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Judge: Hidden art belongs to heirs, not home buyer

We're all familiar with the phrase, "finders, keepers," but the old adage certainly does not hold true in every instance. With that in mind, Twin Cities residents may be interested in an unusual case of probate litigation. According to a news report, a judge decided that valuable artwork discovered hidden in a deceased artist's former home belongs to the artist's heirs and beneficiaries, not to the homeowner who discovered the hidden art stash.

The homeowner bought the former home of artist James Castle from the representative of the artist's estate. She bought the home in 1997 and discovered the hidden artworks 13 years later. She also claimed that she had been told by the estate representative that she could keep any of Castle's works she found after purchasing the house.

But Castle's heirs, who formed a partnership to manage and sell the artist's works, argued that the homeowner had only been told that she could keep miscellaneous items the artist used to create his works. The heirs asserted that their inheritance rights entitled them to any actual works of art found in the house.

Ruling in favor of the heirs, the judge found that the artist had not abandoned the artworks by hiding them in the attic of the house. The judge concluded that the art had simply been mislaid. According to the judge, the art is the rightful property of the heirs, and the homeowner had a duty to return such property to the heirs after she found the hidden stash.

The homeowner's case appears not to have been helped by her own dishonesty during court proceedings. She told the family that she had returned all the art she found, but it came out during court proceedings that she had sold three pieces and had the proceeds sent to her or to family members.

The law regarding ownership of lost or mislaid property can be surprisingly complex, and the complications only increase when ownership rights become intertwined with probate laws. Minnesotans who find valuable property of uncertain ownership may want to make certain they understand their legal rights before selling or disposing of the property.

Source: Idaho Statesman, "Judge: Finder is not a keeper in James Castle art lawsuit," Patrick Orr, June 25, 2012

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