1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Lost Property
LOST PROPERTY. The man who loses an article does not lose his right thereto, and he may recover it from the holder whoever he be, unless his claim be barred by some Statute of Limitations or special custom, as sale in market overt. The rights and duties of the finder are more complex. If he know or can find out the true owner, and yet convert the article to his own use, he is guilty of theft. But if the true owner cannot be discovered, the finder keeps the property, his title being superior to that of every one except the true owner. But this is only if the find be in public or some public place. Thus if you pick up bank notes in a shop where they have been lost by a stranger, and hand them to the shopkeeper that he may discover and repossess the true owner, and he fail to do so, then you can recover them from him. The owner of private land, however, is entitled to what is found on it. Thus a man sets you to clear out his pond, and you discover a diamond in the mud at the bottom. The law will compel you to hand it over to the owner of the pond. This applies even against the tenant. A gas company were lessees of certain premises; whilst making excavations therein they came upon a prehistoric boat; and they were forced to surrender it to their lessor. An aerolite becomes the property of the owner of the land on which it falls, and not of the person finding or digging it out. The principle of these three last cases is that whatever becomes part of the soil belongs to the proprietor of that soil.
Property lost at sea is regulated by different rules. Those who recover abandoned vessels are entitled to salvage. Property absolutely lost upon the high seas would seem to belong to the finder. It has been claimed for the crown, and the American courts have held, that apart from a decree the finder is only entitled to salvage rights, the court retaining the rest, and thus practically taking it for the state on the original owner not being found. The modern English law on the subject of wreck (including everything found on the shore of the sea or tidal river) is contained in the Merchant Shipping Act 1894. The finder must forthwith make known his discovery to the receiver of wreck under a penalty. He is entitled to a salvage reward, but the property belongs to the crown or its grantee unless the true owner claims within a year. In the United States unclaimed wreck after a year generally becomes the property of the state. In Scotland the right to lost property is theoretically in the crown, but the finder would not in practice be interfered with except under the provisions of the Burgh Police (Scotland) Act 1892. Section 412 requires all persons finding goods to deliver them forthwith to the police under a penalty. If the true owner is not discovered within six months the magistrates may hand them over to the finder. If the owner appears he must pay a reasonable reward. Domestic animals, including swans, found straying without an owner may be seized by the crown or lord of the manor, and if not claimed within a year and a day they become the property of the crown or the lord, on the observance of certain formalities. In Scotland they were held to belong to the crown or its donatory, usually the sheriff of a county. By the Burgh Police Act above quoted provision is made for the sale of lost animals and the disposal of the free proceeds for the purposes of the act unless such be claimed. In the United States there is diversity of law and custom. Apart from special rule, lost animals become the property of the finder, but in many cases the proceeds of their sale are applied to public purposes. When property is lost by carriers, innkeepers or railway companies, special provisions as to their respective responsibilities apply. As to finds of money or the precious metals, see Treasure Trove.