A Storage Facility Sold Off a $39,000 Antique Writing Desk and Other Heirlooms After an Elderly New Yorker Forgot to Pay the Bill

Samurai armor, Persian rugs, and over 1,000 books were among his belongings.

German ambassador Ulrich von Hassell is pictured at a desk in 1937. Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

A report of an elderly man whose historic desk and other heirlooms were sold by a storage facility in New York after he forgot to pay the bill has left readers divided about laws and restitution in such cases.

Christian Agostino von Hassell, 70, had stored an 18th-century French writing desk passed down from his grandfather, a German diplomat executed on the orders of Adolf Hitler named Ulrich von Hassell, The New York Times reported in its contentious article.

Ulrich von Hassell was a member of the German resistance who was slated to serve as foreign minister if the plan to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944, was successful. The desk was reported to be worth $39,000 and stored with other artefacts the younger von Hassell acquired in his service in the U.S. Marine Corps and as military historian.

The removed items include a dozen oil paintings, an armoire, wall sconces, Persian rugs, samurai armor, and at least 1,000 books. Most of the books belonged to his great-grandfather, Alfred von Tirpitz, who led the German Navy under Emperor Wilhelm II in World War I.

“We regret to hear that this valuable desk got lost. As the desk was owned by the family and has, to our knowledge, never been offered to one of the Federal history museums, the Federal State Ministry of Culture has no authority to initiate further inquiry,” Maximilian Göttlich, with the office of Germany’s Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media, told Artnet News.

Born in Germany, Von Hassell moved to the United States as a child with his family and joined the Marines in 1974 at the age of 21. He went on to serve in Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Liberia, and Lebanon as an intelligence officer.

He moved the desk into storage two years after the 2009 death of his mother, Christa von Hassell, on the thought that his sister or daughter might want it one day. He has paid thousands of dollars to store the desk at ever since.

But Von Hassell became ill in January and forgot to pay the $335 bill at Extra Space Storage in the Queens borough of New York City. He was surprised to see an email from Extra Space Storage in his inbox on March 24.

Companies like Extra Space can sell the contents of a unit after just 30 days of continued nonpayment after the notice of a lien, but are required under state law to notify renters. That notification can be made in a hand-delivered letter, by registered or certified mail, or by an email paired with a U.S. Postal Service “certificate of mailing.”

Von Hassell contacted the facility the next day but his messages were not returned, so he reached out to his lawyer who sent a letter to the company on April 3 inquiring about what happened.

Sedgwick Claims Management Services, an insurance adjuster for Extra Space Storage, replied on the company’s behalf nearly two weeks later claiming it found “no fault on the part of Extra Space Storage.”

A spokesperson for the company alleged to the Times it made “very thorough attempts to contact” von Hassell and provided the newspaper with a copy of a postal receipt showing that a notice was signed for by his doorman on Feb. 21. Additionally, five calls were made to him between January 9 and March 21 and the company ran an advertisement announcing the sale in the AM NewYork newspaper on March 16.

Von Hassell later learned a man named Boleslaw Karvay bought the unit on March 23 for just $2,850.

In comments on The New York Times app, readers were divided—some noting that the storage facility had not broken any laws with others questioning whether those laws are too strict and “need to be changed.”

“It is unfair that within several months of nonpayment and only one certified letter, a lifetime of possessions can be legally sold by the company you contracted with to safeguard them,” a commenter named Lois wrote.

Another said that having a doorman sign for a notice is not the same as having it delivered to the addressee.

“Moral of the story. Pay your bills. Automatic payment if you are forgetful,” wrote one commenter who identified themselves as “Mmk.”

Like other commenters, one person named Max expressed feeling “sad” for him but said “he’s one of thousands of people who fall behind on storage fees at these cheap places annually.”

“Why would anyone put invaluable heirlooms in a self-storage facility? There are so many other options for storing paintings and furniture in reputable places that wouldn’t do this,” Max wrote.

Another commenter called the Times article “unironically the most important article” that the newspaper has published “in years.”

“It’s a terrible system,” the commenter wrote. “NYC is so disgusting and Extra Space Storage is a great example of the vampires who make it terrible.”

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