A common trope in comic books and other literature is the hero (or villain) who accidentally stumbles across a magical artifact or other source of power. One famous example is Tolkien’s The One Ring, but examples abound in comics as well. Alan Scott found his namesake Green Lantern in the remains of a train wreck. Dara Brighton, protagonist of The Sword, finds the namesake weapon in a hidden basement. Cain Marko, aka The Juggernaut, finds the ruby that gives him his power in a temple in Korea.
In the comics it is taken for granted that these characters are the rightful possessors of the artifacts. “Finders keepers,” right? And in the case of the Green Lantern and the Juggernaut’s ruby there also seems to be an implicit invitation to take the artifact. But what are the legal principles at work here?
Over the centuries the common law evolved a nuanced set of rules for handling found property. Broadly speaking, the law distinguishes between four different kinds of found property: abandoned property, lost property, mislaid property, and treasure troves. We’ll consider each one in turn.
I. Abandoned Property
“Abandoned property is that to which the owner has voluntarily relinquished all right, title, claim and possession, with the intention of terminating his ownership, but without vesting it in any other person and with the intention of not reclaiming future possession or resuming its ownership, possession or enjoyment.” Riverside Drainage Dist. of Sedgwick County v. Hunt, 33 Kan.App.2d 225, 228 (Ct. App. Kan. 2004). In short, the property must be purposefully left alone for good.
Proving this can be difficult, however, as the claimant must show that the original owner took actions that demonstrated the intent to actually abandon the property and did not simply lose or mislay it. But if the claimant can prove that the property was abandoned, then it is rightly theirs for the taking because “[a]bandonment is a virtual throwing away without regard as to who may take over or carry on.” Long v. Noah’s Lost Ark, Inc., 814 N.E.2d 555, 565 (Ct. App. Ohio 2004). So generally speaking superheroes and supervillains would prefer that their power sources be considered abandoned property free for the taking.
Note that some states have enacted laws that cause ownership of certain kinds of abandoned property to revert to the state, but as far as I know these laws don’t cover ancient artifacts or supernatural power sources.
Juggernaut’s ruby was found in Korea, so likely Korean law would actually apply, but under the common law it would be considered abandoned property since the temple it was found in was itself abandoned. The gem’s inscription provides further evidence for the abandonment, since it indicates an intention to give up ownership to whoever touches the gem and reads the words but does not refer to any particular person.
II. Lost Property
Intent is what separates abandoned property from lost property. Lost property is “that which the owner has involuntarily parted with through neglect, carelessness or inadvertence and the whereabouts of which is unknown to the owner.” Campbell v. Cochran, 416 A.2d 211, 221 (Del. Super. Ct. 1980).
Someone who finds lost property has superior title to anyone except the true owner. Smith v. Purvis, 474 So.2d 1131 (Ct. Civ. App. Ala. 1985). For a lot of superheroes or supervillains this may not be a problem because if the true owner never steps forward, then their possession is uncontested. For example, consider the case where the original owner is deceased, and so the true owner may be an heir who doesn’t even realize that he or she is the rightful owner.
The Green Lantern seems to be lost property as it was lost involuntarily in the bridge explosion and subsequent train wreck.
III. Mislaid Property
Intent is again what distinguishes lost property from mislaid property, but the distinction here is subtle. Mislaid property is “that which the owner has intentionally laid down in a place where he can again resort to it, and then forgets where he put it.” Campbell, 416 A.2d at 221.
Mislaid property is a problem for a superhero or supervillain because the finder doesn’t actually acquire any ownership rights, although they may possess the property until the true owner is found. In fact, if the property is found on another person’s land, then the finder must turn it over to the property owner, presumably on the assumption that if the true owner comes looking he or she will return to that place.
Thor’s hammer Mjolnir is occasionally found by others, some of whom are even worthy of lifting it. Mjolnir is likely mislaid property because Thor has the power to summon the hammer and thus virtually anywhere it is placed may be considered “a place where [Thor] can again resort to it.” As such, the finders have no ownership rights to it and would, appropriately, have to return it to Thor.
As a practical matter, much of what distinguishes these first three kinds of property is the state and place in which the property is found, since it’s rare that someone goes to a public place and announces to witnesses “I am intentionally abandoning this object.” So an item found in a corner of a basement is likely to be considered mislaid. The same item found on the street or in an alley is likely to be considered lost. And the same item found in the middle of a trash heap is likely to be considered abandoned.
IV. Treasure Troves
The distinctions here are kind, place, and time. First, treasure troves need to be, well, treasure: inherently valuable stuff like precious metals and money. Second, it needs to be hidden, either buried or inside something else. Third, it must have been hidden for a long time, long enough to presume that the true owner and his or her heirs are dead or unknown. Id. As with lost property, the finder of a treasure trove has rights to it against all but the true owner, but since the true owner of a treasure trove is, by definition, either dead or unknown, it essentially amounts to ownership outright.
It’s debatable whether superpower-granting artifacts would fall under the definition of a treasure trove. Certainly if the artifact were buried along with more traditional kinds of treasure then it would be part of the trove. If it were buried alone, however, I think it would only count if it were itself also treasure, which is unlikely. More likely is that it would be considered “property embedded in the earth,” and such items belong to the owner of the land in which they are found. Corliss v. Wenner, 34 P.3d 1100, 1104 (Ct. App. Idaho 2001). That’s a problem for a superhero or supervillain unless they happen to own the land on which the artifact is found. A savvy hero or villain might try to buy the land from the owner before digging up the artifact.
Of special interest to superheroes and supervillains, the doctrine of property embedded in the earth has been specifically held to apply to meteorites. Goddard v. Winchell, 52 N.W. 1124 (Iowa 1892).
Superheroes and supervillains should stick to abandoned property if possible. Lost property is a fair second choice if the true owner is unaware of his or her rights or can’t be found. In the right circumstances an artifact found in a treasure trove can work too. But relying on mislaid property or property embedded in the earth is asking for trouble.