Three weeks ago, many of ANZ’s wealthiest customers received a letter that they had to clear out the contents of their safe deposit boxes in the bowels of the bank’s venerable Martin Place headquarters in Sydney.

There was no reason given for the decision to shut down the safe custody operation. One customer, who went in to remove the contents of his safe, was told by bank staff that "we sold the building”.

It was like a run on the bank. It was reckless. 

The notice was given in a letter dated January 8. Clients were given until March 8 to remove their belongings. No security arrangements were offered.

The subsequent evacuation from ANZ generated queues at rival banks Westpac and National Australia as ANZ clients lined up to find alternative arrangements for their valuables in other bank vaults.

“It was like a run on the bank. It was reckless,” one customer told BusinessDay.

“This is the only safe box facility offered by ANZ in Sydney and no safe boxes are available at National Australia, CBA and Westpac. Safe deposit boxes are difficult to find.”

An ANZ spokesman said today the bank had notified customers it would no longer be providing safe deposit boxes as it will be closing the branch when the building is redeveloped by its new owners.

"While customers have been advised that they have until March 8 to collect their items we will be pragmatic in the way that we manage the process to cause a little disruption as possible," the spokesman said. "This will include securely storing goods for an extended period while we try to contact the owners."

The spokesman added local police had been notified and security increased while customers accessed their belongings.

Typically, safe deposit boxes are double locked, made from reinforced steel and often housed in the basement of bank headquarters with special access requirements and extra security.

It is not just a service for the super wealthy to house their sensitive documents, jewellery, heirlooms and other valuables. Often the boxes are used by the likes of accountants to lock away documents for their clients.

The decision by ANZ had been preceded by a letter last year asking clients to remove the contents from their safes because there would be changes to the custody rules. “We were given two months notice to get out,” a customer told BusinessDay.

“Otherwise they would take the contents out of the box.

“It was a good way to annoy some of your best clients. We were given very little notice.  The security risk for those removing valuables from the bank is high.”