Law and the Goonies

A while back we got a question from JD, who asked:

[In The Goonies], would they really have been able to keep the jewels Mikey got off the pirate ship? Or would the State have asserted ownership of the discovered “historical relics”?

If you haven’t seen The Goonies, you should.  It’s a classic 80s movie, and although it was directed by Richard Donner, the story was written by Stephen Spielberg, and the movie has his fingerprints all over it.  The Blu-Ray edition came out a couple of years ago, and we can recommend it.  For more nostalgia, check out the cast reunion video that Empire magazine put together.

Anyway, back to the question.  We’ve written about lost property before, including treasure troves.  In this case the issue is complicated by two facts: 1) the movie is set in Oregon, so we have to apply Oregon law and 2) the treasure is on a boat.

I. Oregon Law and Lost Property

As you might guess for a state high up on the west coast, there aren’t too many Oregon cases dealing with treasure (just what was a 17th century pirate doing in northwest Oregon anyway?).  But there are enough to get some basic definitions.

In Oregon, a treasure trove is the property of the finder and consists of “[m]oney or coin, gold, silver, plate, or bullion found hidden in the earth or other private place, the owner thereof being unknown.”  Bergeron v. Aero Sales, Inc., 134 P.3d 964, 969 (Or. Ct. App. 2006) (quoting Jackson v. Steinberg, 186 Or. 129 (1948)). “The treasure must have been hidden or concealed so long as to indicate that its owner, in all probability, is dead or unknown.”  Jackson v. Steinberg, 186 Or. at 140.

Notably, “the ownership or possession of the land upon which [treasure trove or abandoned property] was found is immaterial.”  Hill v. Schrunk, 292 P.2d 141, 142 (Or. 1956).  “It seems to be the principle respecting treasure trove, owing to its peculiar nature of being coin, that the present property is in the finder, as against every one but the true owner, provided that the true owner is unknown, and it matters not where or when the same is found, so that it is secreted in the earth or other private place.” Jackson at 144 (quoting Ferguson v. Ray, 44 Or. 557 (1904)).

One-Eyed Willie’s ship (and thus the treasure) was hidden in an underground lagoon, which seems to count as both hidden in the earth and a private place.  One-Eyed Willie is obviously dead, and I don’t recall any descendants being discussed in the movie, certainly not any known ones.  And it doesn’t matter that the Goonies found the treasure on somebody else’s land.  So the Goonies may have a legitimate claim to the jewels as part of a treasure trove.

II. Admiralty Law

Here’s where it gets sticky.  If the treasure is considered a treasure trove, then the answer is easy enough.  But the treasure wasn’t buried underground as such; it was on a boat floating on an underground lake.  This means it might actually be a salvage operation, and salvage and treasure trove are mutually exclusive.  Treasure Salvors, Inc. v. Unidentified Wrecked and Abandoned Sailing Vessel, 459 F. Supp. 507, 525 (S.D. Fla. 1978), aff’d, 621 F.2d 1340 (5th Cir. 1980), aff’d in part, rev’d in part on other grounds, 458 U.S. 670, (1982).  So what is salvage, exactly?

“Salvage” is the compensation or reward allowed to persons by whose voluntary assistance to a ship at sea or its cargo, or both, have been saved in whole or in part from impending sea peril or by which such property has been recovered from actual peril or loss, as in cases of shipwreck, dereliction, or recapture.

Am. Jur. 2d Salvage § 1.  Since the ship was still more-or-less seaworthy, this would seem to be a case of a derelict ship rather than a shipwreck.  If the Goonies had actually engaged in a salvage operation then they would not have any right to the ship or its contents but rather only to receive a salvage award.  That means no fair keeping the jewels, but the salvage award would be more than enough to compensate.  The problem is that the boat went sailing off into the ocean, and getting a salvage award can take years.  That’s cold comfort when the evil Astoria Country Club is breathing down your neck.

Hope is not yet lost, however.  Salvage only applies to ships that have not been abandoned by their owners.  Columbus–America Discovery v. Atlantic Mut. Ins., 974 F.2d 450, 459 (4th Cir.1992).  When a ship has been abandoned, then a different law applies, the law of finds.

Under the law of finds, the finder gets the ship and its contents, not a salvage award.  Helpfully for this case, abandonment can be inferred when neither the owner nor their heirs have attempted to reclaim the vessel for a considerable length of time.  See, e.g., Marex Intern., Inc. v. Unidentified, Wrecked and Abandoned Vessel, 952 F.Supp. 825, 828-29 (S.D. Ga.  1997) (holding that a vessel sunk in 1840 was properly considered abandoned).  Willie’s ship, The Inferno, is certainly old enough to qualify as abandoned, and again there are no signs of any heirs.  Under the law of finds, the Goonies could sue to establish title to the ship and its contents.  If no heirs showed up to contest it, it would be theirs.

