Baseball Cards Found in Attic: Finders Keepers?

I came across this article, which made me slightly jealous that I don’t have an attic, but also reminded me of a basic rule of property law regarding personal property.  For those too lazy to read the entire article, a man in Ohio found a box of about 700 old baseball cards (including an original Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner) in a dusty box. The cards are in almost perfect condition and may be worth up to $3 million. So on to the rules of property law in case you ever find something this valuable, you can come back to this post to find out if it will remain yours or not!

We all love the phrase “finders keepers” but unfortunately that’s not how it always works. When someone finds property, the location and circumstances under which that property was left there determines whether the finder has a claim to it over the prior owner of the property. There are generally three categories that deal with property that has left its rightful owner without having entered the possession of another person. Here is an overview of the three categories:

Lost Property
Personal property is considered lost if it’s found in a place where the true owner did not intend to leave it and where it is not likely to be found by the true owner. In this case the finder has right to the property over everyone except the true owner or other prior possessors of the property.

Abandoned Property
Property is considered abandoned when the property is found in a place where the owner probably intended to leave it and judging by the way the property looks or location, the owner did not intend to come back for it. This is the closest we come to “finders keepers”. Generally, whoever finds abandoned property can claim ownership. There are a few exceptions in which states require the property to become property of the state.

Mislaid Property
Property is considered mislaid if the owner intended to leave the property where it was found however forgot to pick it up. In this case, the property must be returned to the owner of the premises where the property was found. The assumption is the owner will come back to that place to reclaim the property. However the owner must come back within a reasonable amount of time (what is reasonable will vary depending on the circumstances).

The circumstances in the article are that Karl Kissner found the box in his grandfather’s attic. The article says that it was found in a box underneath an old dollhouse. It seems like Kissner’s grandfather intended to put the box there but basically forgot about it. The box of cards may be considered mislaid property or abandoned property. It depends on the intentions of Kissner’s grandfather. If he left it in the attic and didn’t intend to pull it back out, then it’s abandoned. However, if he simply forgot about it then it is considered mislaid property.

Either way,  there is no legal issue yet as to who’s property this is (unless one of the cousins gets greedy and decides to sue!). Kissner’s aunt left the house and everything in it to her “20 nieces and nephews” and Kissner was put in charge of the estate.

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About Rajiv Radia

Rajiv is a third year law student at American University - Washington College of Law in Washington DC and a long time sports fanatic.
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