The other day I watched the Antiques Roadshow for the first time in ages…..and it’s been worrying me ever since! I haven’t watched in years but, seeing that the programme was broadcast from beautiful Bath, my all-time favourite place, I thought I’d turn on. Several days later, I’m wishing I hadn’t, because a little legal question is driving me mad….
One of the items featured a couple who had brought in a pair of antique bronze statues, of Lord Nelson and AN Other. Nelson nauticalia is not my cup of tea, but the story that accompanied the figures was interesting. The people in question had bought an old caravan to do up and had discovered Nelson and friend in a drawer of the caravan….
The first question, of course, is why on earth would anyone keep antique bronze figures in the drawer of a caravan? (“Darling, have you made sure we’ve packed everything this time? Crockery, bedlinen, toothbrushes, chemical toilet and that nice bronze statue of Lord Nelson. You know how stupid we looked last time when we forgot that; maybe we should just leave it in the drawer so that we don’t forget it next time.”)
No, can’t see it myself…
Anyway, I digress from the point of legal interest. My question is whether the previous owner of the caravan (assuming this person also owned the antique bronzes) would be entitled to reclaim them from the current possessors, especially as it has now been announced on national TV that the value of said figures amounts to about twice as much as the caravan!
I’ve found it surprisingly difficult to get a clear answer to the question. When it comes to lost items found on land the position is fairly straightforward and the finder has the right to keep the property against all but the rightful owner (Armory v Delamirie, Moffatt v Kazana), but what of property found in chattels? Cases on this point seem fairly few and far between. There’s Merry v Green, where the court held that the sale of a bureau did not pass possession of the contents (a purse found in a secret drawer). I’ve found a reference to Thomas v Greenslade  being of relevance, but can’t find a copy of the facts in order to check this one out (if anyone has access to this, please do let me know!) More recently I’ve turned up a dispute in 2007 between the National Library of Wales and an antiques dealer who purchased a chest of drawers and discovered some sketches and personal effects that had belonged to Sir Kiffin Williams (whose papers and artworks had been bequeathed to said Library). The newspaper article I found reports that the National Library successfully obtained an injunction to prevent a planned sale of the items but that only tells us that the court believed there was an issue to be resolved. I cannot find any information as to how the ownership dispute was resolved (again, if anyone knows how this was resolved please post a comment!) The article can be found here:
All in all, it’s very difficult to know exactly what the position is regarding Lord Nel and his chum, but it does at least appear as though there could be grounds for dispute if a disgruntled previous owner happened to be watching TV the other night.
From my point of view, one thing at least is certain: in the event of buying a house/car/bureau/wardrobe etc. and discovering valuable antiques or jewellery hidden within, appearing on TV and brandishing one’s good fortune to the whole world – which may or may not include someone who can claim to be the ‘rightful owner’ – just might not be the smartest thing to do. Much better to check it out carefully first and make sure that you have rights over the property…….or at least sneak off quietly with to the free valuation day at your local branch of Bonhams!