COLUMBIA -- Forgotten family treasures of a bygone era -- among them a pearl necklace, pocket watches, diamond rings and a sterling silver baby rattle -- will be sold in a first-of-its-kind public auction by the state.

The proceeds will help the cash-strapped state pay for government services in the lingering economic downturn.

The state Treasurer's Office will begin the monthlong online auction at 11 a.m. Monday of the contents of some 300 safe deposit boxes that were turned over by banks in the 1990s. The state has been searching since then to find the rightful owners of, or the heirs to, the keepsakes and valuables, although state law requires the items be kept for only three years.

"We've had them sitting in our vault," said Scott Malyerck, the state's deputy treasurer. "For the last 12 years, we've been trying to find the owners. You think someone who leaves a Rolex watch in a bank safe deposit box would remember."

Still, some of the items were deemed too personal to sell, such as an old pocket Bible, World War I medal and Civil War soldier's discharge papers.

Malyerck said the state thinks that the heirs of Capt. Ira Cory, a Union veteran of the Battle of Gettsyburg, live in Charleston. The state just can't find them, he said. The items were last in the possession of Cory's grandson, a graduate of The Citadel who shared his name and went on to have two children.

The elder Cory served in the 11th Regiment of New Jersey in the 1860s. When he died in 1904, The New York Times ran his obituary, writing that he was "one of the heroes of Gettsyburg who, on the second day of the battle, did his part in saving the day for the Union Army."

Malyerck said the documents have been in the safe deposit box for many years. The treasurer's office leads have taken them to the Lowcountry, where they continue to search for Cory's ancestors to deliver his war papers to them.

The auction, the first to be held by the state, has been in the works for years and wasn't prompted because of the state's $1 billion budget shortfall, Malyerck said. The timing is good, though, because the state needs extra cash.

Most of the heirlooms to be auctioned are coins and jewelry. Highlights include knives, bracelet charms, a Rolex watch, a bar of silver, a 22-carat gold necklace valued at $1,400, stamps and class rings.

Most of the safe deposit boxes are from the 1980s and '90s, but some date as far back as 1934. The state no longer receives abandoned bank safe deposit boxes.

The auction is expected to bring in roughly $50,000 and will be managed by the Texas-based Lone Star Auctioneers. But unclaimed property has been bolstering the state budget for years.

In 2009, the treasurer transferred $27 million in unclaimed money to the state coffers and contributed $58.5 million for the fiscal year that ended in June.

The money comes from unclaimed checks, stock certificates, utility deposits and insurance proceeds, for example, that are turned over to the state, Malyerck said. The treasurer holds on to a percentage of the cash to pay out to the rightful owners who can be located.

"There are thousands of people we are never going to find," Malyerck said.

If the owners or heirs are ever found for the unclaimed property or the items that are up for auction, those owners and heirs will be paid what they're owed.

The treasurer's office has a team of eight staff members who work to identify the owners of unclaimed property. Bill Wellborn is one of the team members. People in the office call him a bloodhound, and he's got the personality of a weathered lawman.

Wellborn said he listens to the radio to hear the names of prizewinners, compares obituaries with the treasurer's database and interviews families to track down the owners of the unclaimed property. He is responsible for returning millions of dollars each year to people in the state.

"When this becomes work, I'm out of here," Wellborn, 72, said.

As for the items from the safe deposit boxes, the state will retain a record of all the information available on the owner and heirs and post details online. Personal items in the boxes, such as old insurance claims, have been shredded.

"It's very, very doubtful we will ever find these people, but if we do, they are still owed that money," Malyerck said.

For the first time, the state will hold an online auction of items found in abandoned bank safe deposit boxes. Most of the items are coins and jewelry, such as diamond rings, wedding bands and watches.

The auction will begin at 11 a.m. Monday

and continue through Dec. 30. Items not sold during the first round of auctions will be relisted.

Photographs of the items will accompany a short description.

To register and bid in the auction, visit www.southcarolinaunclaimedproperty.org.

The state treasurer's office also maintains a database of unclaimed property, such as insurance proceeds, stock certificates and utility deposits. To search the records, go to treasurer.sc.gov and click on the Palmetto Paycheck link.