By Sami Emory and Andreas Meichsner
December 23, 2019
On a frosty morning in far west Germany, packages from across the country arrive at the loading dock of Deutsche Bahn’s Central Lost Property Office.
Inside the boxes are the items of everyday travelers: suitcases, toys, umbrellas, laptops, cellphones, wallets. In 90 days, if they remain unclaimed, they’ll be sold at auction.
Each year, roughly 250,000 items are forgotten in the trains or on the platforms belonging to Deutsche Bahn, the German railway operator, which transports more than two billion passengers per year.
Oftentimes an object finds its owner — its Verlierer, or “loser” — within the first few weeks.
The local lost-and-found offices (there are more than 80 nationwide) spend a month actively working on each case before they send the object to the central office in the city of Wuppertal.
When they arrive here, the as-yet unclaimed objects — roughly 200 a day — are handled by the central office’s 14 employees.
Rooms here are dedicated to the categories of objects most often left behind. In storage are about 3,000 suitcases, 3,500 cellphones, 1,400 wallets, countless keychains and many miles’ worth of charging cables.
Overseeing the rooms and objects is Udo Feld, 56, a former baker with strong hands, a measured wit and a pragmatist’s take: “We cannot always give everything back. Everything that is lost is not always found.”
The public face of the operation, though, is Walter Schreiner, 62, whose toothpaste-commercial smile and charismatic presence have helped establish him as a beloved Deutsche Bahn auctioneer.
The day begins at 7 a.m. After their delivery, objects are unpacked and cataloged in the office’s software program, which logs basic details as well as any identifying features. Mr. Schreiner: “We’re detectives, you could say.”
Letters, texts and emails are sent to those owners who have left behind some trace of themselves.
If an owner is identified, objects can be collected in Wuppertal or shipped across the country — or even across the world. (The office has sent lost objects to Japan, Australia, China and the United States.)
Deutsche Bahn boasts a 60 percent average return rate for lost items. For high-value items, that rate spikes to 90 percent.
When three months have passed, however, and an owner has not been found, the same features that once served as clues are systematically destroyed.
IDs, credit cards and photos of loved ones are removed from wallets. Names are cut off tags. Data is wiped from cameras, USB sticks and laptops until all signs of the Verlierer are, like their property, lost.
Only then do objects fall into Walter Schreiner’s domain — his “organized chaos,” as he calls it.
Dirty clothes are thrown out, lighters are tested, brands are evaluated.
From time to time, the routine is broken by an anomaly.
Among the standouts: the inflatable boat, generous enough to seat eight people (and including its outboard motor); the 187-pound gas heater; the prosthetic leg; the two left shoes, neatly packed in a suitcase; the complete scuba suit; the Michael Jackson doll that could sing and, yes, do the moonwalk; and the seasonal varieties, such as the Lederhosen that arrive each fall.
Then come the auctions. On a recent Thursday, Mr. Feld and Mr. Schreiner rolled carts filled to the brim with objects destined for a new home.
The auction hall itself was as cold as the outside air and — the victim of ongoing construction — unwelcoming.
Once the doors were opened, the hall filled with buyers (overwhelmingly men) who kept their coats on and who looked uncomfortable and impatient.
Mr. Schreiner took his spot on the platform, having traded his loose shirt and jeans for a smooth, navy blue auctioneer’s suit and bright red tie.
Most (though not all) of those gathered were resellers, who buy the objects for their own stores.
The objects that were in greatest demand were the laptops, charging cables and phones. When laid on the auction table, they were surrounded, inspected, fought for, abandoned.
In addition to these weekly auctions — held every Thursday at 3 p.m., off Platform 1 — Deutsche Bahn holds occasional auctions elsewhere in Germany, under oversize tents and in front of hundreds of people.
At these special auctions, Mr. Schreiner curates and auctions individual suitcases filled with collectible sneakers, beach accessories, even adult editions (with adult toys).
These auctions are more show than business. Mr. Schreiner once led an auction for six whole hours. “And they all stayed,” Mr. Feld said.
The annual cost of Deutsche Bahn’s lost-and-found operations is around 3.5 million euros, or about $3.9 million, according to brand eins, a German business magazine. The auctions earn roughly a tenth of that amount.
(Deutsche Bahn declined to confirm these numbers.)
And even after the auction, property owners have the right — for up to three years — to claim the money made by the sale of their objects. In other words, this service is costly, and the profits aren’t guaranteed.
This fact weighs heavily on Mr. Feld, as does the question of the office’s future. Of the 14 employees, 12 are men nearing retirement age. Even with two younger women in the mix, the average age of the staff is around 60.
The job is not just about lifting heavy objects, Mr. Feld explains. It’s also about being invested in the search for ownership, and in the enjoyment of playing detective.
Mr. Feld and Mr. Schreiner also seem to be emotionally invested in the objects themselves. Consider Bruno, for example, one of the giant teddy bears that Mr. Feld saved (or hid) from the auction block.
Or consider one of the office’s many suitcases. Some, of course, are quickly returned.
But others, separated indefinitely from their owners, are filled with mystery and intrigue.
And this, Mr. Feld says, is when the questions begin. Who owns it? Why did they lose it? How could they forget it? And why haven’t they called?
Sami Emory, a writer and editor, and Andreas Meichsner, a photographer, are both based in Berlin. Each contributes regularly to The New York Times.
Produced by Stephen Hiltner