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Finders keepers’ law not always a golden ticket

Mar 12, 2016 | 2016 Toronto Star Property Law Columns

By Bob Aaron
Toronto Star contributing columnist

Bob Aaron bob@aaron.ca

What would you do if you found a gold bar while renovating someone’s house?

If you had been hired to renovate and in the process discovered a 1 kg gold bar worth $50,000, would you return it to the owner of the house? Or pocket it and say nothing?

That was the dilemma facing Alif Babul and his new employee Dean Materi last month during renovations of a client’s bathroom.

Materi was on the job as a plumber’s apprentice only two days when he found a gold bar the size of a cellphone.

“I seen a gold shimmery thing on the ground and I thought it was a copper light fixture,” he said. “I picked it up and it was a gold brick.”

Babul, the owner of a home improvement company, said, “Finding a gold brick underneath a tub is kind of strange.” Easily the understatement of the year.

He thinks the brick was hidden near the Jacuzzi tub in the bathroom and over time was moved by the vibration of the motor.

Babul debated returning the brick to the homeowners but ultimately decided “it’s the right thing to do.”

Not surprisingly, the homeowners claimed they had lost the bar and were delighted to recover it.

This strange story started me wondering about whether the plumbers were entitled to keep the gold.

The law of “finders keepers” goes back at least as far as the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 22 says, “Thou shalt not see thy brother’s ox or his sheep driven away and hide thyself from them; thou shalt surely bring them back unto thy brother.”

In British common law, which still applies in Canada when there is no conflicting statute on the books, the rule dates back to the 1722 case of Armory v. Delamirie. Armory was a chimney sweep who found a jewelled ring while cleaning a chimney. He took it to Delamirie, a jeweller, who removed the stones from the setting and offered Delamirie three halfpence.

Delamirie refused and sued for the value of the jewels. He won his case, with the jury awarding him £10, a huge sum in those days. The court ruled that the finder of an item does not have an absolute property right in it but he does have title superior to everyone except the rightful owner.

Over the last four centuries, the law books are full of cases involving lost and found property. A typical report involved a 12-year old boy named Bird. In 1946 he was playing with friends behind a pool room on private property when he crawled under the building. There he discovered a can containing $1,430 in cash.

The local police seized the money and turned it over to the town of Fort Frances, Ont. When nobody claimed it, the boy sued to recover the funds. Chief Justice James C. McRuer decided that when the police could not discover who the true owner was, they were obliged to return the money to the finder. Bird was awarded the full sum, which was to be held by the court until he was 21.

Some years ago a good client of mine was renovating a home he purchased in the Annex neighbourhood. Hidden on top of one of the furnace pipes in the basement he discovered a 1937 $10 bill with the portrait of King George VI. Knowing of my interest in the hobby, he happily presented it to me and I cherish it to this day.

All of which brings me back to the plumbers in Calgary. I have to wonder: who hides a $50,000 gold bar under the Jacuzzi and doesn’t tear the room apart looking for it?


Contact Bob Aaron

Bob Aaron is a Toronto real estate lawyer and frequent speaker to groups of home buyers and real estate agents.
He can be reached by email at bob@aaron.ca, phone 416-364-9366 or fax 416-364-3818.

Aaron & Aaron specialize in Real Estate Law, specifically Sale of Rental, Condominium, Residential, Rural Recreation, Offer to Lease, Commercial, and New Construction

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