Fans of HGTV’s “If Walls Could Talk” are familiar with tales of homeowners finding hidden treasures as they explore their newly purchased home or property that has been held in their family for generations.
Sometimes interesting finds are out in the open, in the corner of a basement or an attic. Other times, items are found during a home’s remodeling or renovation.
On the television program, many of the “treasures” are more historic than monetarily valuable, such as boxes of love letters, hidden diaries, antique tapestries or Civil War-era swords.
Recent shows have featured homeowners finding moonshine, shot glasses and dice in their basements, harking back to an era when gambling and drinking were done in secret.
One of the splashier news stories about finding hidden treasure came out in April 2006, when family members of illustrator Donald Trachte Sr. discovered a Norman Rockwell painting hidden behind a fake wall in the attic.
Mr. Trachte had hidden the painting after copying it but had never told his family. Donald Trachte Jr. told the Berkshire Eagle after the discovery, “I think he just wanted to tuck these in the wall for his kids.”
The Rockwell painting was discovered by family members cleaning the home after the father’s death. No dispute could be made about the ownership of the painting because the home had not changed hands.
However, if the home had been sold before the discovery of the painting, ownership of the famous artwork might have been in dispute.
Lawyer Carol Blumenthal of Blumenthal & Shanley in the District says, “Under the law, ‘abandonment’ of property is a matter of intent. If I drop a gum wrapper on the ground, I clearly meant to abandon that piece of my property. But if I leave a painting behind in a home I have sold, the question is whether I forgot it or I meant to leave it behind.”
Bethesda lawyer David Modell says his “gut reaction” to the question of who owns personal property in a home is “finders keepers.”
“The second issue to think about is whether you own the personal property that is in a home once you purchase it,” says Mr. Modell, of the Law Offices of David P. Modell. “If someone has a hidden safe that is attached to the wall, then that is part of the house. The ownership of a loose item such as a painting or an antique may be a little less clear, but essentially, once someone sells a home and leaves anything behind, that’s considered ‘abandoned property.’ ”
Jerry Friedlander, a lawyer with Friedlander, Friedlander & Earman in McLean, says owners who find an item in their home after moving in should look at their contract to determine if anything in the contract applies to their particular situation.
“Normally the sales contract means that you have bought the real estate, not the personal property in the home,” Mr. Friedlander says. “If something is permanently attached to the home, such as a special chandelier, it belongs to you unless the contract specifically says otherwise. If something is not attached to the home and hasn’t been mentioned in the contract, then it belongs to the home sellers. However, once something has been left behind, it now belongs to the new owners.”
Mr. Friedlander points out that although contracts often list items such as window treatments and light fixtures to state whether they convey or do not convey with the property, it would be highly unlikely to see a contract that referred to a hidden item.
“You’re not likely to see a contract which reads, ‘Oh by the way, that treasure I buried in the back yard a decade ago, that does not convey,’ ” Mr. Friedlander says.