By contributor
updated 10/13/2006 6:21:03 PM ET 2006-10-13T22:21:03

Ever wonder what happened to the suitcase that never showed up on the airport baggage carousel?  Chances are it eventually found a home and it’s the owner who is lost.

Each year, more than one million personal belongings — about 7,000 per day — from misplaced luggage end up nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains at the  Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Ala.

Known as the “lost luggage capital of the world,” the UBC sells merchandise from baggage that has gone unclaimed by airline passengers. The company only buys items once they’ve gone through intensive tracking by the airlines and are declared unclaimed, a process that can take a minimum of three months.

Founded 36 years ago by Alabama entrepreneur Doyle Owens as a part-time business, it soon became a full-time venture. His son, Bryan Owens, took over the privately held company in 1995.

As the nation’s only merchant of unclaimed luggage, the 40,000-square-foot retail complex covers an entire city block near historic downtown Scottsboro, and includes a concierge desk, an espresso café and even a museum showcasing some of the more unusual findings. About 60 percent of the merchandise is clothing with other items including cameras, electronics, sporting goods, jewelry, and of course, luggage.

Because UBC takes all bags off the hands of the airlines sight unseen, they are literally “grab bags” that could contain anything.  On one occasion, workers found Egyptian artifacts tucked inside a well-worn Gucci suitcase. Another discovered an original painting valued at $20,000, which was later sold at the store for $60.  A sock inside a plain suitcase contained a 5.8 carat solitaire diamond ring. A few years ago, workers discovered a full suit of armor in one suitcase and another full of Versace dresses. One of the more startling discoveries was a live rattlesnake.

In some cases, the findings are returned to the government, such as the guidance system for an F-16 fighter jet valued at a quarter of a million dollars and a camera specially designed for NASA’s Space Shuttle.

“People come from all over,” spokeswoman Brenda Cantrell said. “You never know what you’re going to find.”

While the company’s workers are thorough searching the bags, every once in a while customers stumble upon their own bonanzas. Cantrell remembers a few years ago a woman bought a suitcase and later found $1,500 in its lining. Another time, a woman bought a Barbie doll for her little girl who promptly pulled the head off. Hidden inside was a roll of $500 bills.
UBC works closely with the airlines and even offers a top-ten list of ways to reduce the chances of your luggage getting lost or mishandled. No. 1 on the list: “Tip the Skycap.”

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