It’s a time-honored recess tradition that should a group of kids find something on the ground, then “finders, keepers” is the binding contract. Despite how silly it may sound, this is effectively what Armory v Delamirie sought to define: what constitutes, and who can claim, ownership of an object. This idea first reached 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 V Delamirie: The Case
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.
What’s the Law Say?
In the hierarchy of ownership, the present possessor (or finder) has a superior title against everyone except the true owner.
Court Rules In Favor of Armory
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.