the drawing, if determined to be a Picasso, would probably sell for $100,000 or more. Culver City art appraiser Michael Maloney and French authorities agreed it was by Picasso.

A transparency was sent to the artist’s daughter, Maya Widmaier-Picasso, and she said “Le Pere Noel” was not her father’s work, according to a Bonhams spokesman. Without the Picasso cachet, the drawing fetched just $60.

By contrast, an authenticated Picasso from the Kronick collection -- a ceramic plate titled “Visage a la grille” -- went for $4,000 in May.

Auction regulars stake out such artwork and memorabilia with a discerning and wary eye.

“When your competitors aren’t here, you can get some real buys,” said Dennis McCoy, 76, of Ontario, a regular at the county auctions since 1984. “A lot of them hide -- they don’t want you to know they’re here. I’ve done it -- hide behind a column and stick your card out. Others, you can barely tell they’re bidding. They just nod their head or wink.”

He made his way past a foghorn, African pith helmets and a Waterford crystal bowl and biscuit barrel on display in the warehouse.

Nearby, Kaysey Hoover, 53, a Los Angeles insurance underwriter, had gone to the November auction looking for the belongings of his brother-in-law, a Los Angeles businessman who died last year.

Hoover and his wife had been unable to handle the estate after his wife became ill, and they relied on the county to pack and sell it.

Hoover wanted to monitor the auction and bid on a few pieces of jewelry but got caught up in the frenetic bidding on some pink-and-green Depression glass plates. He lost out to a regular but didn’t mind.

Next up: Lot 120, an oak glass-front Hoosier cabinet with an enamel base and brass handles that once belonged to Marilea Moore-Asher of Beverly Hills.

“Twenty five, 30. Give me 40. Thirty dollars, 35, give me 40,” shouted the auctioneer.

A man wearing a fitted denim jacket and a punk haircut raised his yellow bid card.

“Forty-five, can I get 50? 55? 60?”

The bidder, Jose Torres, an artist and furniture dealer, stopped at $65, his self-imposed limit. He had already bought a 1960s mint-green bedroom set, a faux-oil woodland scene and some metal TV dinner tables. He lost the cabinet to another furniture dealer, who bid $130.

Torres was unfazed. He would be back next month, he said. And he was confident the dead would send more mysterious treasures his way.

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com


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