Don’t be led astray by ‘finders keepers, losers weepers’

The Derrynaflan Hoard, found in Co Tipperary, a good example of the laws governing a find on farmland

Dear Karen

I always assumed if something was found on my land, it would belong to me (my farm has been in the family for generations). I recently heard that this is not so! If I find something valuable on my land, do I own it?

That age-old adage, finders keepers, losers weepers”, often steers people astray.

If an object is found. and the true owner cannot be located, conflict arises as to whether it should belong to the person who finds it, or the person who owns the property upon which it was found.

If you find something on your own land, you most likely have the best claim to it.

The occupier or owner of the land will always have the best claim to an object found embedded in or affixed to their land.

Matters are more complex where another person finds an object which is on your land.

Several factors must be taken into account.

The owner or occupier of the land will have the best claim to the object, if they show that they had always intended to control the land.

This means that if someone was visiting a well fenced-off field, in which the owner of the land grazes cattle all year round, the owner would have the best claim to the found object, as he or she was clearly asserting his/her intention to retain control of the area, and anything found there should belong to him/her.

The finder could have a better claim to the object than the occupier of the land if, for example, the finder was in a field of the occupier which has no fence, that the occupier never uses, and to which a wide range of people have access, as the landowner may not be asserting his right to control the area.

Usually when an object is found, and the true owner cannot be found, conflict arises as to who has the better claim, the person who found it, or the person on whose land it was found.

This is not the case, however, if an archaeological object is found, being an object which is of archaeological interest because of its association with a historical event or person, and which includes the ancient remains of humans, plants and animals.

If you find an archaeological object, whether on your own land or someone else’s, it does not belong to you.

If the true owner is not known, it belongs to the State.

This is stated in Article 10 of the Constitution, and is more clearly outlined in the National Monuments (Amendment) Act 1994.

This is similar to the royal prerogative, more commonly known as the rule of “Treasure Trove” which exists in the UK, where any treasure found belongs to the crown.

There is a long-standing practice of rewarding an honest finder of archaeologically valuable objects.

The 1994 act allows for payment of a reward to the finder and/or the person on whose land the object was found, taking into account all relevant circumstances. This was illustrated in Ireland in the well-known case of Webb v Ireland, where the Webbs found the Derrynaflan Hoard, while “looking at” Derrynaflan church, after they used a metal detector to search for treasure.

In this case, the State compensated both the owners and the finders, albeit unequally.

They offered more money to the owners of the land.

The Supreme Court ordered that the finders be paid the same amount as the land owners, because the finders had been promised honourable treatment, and thus had a legitimate expectation with regard to the reward.

This means that although the State ultimately has the rights to an archaeological object found on someone’s land, the owner of the land will be sufficiently compensated.

These situations are not always clear cut, and it is advisable to seek legal advice if a dispute in relation to a found object arises.

Karen Walsh, from a farming background, is a solicitor practicing in Walsh & Partners, Solicitors, 17, South Mall, Cork (021-4270200), and author of ‘Farming and the Law’. Walsh & Partners also specialises in personal injury claims, conveyancing, probate and family law.

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