Carroll County Times
Carroll County Times Opinion

Legal Matters: Discovering lost property not always as simple as 'finders, keepers'

"Finders, keepers" doesn't always cut it for lost or mislaid property. So before you start spending the $10,000 you found in the zipper compartment of a handbag you bought at a yard sale, you should know that Maryland law puts a burden on the finder to try to locate the owner before claiming the find.

Some finders end up richer only in experience. A Virginia woman who claimed she bought a Renoir painting at a flea market lost title in a court case early this year. The painting, valued at between $22,000 and $100,000, had been stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1951. A judge awarded title to the museum.


Maryland law prohibits anyone from obtaining control over property that was lost, mislaid or "delivered under a mistake as to the identity of the recipient or nature or amount of the property," if the finder knows or learns the identity of the owner or learns of a reasonable way to identify the owner, fails to take reasonable measures to restore the property to the owner and intends to deprive the owner permanently of the use or benefit of the property.

Abandoned property, property found where the true owner probably intended to leave it, but in a condition that indicates he was not planning to return for it, does not apply to our handbag case.


The money in the handbag probably fits the legal definition of lost or mislaid property. The common law we inherited from the English distinguished between "lost" and "mislaid" property. "Lost" means property unintentionally left by its owner. "Mislaid" property was intentionally set down by the owner and then forgotten.

Lawyers could argue over whether the owner unintentionally left his property behind, or intentionally set it down and then forgot it. In either situation, our finder must try to locate the owner of the $10,000.

To comply with the law requiring her to take reasonable measures to find the owner, the finder might: search the bag for information identifying the owner; try to contact the yard sale operator; contact local police to see if anyone has reported the money missing.

Should the finder also advertise for the handbag's owner? If the lost cash case ended up in court, a judge would have to decide whether the finder took reasonable measures to locate the owner and restore the money to her. He might conclude it would be reasonable to advertise, given the relatively small cost of an ad against the total amount found.

If our finder has made a good faith effort to locate the owner of the $10,000, and no one has come forward, and she now decides to treat herself and hubby to a Caribbean cruise, she would have a good argument that she took reasonable steps to restore the property to the original owner, was unable to find her and did not intentionally deprive the owner of the money.

Donna Engle is a retired Westminster attorney. Reach her with questions or feedback at 410-840-2354 or Her column, which provides legal information but not legal advice, appears on the second and fourth Sunday each month in Life & Times.