Even under the law of finds there is a catch, however.  The Inferno may be an historic shipwreck.  If it is, then the court could impose an archaeological duty of care before handing over title.  Marex, 952 F.Supp. at 829.  The Goonies would also have to show some reasonable prospect of success at recovering the ship.  Given the Goonies’ fairly cavalier approach to treasure hunting (and the fact that the movie ends with the ship floating out to sea), bringing in some professional archaeologists and recovery experts might not be a bad idea.

III. Conclusion

Whether the law of lost property or admiralty applies, the Goonies just might have a good claim to the treasure.  The law of lost property would probably treat them better, however.

8 responses to “Law and the Goonies

  1. I haven’t seen the movie, but you keep saying the treasure was jewels; and you say the treasure trove law covers “[m]oney or coin, gold, silver, plate, or bullion”. If they found gems with no setting (or with a setting of, say, platinum), would that mean it wasn’t covered by the law?

    • The treasure included both precious metals and jewels. I mention the jewels specifically because that’s the part of the treasure that the Goonies actually took. The rest of it sailed away with the ship, evidently.

      I’m fairly certain that jewels would be covered under treasure trove, especially since they were part of a larger hoard. The common law definition stems from an era in which treasures were occasionally found buried in Great Britain, typically from the Viking or Roman era (for example), and those typically only had metal items in them, not jewels. More modern cases have accepted an expansive definition of treasure, including paper money. The broadest case I’ve found defined it simply as “valuables buried on the land of another, where ‘the treasure [was] hidden or concealed so long as to indicate that the owner is probably dead or unknown.’” Martin v. Moore, 109 S.W.3d 305 (Ct. App. Tenn. 2003).

  2. The ship probably wasn’t very seaworthy after sitting around for so long. What happens if it sinks at sea?
    Would that change it to a salvage operation?
    If the ship is declared a historic ship, could the Goonies be in any trouble for effectively destroying it if it sinks?

    Bonus question, considering that Halloween is next week:
    If Willy had been undead, would the ship still count as abandoned?

  3. I suppose no one cares that Astoria doesn’t actually sit on the ocean. It is actually on the Columbia River. There actually is a historic shipwreck nearby (the Peter Iredale) and there are plenty of shipwrecks nearby (both in the harbor and at the Columbia river bar.)
    There is an excellent maritime museum in Astoria, but its economic importance has declined with the availability of commercial salmon fishing.

    P.S. There is an availability of gold in Oregon (see, e.g., the town of “Gold Beach”, which gets its name in the way you’d expect) but they are on the south coast; trade along the north coast was in fur.

  4. One more thing. Astoria is right across the river from Washington (admittedly, it is VERY wide river) so there is a tiny possibility that the ship/trove is actually subject to Washington’s jurisdiction, rather than Oregon’s. (I haven’t seen the movie in a very long time, and admittedly didn’t pay that much attention then, so I don’t remember exactly where everything goes down. It’s unlikely that kids rode bikes across the bridge into Washington (I don’t believe non-motorized vehicles are permitted, and the bridge is a couple of miles long.) Then again, I don’t know of anywhere in the vicinity of Astoria on the Oregon side that you could have a grotto big enough to hide a sailing ship in. The land is mostly flat, and although there are some rocky promontories, I think you’d have to travel an awfully long way south from Astoria (which is already several miles from the ocean) to find a good spot. I think Spielberg and Donner just assumed that 99.9+% of America would never know that.
    Not as bad as the part in WarGames, though, where they find the professor living on an island off the Oregon coast served by ferry. (Next state over for those). Conversely, part of Short Circuit was filmed in Astoria (other scenes were shot in the Columbia River Gorge).

  5. Is it possible that while the ship is underground (when the jewels were taken) it would be considered a treasure trove and then later after the ship has been released any jewels found aboard would be considered salvage? The way I see it, the ship was buried by Willie and his crew, how else did they get it underground? The obvious answer is the my found a cave with sea access, maneuvered the ship into the cave and then blocked the entrance effectively burying the ship. The fact that the ship is floating while buried to me is immaterial and therefore would count as a buried treasure trove. Now after the ship is released, the facts change and the ship is essentially an abandoned floatig vessel on the high seas. Any jewels seized after the release would count as salvage under Admiralty law.

  6. I have a question about buried treasure by the spanards, specifically the Mt. Neakanie lost treasure. If I find that treasure in a cave on Oregon state land can I keep it? And can the Spanish try to claim it?

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