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. As it is, Armory formally established the principle that a finder acquires a form of legal title by way of possession.
Armory v Delamirie: The Case
First, to be clear, the naming convention of this case is atypical in that “Armory” wasn’t actually involved. It’s unclear, but it’s believed Armory was the original owner of the “found” jewel. Armory is the name of the case, but the parties represented are the plaintiff (Delamirie) and the defendant (James Bird) who a chimney sweep’s son on the job.
The defendant (Armory — though again, the actual defendant was James Bird) was the son of a chimney sweep. While on the job, he found a jewel setting with a bunch of gems embedded in it (presumably a ring). Armory took the setting to a goldsmith (Delamirie, the plaintiff) to have it appraised. The goldsmith took the gems out of the setting to the back room to weigh them separately, but when he returned, James Bird had taken the setting (without the gems) and left.
However, since the boy (James Bird) was not the original owner, Delamirie sued James Bird for running off with the setting. The reason being, Delamirie believed the setting was valuable and he wanted it for himself (and presumably believed he could argue in court being the adult whereas James Bird was a young boy).
When it went to court, James Bird admitted to finding the setting, but he never gave the goldsmith liberty to remove the gems from the setting and he argued the goldsmith (Delamirie) should return the setting in the same condition (with the gems in the ring) to when Bird brought it in.
The issue before the court was whether James Bird had (technically) 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 the defendant (James Bird or Armory). Since he found the jewel, Bird’s title was superior to all but the true owner; and since the true owner was unknown, this effectively gave Bird true ownership.
The court ordered Delamirie to pay James Bird for the jewel at the highest possible estimation of the jewel’s value in the absence of any contradictory evidence. They also said Delamirie had no right to remove the gems or damaged the setting.
Applications of Armory v Delamirie in Modern Day?
To a degree this is similar (albeit sort of a reversal) to why establishing your entity selection for self-employment is paramount when working as an independent contractor. An LLC or S Corp protects your personal assets from your business ones. In some respects, it’s listing a company or “title” as the true owner, so should a disgruntled client or employee claims you took something of theirs while on the clock, then your personal assets are protected. The company becomes the established true owner, not you.
Other Cases? Truth is Stranger than Fiction
There’s a 2015 documentary called Finders Keepers that touches on something similar but infinitely more nuanced. The documentary follows the story of a man who, due to a tragic accident loses his father and needs to have his leg amputated. The man requests his amputated leg from the hospital to cope with his losses and the hospital obliges. Ultimately, the leg winds up in a storage shed which after many years winds up going on sale. When the shed and all of its contents are put up for auction, a person comes into possession of the leg.
The documentary is what plays out between the two of them, with the true owner wanting his leg back and the new owner choosing to use it as a sort of roadside attraction. Of course, the man who purchased the storage shed is the legal owner, but that doesn’t stop the fight for the leg.
While the film is worth a watch, it’s fascinating from a legal standpoint to consider the ramifications that come from selling your appendages (even accidentally). Even The Simpsons has an episode wherein Bart sells his soul, but is it a legal transaction or further application for Benefit Detriment theory?
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 law was impacted by a chimney sweep’s son stroke of good luck is remarkable.