Corliss v. Wenner: Rock Magazine Publisher Awarded Possession of Buried Treasure

A Idaho appellate court has decided whether a hired laborer or the publisher of Rolling Stone magazine was the rightful owner of rare gold coins discovered on the publisher's property by the laborer during a land excavation.

Jann Wenner ("Publisher"), publisher of Rolling Stone magazine, hired Anderson Asphalt Paving ("Company") to build a driveway on his Idaho ranch. In the process of building the driveway, Larry Anderson ("Anderson") and Gregory Corliss ("Corliss") discovered a jar containing rare gold coins whose value was estimated somewhere between $25,000 and a million dollars. Anderson and Corliss initially agreed to divide the coins in half, with Anderson temporarily retaining possession of the coins. Anderson also loaned Corliss money, which Corliss secured by his share of the coins. Eventually, a dispute arose between Anderson and Corliss as to who was the owner of the coins. Anderson turned the coins over to the Publisher, and the Publisher agreed to defend Anderson against any claims brought by Corliss. Corliss sued Anderson and the Publisher for his share of the coins, and Anderson counterclaimed against Corliss for the amount of his loan. The trial court ruled that the Publisher was the owner of the coins, and also ruled in favor of Anderson on his counterclaim. Corliss appealed.

The Court of Appeals of Idaho affirmed the trial court's rulings. The court first considered what rights, if any, Corliss had in property found on another's property. The legal doctrines governing found property have historical roots dating back to the Middle Ages, and are broken into five categories. The various doctrines require the court to look at the facts of each case to determine the intent of the owner at the time the owner was separated from the property. "Abandoned property" is property where the owner has voluntarily relinquished ownership of the property but without designating a new owner. "Lost property" is property where the owner has unintentionally lost possession. "Mislaid property" is property that the owner intentionally left in a specific location but can no longer remember where the property was placed. "Treasure trove" is a doctrine which only applies to gold or silver in coin, plate, or bullion that is found concealed in the earth, a house, or other private place. "Embedded property" is property which has become part of the earth. Under these doctrines, a finder acquires ownership of lost property, abandoned property, or a treasure trove. A finder of mislaid property is required to turn this property over to the owner and also has a duty to protect this property while it is in its possession. The owner of land where embedded property is found becomes the owner of the property.

On appeal, Corliss argued that the trial court had incorrectly ruled that the treasure trove doctrine did not apply in Idaho. The trial court had ruled that the property was not abandoned or lost, as it appeared from the condition and placement of the coins that the owner was burying the coins for safekeeping. Looking at the law of Idaho, the trial court found that the treasure trove doctrine had not been adopted in Idaho. The trial court also found that the modern trend was to treat this type of property as either embedded or mislaid, not as treasure trove. Thus, the trial court had ruled that the coins were embedded property and the Publisher was the owner of the coins.

The court affirmed the trial court's rejection of the treasure trove doctrine in Idaho. The court ruled that possession of personal property embedded in the earth will be awarded to the owner of the property, subject to the rules of mislaid property. Part of the reason the court rejected the treasure trove doctrine was that this doctrine encourages people to trespass on the land of others, in the hopes of finding a treasure trove. The court also stated that the idea that a person hired by the owner to perform work on the owner's property would have greater ownership rights in the property than the landowner ran counter to the modern conceptions of private property ownership. Thus, the court affirmed the trial court's ruling that the coins belonged to the Publisher. The court also affirmed the trial court's entry of judgment in favor of Anderson on the counterclaim, ruling that Anderson was entitled to collect the entire loan amount since Corliss had no claim to the coins. Therefore, all the rulings of the trial court were affirmed.

Corliss v. Wenner, 34 P.3d 1100 (Idaho Ct. App. 2001).