We've found treasure. Can we keep it?
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Jason from Ilford writes: My beloved father-in-law recently died at the age of 85. He was a Holocaust survivor. He was always good at DIY. My wife, in company with a local builder, was renovating the basement at his home, which he used as his workshop, when they found something extraordinary. Under his workbench they noticed a hiding-place buried in the floor, and when they raised it, they found a mouldy old leather briefcase inside. In it were 89 gold sovereigns bearing the date 1968, and about £21,000 in old banknotes, which are many decades out of date. He was not a wealthy man as far as any of us ever knew - he worked most of his life as a bookkeeper. My in-laws bought their house in about 1978. The owners at the time were a young couple, who had lived there for only two years. My mother-in-law also was shocked by this discovery. She had no idea it was there. He had not mentioned to her any such nest-egg. We would like to know whether we are simply entitled to place this money into his estate to be distributed alongside his other assets.
Jason, this is more complex than it sounds. It must first be said that the old rhyme that we used to shout as kids, "Finders keepers, losers weepers", neither is nor ever was the law - except perhaps in the playground.
Clearly this is a valuable hoard. I understand that such gold sovereigns are currently worth over £250 each, and the Bank of England guarantees to replace out-of-date banknotes with new ones.
In essence, the law is that a finder has good title to goods as against anyone else in the world - excepting only the true owner. Unless the true owner had deliberately abandoned the goods, never intending to reclaim them as his or her own, any subsequent finder of goods is at risk of being prosecuted for theft if he simply helps himself to them. This is true even if one finds cash or a rail-ticket, say, lying in the gutter.
If one simply pockets it to use as one's own, without taking any steps to trace the owner, who might perhaps be identifiable with reasonable enquiry, such as by telling the police, one is at risk of prosecution. Even though this may seem unfair, it is the law.
There are reported cases, for example, where young men who dredged lost balls from lakes in golf clubs were later convicted of theft of the golf balls.
In reality, nobody can imagine that the true owner in this case can have intended to abandon forever valuable cash and gold. The only safe course is for your wife to report the find to the police or your local council. If, after they have made their enquiries, no other person comes forward claiming credibly to be the true owner, the estate will be entitled to the return of these goods, and no one will be at risk.
The circumstances here are not easy. It may not necessarily have been your father-in-law who concealed the briefcase. While it is predictable that Holocaust survivors might want to keep such a nest-egg against future misfortune, it seems odd that he never told his wife. It may, of course, also be possible forensically to identify or date the briefcase and banknotes.
The reality here is that the sellers of the house in 1978, or more likely their predecessors, may no longer be traceable, or even necessarily still alive. It will not be your job or duty, in any
event, to carry out this research.
Thereafter, even if traced by the police, they (or more likely perhaps, their heirs) may not be able to make any more plausible claim to these valuables than your own family. If not, your claim as finders will trump theirs. It is also, of course, always possible that your father-in-law hid these goods, but chose not to tell anyone about them. Or perhaps even that he forgot about them in his declining years.
You are clearly honest folk. The only truly safe course is to report this find, and I so advise.
The above is not formal legal advice and is given without liability. Jonathan Goldberg QC is a leading London barrister. Visit www.goldbergqc.com