Thousands of people across the United States collect ancient coins. Buyers will often trade with other collectors or dealers, but some ancient coin owners come across rare and unusual coins by scouring the American countryside. If you discover ancient coins in this way, you may believe that the stash is automatically yours—but is that actually true?
Assessing the situation
When determining if you can legitimately keep something you find, it's important to differentiate clearly between the different circumstances that could exist. Legally, there are generally three situations.
Abandoned property applies when someone who owns something intentionally discards it. By doing this, the owner gives up possession and relinquishes the title to the property. If you then come across the property, you can normally acquire the item and become the new rightful owner.
Lost property applies to a situation when someone accidentally misplaces an item. In this instance, the property owner does not want the item to go to somebody else. As such, if you find lost property, the law would expect you to return it to its rightful owner, if possible.
Misplaced property is a situation that exists somewhere between the two previous cases. If you place a stash of ancient coins somewhere and then forget where you put it, you have misplaced the property. You didn't intend to give the property to someone else, and you didn't just accidentally lose it. Nonetheless, ownership of the property can vary after an event like this. For example, the law normally expects misplaced property to belong to the person whose land you find it on.
California Penal Code Section 485
In California, Penal Code Section 485 sets out clear rules about the steps you must take if you find something. This Code applies in any situation that involves lost or misplaced property. Under the Code, you must make "reasonable and just efforts" to find the owner of the property. Failure to take these steps means you have stolen the property, but the statute assumes you have some way to realistically trace the original owner.
Of course, it's difficult to know when this statute applies, particularly with older property like ancient coins. For example, if you find a stash of coins buried in your garden, would the authorities expect you to trace all the property's previous owners and find out if they lost or misplaced those coins?
It's here that the definition of reasonable becomes important. It's difficult to trace the owner of a stash of coins that you find washed up on a beach, but if you dig up a horde of ancient collectibles on private land, it's certainly reasonable that you tell the person who owns the property.
Immediate steps you must take
To apply Penal Code Section 485 fairly, California law stipulates that you must hand over any property you find that is worth $100 or more to the police. The police will then advertise the lost property and wait 90 days to see if somebody tries to claim the lost items.
According to the value of the coins you find, different people may then try to claim the property. You may need to contend with somebody who claims the coins belonged to their relative. Alternatively, you may have to deal with somebody who claims ownership because the horde was on his or her land. In fact, even the authorities may try to claim the coins if any of the items have particular historical significance.
In some cases, these discoveries will result in court action. Even if this step isn't necessary, it may take some time before the authorities return the coins to you. One Californian couple found coins worth an estimated $10 million, but they didn't go public for a year due to challenges and questions about whether they could keep their stash.
If you find a large coin haul in California, it's probably a good idea to contact a trained attorney. He or she can advise you on the best course of action to take. Nonetheless, don't automatically assume that you will benefit from the law of finders keepers when it comes to hidden treasures. For more information, contact resources like Harlan J. Berk, LTD.