If you find buried treasure, can you keep it?

From this story

Basically, a guy was digging up a tree in his own backyard and found a box with money, bank notes, and gold and silver certificates that appears to have been there since at least the 1930’s. The value has been estimated at between $50,000 & $100,000.

From the story, it certainly sound like the money is now his. Two questions - will he have to pay income taxes on it? It was part of the property he bought, so one point of view is that he wouldn’t have to pay taxes any more than he’d pay taxes on an old stove that came with the house as well.

Second question - could previous owners of the property sue to get the money? If it’s really from the 1930’s, it’s doubtful the person who actually buried it will come forward, but could the person who sold him the property sue on some sort of grounds that if he had known the money was present, he would have removed it himself? How about if you found something that was buried 10 years ago by the person who sold you the house? Could he sue to retrieve it, or once he’s sold the house, has he released all claims to anything on the property?

Well, Federal Treasure Trove law states:

“Finder of treasure trove, which is defined as coin, gold, silver plate, bullion, or similar articles hidden for safe-keeping and forgotten, or remaining undiscovered by reason of death of person who hid them, is entitled thereto as AGAINST owner of land where treasure trove is found and all the world save the true owner, in absence of statute, but owner is entitled to property, other than treasure trove embedded in his soil. It is the HIDING and not the losing or abandon-ing of property which gives it its character of treasure trove. (Groover vs. Tippins, 179 S.E. 634, 635, 51 Ga. App. 47.)”

I read that and other law to state that a0 it’s his unless the true owners show up to claim it, and b) the previous owner of the land is SOL.

Related question then. If I’m tracking an old pirate treasure and I’m 100% postive I’ve found the location (maybe I’ve snuck in and had a dig to double check). Now I don’t own the land it’s in but I buy that land off the current owner for more than the land is worth but less than the treasure is worth.

I dig up the treasure, sell the land and the treasure and pocket the difference.

Now, am I guilty of a crime? Is this just exactly the same case as before? Can the previous owner argue I should have disclosed information about the treasure.

Common sense suggests that there’s no real difference although it seems ethically dubious. What’s the legal postion?


IANAL, but I would assume that you are under no legal obligation to inform the previous owner of jack before buying the land. The same principle would apply if I suspected that there was oil under a certain piece of property…buy it before the owner gets wind of the geologist’s report. :smiley:

I don’t know about the law, but Jesus would apparently approve of this. One of his parables deals with a man who finds buried treasure, and then sells everything he owns so he can afford to buy the land that the treasure is hidden on.

Oil companies and mining companies do it all the time.

(bolding mine)

Am I reading this correctly to say, further, that if I find a treasure trove on someone else’s land it’s mine to keep (instead of the current owner’s)?

Seems to read that way to me as well.

Here is an article by a law professor, and author of law textbooks about property law.


. . . .

And don’t forget. A trespasser is a trespasser. It’s one thing if you are digging on land with the owner’s permission. If you do it without permission, you are crimally and civilly liable.

This is a case of caveat vendor. The seller has the ability to inspect the promised land as thoroughly as the seller wants before the price is set. So if the price is too low, the law has little sympathy for the seller.

The true owner of the treasure is the last person to acquire it legally, so the fact that the land owner had an ichoate claim to the treasure is not significant.

Here’s an extra credit answer for you. Nobody can sue the finder of the property for possession of the treasure based on the theory that the finder has defective title because the finder is not the true owner. This is known as the jus tertii argument–you can’t set up a claim to property based on the rights of third parties. *Cf. * http://www.idc.ac.il//publications/files/125.pdf (especially footnote 7).

For those who still have a morbid curiosity about the law of finders. Here is a sample law school property exam and a set of model answers to question number 6, which deals with the finders-keepers rule and the jus tertii doctrine.

And here is a good article about the law of finders, generally.

In the U.S., yes.

If you buy something for $100, split it in half, and sell the two halves for $75 each, you have to pay income taxes on $50 in profit.

