The tenuous legality of hunting for buried treasure

News, Bizarre, NakedLaw

About seven years ago, a successful Santa Fe art dealer and author named Forrest Fenn allegedly hid a box filled with gold and jewels somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. Fenn then challenged the public to find and claim his hidden cache.

Fenn’s real-life treasure hunt was meant to inspire a sense of adventure (or, more cynically, to sell books). But Fenn’s hunt has become dangerous. Three people have died in the search, which has some people questioning the legality and ethics of treasure hunting.

Finders keepers?

While “finders keepers” is implicit in Fenn’s treasure hunt, it’s an adage that is only sometimes supported by actual law. Legal rules and their application can vary from case to case based on individual circumstances, including the type of treasure and where it’s found. For example, digging on federal land is a felony, and any items of archaeological or ecological value found are protected.

Similar laws exist for state-owned lands. Cities and counties can claim their right to property found in public, but they often waive this right in favor of the finder.

Private property owners, both individuals and businesses, have a strong claim to objects found on their property. These property owners are often considered stronger claimants than the finder, and may even press charges for trespassing. And don’t even think about digging in burial grounds: gravesites are protected from unauthorized excavation no matter where they are located.

Many jurisdictions also require a search for the rightful owner of found valuables. In California, for example, found items valued over $100 must be turned over to police, who then advertise the lost property before releasing it to the finder if no one claims it. Oregon law is similar.

Meanwhile, finders are keepers by Texas law, except in the case of contraband.

Abandoned, lost, or mislaid

Laws dealing with found valuables also vary according to the classification of the item(s). Case law often hinges on the type of found treasure: abandoned, lost, or mislaid.

  • Abandoned – Left behind intentionally when it appears that the former owner does not intend to return.
  • Lost – Inadvertently left behind.
  • Mislaid – Intentionally left behind with the intent to retrieve it, but subsequently forgotten.

In almost all cases, the original owner or heirs have the strongest claim to the property. Otherwise, abandoned or lost property is usually awarded to the finder, while mislaid items often go to the owner of the property where the item was mislaid.

Fenn’s treasure

Fenn’s money is meant to found, but that doesn’t eliminate legal challenges. The Archaeological Resources Protection Act defines a treasure trove as “money, gems, or precious metals in the form of coin, plate, or bullion that has been deliberately hidden with the intention of recovering it later.” Searching for a treasure trove, in classic bureaucratic fashion, requires a permit. The government will still “protect the rights of the public regarding ownership of or claims on any recovered property.” And the federal government could stake an ownership claim to more than just taxes on Fenn’s gold.

Ironically, there are fewer legal issues if Fenn’s treasure is imaginary, as many suspect. Fenn’s book is titled The Thrill of the Chase. To a man who believes the seeking is worth more than the finding, actual treasure would not be required for a good treasure hunt.

Your money or your life

Whether Fenn’s treasure is real or a hoax, the hunt has led to three deaths. Eric Ashby drowned in Colorado’s Arkansas River in June 2017, only weeks after Paris Wallace died in the Rio Grande and a year after Randy Bilyeu met a similar fate in New Mexico. In view of these deaths, New Mexico authorities have urged Fenn to call off the search, and various critics online have accused Fenn of manslaughter.

But Fenn himself has reminded searchers that he buried the treasure at the age of 80, so it can’t be in a place that is hard to reach. He has also specifically stated that it is not in a dangerous location, like an old mine, and that the Rio Grande is outside the search area, as are private and tribal lands and old cemeteries.

Those searching for Fenn’s treasure should do what anyone exploring the American wilderness should do—learn about local hazards and take safety precautions. And while they ponder the notion of “finders keepers,” they’d be well advised to consider another adage: “better safe than sorry.”