Buried Treasure?

          “A treasure is a thing hidden or buried in the earth, . . . which no one can prove his property, and which is discovered by chance.”

This definition of “Treasure” is quoted from the laws of the State of Louisiana. The definition has its origins in the Napoleonic code upon which Louisiana law is based. Louisiana law also provides that “The ownership of a treasure belongs to the person who finds it.”

I remember as a young boy running across the book Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.  This book describes pirates, mutinies, sailing ships, ocean journeys and buried treasure.  Thoughts of buried treasure usually call up movies like Pirates of the Caribbean.  But treasure really sometimes does exist, and sometimes in the most unlikely places.

Lucian Sebastian Baron was a wealthy resident of Lousiana who died in 1928.  At the time of his death, he was being taken care of by his daughter Emily.  After her father’s death, Emily moved in with her brother at a home near New Orleans, and she bought a mattress.  When the family moved, Emily took the mattress with her.

Emily eventually built a separate home for herself next to her brother’s home.  She had customary locks on the doors on her home, and a special lock on the door of her bedroom.

Emily seldom left her home. She allowed nobody to enter her bedroom unless she was present.  She ordered her clothes by catalog.  By the time of her death at age 82 in 1957, she was completely blind. At the time of her death, she left no will.

Emily’s mattress remained locked up in her room for a year after she died.

Emily’s heirs inherited all of her property.  They sold her mattress for $2.50.  The mattress was taken to a mattress works where it was dismantled. The interior cotton was processed through a chopping machine.  The cotton was then placed into another box where air was blasted through it.  When all of the air stopped blowing, there was $22,500 in gold certificates that had been stored in the mattress.  That’s a fair amount of money in 1957.

Emily’s heirs claimed that the gold certificates were “lost property” and that as Emily’s heirs they were entitled to keep the certificates.  The mattress buyers, however, claimed that they had paid good money for the mattress and everything in it, so the certificates belonged to them.  The mattress buyers also claimed that the gold certificates were “in fact a treasure trove, and that, since the treasure was found in their property, it belonged to them.”  This case is reported at United States v. Peter (1959) 178 F. Supp. 854.

You be the judge.  Who wins?  The heirs of the wealthy 82-year-old woman who lives alone and stuffs her mattress with money?  Or the fortunate purchasers of the mattress who find a treasure trove in their mattress?

After discussing both English Law and the Napoleonic Code on the subject of treasure, the Court made short work of the arguments by the mattress purchasers. The court awarded the money to Emily’s heirs.  If the true owners of the money couldn’t be found, then the mattress purchasers would have made a good claim to the money.  But since the money clearly belonged to Emily, her heirs were entitled to it.

So much for buried treasure.  Any modern-day Long John Silvers should remember that if they find a treasure chest, the owner has the right to the treasure.  And if the true owner files a lawsuit for return of the treasure, then the successful treasure hunter will probably just be out of luck.

Copyright 2017 ROBERT B. JACOBS