Contractor, Homeowner at Odds Over Fortune Found in Bathroom Walls

Most folks are happy to reach into the pocket of a little-used jacket and find a long-forgotten $10 bill.

Multiply that feeling by 18,200 and you will understand how Lakewood home-improvement contractor Bob Kitts felt when he pulled a giant cache of Depression-era cash from the walls of an 83-year-old Cleveland home he was renovating.

As he was ripping plaster from bathroom-wall studs, Kitts found bundles of bills totaling $182,000 wrapped in pre-World War II Plain Dealer news pages and tucked into boxes. The money is in such good condition, and some of the bills are so rare and collectible, that one currency appraiser valued the treasure at up to $500,000, Kitts said.

But there's a hitch:

The walls from which Kitts pulled the money aren't his walls. The house isn't his house. Nobody knows for certain whose money it is.

Yet Kitts claims it as his own. He and his lawyer have dusted off an obscure, centuries-old legal doctrine called "treasure trove" - a common-law finders-keepers provision - that they believe gives him top claim to the wealth.

Ohio and most other states have no specific statute governing what happens when someone finds a once-hidden treasure, so common-law principles dating to pre-Revolutionary Great Britain come into play, said Cleveland-Marshall's Robertson.

That common law has a fairly definitive "finders-keepers" bent to it.

That's true even when the finding is done on someone else's property, as long as the finder had permission to be there, courts have established.

That doesn't mean Kitts is clearly the winner. Unless the two sides settle, a judge or jury will need to decide whether he found money that was, in a legal sense, "lost" or "mislaid," Robertson and other lawyers say.

Kitts asserts he found lost money, and court rulings in Ohio establish that treasure trove's "finders keepers" law does indeed apply to something that was lost, if there's no reason to believe any owner will reappear to claim it.

But if it was absentmindedly mislaid on private property rather than lost, the owner of the property on which the discovery was made becomes the safekeeper of the lost goods, according to case law and legal texts.

In either case, the holder must make a good-faith effort to find the original owner or heirs before cashing in.

Details here from the Cleveland Plain Dealer. (via ObscureStore)