The evolution of our law is truly an amazing phenomenon. It is equal parts humbling and awe-inspiring to contemplate that many foundational legal concepts trace their origin to cases which occurred hundreds of years ago. To the casual observer, it may seem as though our law emerged just recently all at once as a finished product, the miraculous outcome of one act of divine intervention; in actuality, our system has come about through an exceedingly slow, gradual process of revision and refinement transpiring over the course of many centuries.
Take, for example, the very basic idea that a person who finds an object establishes some type of claim of ownership to the object. Colloquially, this principle is referred to as the rule of “finders, keepers.” This simple notion was not created by an American jurist, nor was it created within living memory. In point of fact, this idea first acquired legal significance through the famous English case of Armory v. Delamirie which was heard in 1722. Armory formally established the principle that a finder acquires a form of legal title by way of possession.
Armory (plaintiff) was the helper of a chimney sweep. While on the job, he found a jewel composed of gems embedded in a ring. Armory took the jewel to a goldsmith (Delamirie, the defendant) to have it appraised. The goldsmith’s apprentice took the gems from the ring so as to weigh them separately. The apprentice gave Armory an estimation of their value and then returned the ring without the gems. The apprentice made an offer for the jewel but Armory declined. Armory demanded that the gems be returned inside the sockets of the ring in the same condition as when they were initially brought to the goldsmith’s shop. The apprentice did not comply – presumably on the excuse that he “lost” the gems – and subsequently Armory brought a suit against the goldsmith (via respondeat superior) for the return of the jewel.
The issue before the court was whether Armory had a superior title to the jewel despite the fact that he was not the true owner. That is, whether the title he acquired through finding the jewel was sufficient to warrant the return of the jewel from the goldsmith.
In the hierarchy of ownership, the present possessor (or finder) has a superior title against everyone except the true owner.
The court (The Court of King’s Bench) ruled in favor of Armory. Since he found the jewel, Armory’s title was superior to all but the true owner; and since the true owner was unknown this effectively gave Armory true ownership. The court ordered Delamirie to pay Armory for the jewel at the highest possible estimation of the jewel’s value in the absence of any contradictory evidence as to the jewel’s value.
The importance of possession in acquiring property rights was understood prior to the case of Armory v. Delamirie; in fact, the rule of “finders, keepers” has existed in some form since ancient Rome. But it was Armory which caused this old idea to be codified in our common law. The fact that our common law was heavily impacted by a chimney sweep helper’s stroke of good fortune is nothing less than remarkable.
Image credit: Aleksey Gnilenkov
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