If you buy a hunk of land, find a buried treasure on it worth $100,000, sell the land for what you paid for it, and sell the treasure for $100K, you’ll have a profit of $100K to pay taxes on.

Hmmm… I don’t know if that applies to the land and treasure. The land value is the same when you sell it in your scenario, so there’s no capital gain (it wouldn’t be income tax because it’s personal real property). Also you’re not “splitting” property; you’re keeping it as one whole unit. Essentially, I think we can ignore the property, whether you sell it even or for a profit, or just keep it. The issue, then, is only the $100,000. Is it income, or is it a product of the land? Is it income only when you spend it, or when you find it? Suppose it’s gold; is it income upon discovery upon conversion to cash? Or is it not even income? And what if it’s gold, but not in bar form; only mineral wealth. The value is still there in the ore; you’ve just not taken it out and tried to sell it yet. I have apple trees. Once they start giving apples, do I need to claim them on my income tax if I eat them? After all, it’s income in the sense that I’m not spending money to purchase other apples, just like I’m not spending money to acquire the gold that someone left.

Okay, if it’s ore, and you don’t extract it, then the land increases in value. Capital gain. Apples? If they look nice, then capital gain. If it’s processed gold or cash, can you just NOT claim it as income, and then sell the property to someone else? You buy it for $100,000, and advertise it such: Buy this house, $100,000 included as part of the property. You sell for $200,000. Now you have a $100,000 capital gain rather than income, and at this level, tax free! What if it’s not cash, but gold bars? You never got the income; they’re part of the property!

Tax attorneys here?

Oh, and the I found all this money in my back yard–it was buried treasure-- dodge doesn’t work.


First off, value matters not. Only price matters. The IRS doesn’t care what the property is worth. They only care about the difference between the purchase price and the selling price.

As for this specific situation, don’t think of it as real estate. Think of it as stuff. You bought $100K worth of stuff (land and treasure). You sold some of the stuff (the land) for $100K, and then sold the rest of the stuff (the treasure) for $100K. You bought your stuff for $100K and sold your stuff for $200K.

FWIW, and possibly of interest as going to the Treasure Trove vs Landowner’s doctrine, the men have now been arrested. http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2005/04/29/police_arrest_men_who_claimed_to_find_buried_treasure
Police believe that they actually found the bills in another person’s house while they were doing a roofing job on the house. Evidently the police are working on the legal theory that finders <> keepers.

To make the story even more interesting, an article this morning (not the one linked) said that one of the guys was on probation for counterfeiting…

Ooh, I saw that on the news the other day. All those different kinds of money they used to have – gold and silver certificates, commercial bank notes, and so on–are fascinating to me. Not to mention the gold and silver coins as well. Now all the currency we have is boring and homogenous, and the coins are worth so laughably little we don’t even bother to carry them around any more.

I’m not a tax attorney, but my dad is. According to him, for found treasure (assuming you didn’t know it existed when you bought the property), you would probably not be permitted to allocate your basis (the purchase price of the property) between the treasure and the property. If, as some of the hypos above suggest, you knew that the treasure was there when you bought the property, you might be permitted to allocate the basis.

Much of the following is my own WAG or stuff I heard in law school.

Unmined minerals are not personal income. You get no financial benefit from them until you either mine and sell them or sell the rights to them. Income would be recognized upon either of these events.

If you find cash on your property you have realized income. If you sell it, it will be at face value. There is no reason to delay taxation.

If you find gold, collectible coins, or stock certificates, you will be taxed upon their sale.

Apples and other crops are not income if consumed by the grower.

Heh…bottom line, then, if you find a treasure, and the true owner is unknown, learn the following…Shut Up!

Alright, so here is a hypothetical question about the outcome of this case.

These guys are arrested, the police charge they stole the money from a barn.

Now if the barn owner has nothing to verify the money is his – which I’m assuming he won’t since it was safely tucked in rusty tin cans.

They go to trial but the jury returns an innocent verdict.

If they aren’t convicted of anything, does the treasure then belong to them to do whatever (legally) they wish to with it?