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Legally, Finders Are Not Always Keepers

feldman_amy Amy Feldman
Amy E. Feldman is a business commentator and legal business...
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By Amy E. Feldman

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) - If you buy a stolen item that you had no idea had been stolen before you bought it, who gets to keep it – you or the original owner?

Oh what a roller coaster of emotion. A woman who bought a painting for $7 at a flea market found out that it was an authentic Renoir worth $100,000. What good news! She then found out that the artwork had been stolen 61 years ago and the rightful owner wants it back. What bad news.

But what’s the legal news? Who gets it?

The American rule is that neither a thief nor a purchaser who buys the stolen article – even if the buyer bought the item in good faith with no knowledge that it had been stolen – can get good title to the item. The only one who has good title is the original owner from whom it was stolen, and gets it back once it’s found.

There have been some court cases that found against that general principle but for the most part, the buyer is not the keeper so if a price looks too good to be true, investigate before you’re out the whopping $7 or more.

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