The Law of Finding Treasure in Texas
Congratulations to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Super Bowl LV champions. Between the Buccaneers and their opponents, the Kansas City Chiefs, I would have thought that only the latter had a controversial team name, but according to the Washington Post, “there is danger in romanticizing ruthless cutthroats.” Nevertheless, the Bucs victory coincided for me, personally, with my stumbling upon a rousing sea shanty about kitties on YouTube and a podcast about the pirate Jean Laffite coming up in my playlist queue. Consequently, my thoughts have been occupied by pirates lately, and especially legends of their buried treasure being lost and waiting to be found. After looking into it a bit, it turns out there is a decent amount of law applicable to buried treasure.
Under common law—although not entirely applicable in Texas—found personal property is divided into five classifications: abandoned, lost, mislaid, embedded, and treasure trove.
- Abandoned property is property that the owner has discarded or voluntarily forsaken with the intention of terminating ownership, but without vesting ownership in another person.
- Lost property is property with which the owner has involuntarily and unintentionally parted through neglect, carelessness, or inadvertence and of whose whereabouts the owner has no knowledge.
- Mislaid property is property that the owner has intentionally set down in a place where the owner can again resort to it, but then forgets its location.
- Embedded property is personal property that has become part of the natural earth, and includes anything not made of gold or silver, or their paper equivalents.
- Treasure trove is a special category reserved exclusively for gold or silver coins, plates, bullion, and sometimes its paper money equivalents, found concealed in the earth or another private place.
Abandoned property belongs to whomever finds it. Lost property belongs to whomever finds it, subject only to a claim by the true owner. Mislaid property belongs to the owner of the property on which it is found, subject only to a claim by the true owner. Embedded property belongs to the owner of the property on which it is found. Treasure trove is generally treated the same as lost property.
Texas courts seem to recognize only two of the five common law categories: lost and mislaid property. Additionally, even Texas common law has been superseded, at least as to personal property found on public land, by the adoption of the Antiquities Code of Texas. Under the code, any treasure found on property owned by the state or by a political subdivision of the state belongs to the State of Texas. Therefore, unless you are merely interested in the historical and architectural aspects of treasure, there is essentially no benefit to hunting treasure on public lands in Texas, and without gaining the consent of a private property owner, you are unlikely to benefit from any treasure you may find on private land either.
And now, a corny pirate joke: How much does it cost to buy corn from a pirate? A sum totaling ONE DOLLAR ($1.00) per unit, being due and payable immediately upon delivery, free on board. Buyer assumes goods as-is and with all faults. Seller disclaims all warranties, whether express, implied, or implied by law, including without limitation warranties of merchantability and of fitness for a particular purpose. WARNING: This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.
Please do not rely on this article as legal advice. We can tell you what the law is, but until we know the facts of your given situation, we cannot provide legal guidance. This website is for informational purposes and not for the purposes of providing legal advice. Information about our commercial and business litigation practice can be found here.
Byron L. Brown is an attorney with the Randle Law Office in Houston, Texas, where his practice areas include municipal economic development, municipal franchises and commercial lease litigation. He graduated from the University of Texas at San Antonio with a B.A. in Criminal Justice, and earned his J.D. from the University of Houston Law Center.