What ever happened to “finders keepers, losers weepers?” These days, when American divers discover a valuable shipwreck in the Atlantic or a couple stumbles across millions of dollars worth of rare coins in their own back yard, Uncle Sam or some other government has its hand out.
Most recently, the California couple who found $10 million in rare 19th century coins during a stroll might be forced to turn it over to the U.S. government. Yes, the same government that donates billions in foreign aid to unfriendly countries for no apparent reason and throws trillions in interest payments at its growing $17-trillion-plus debt may claim the money, ceding only a finders fee.
This would certainly not be the first time the U.S. government confiscated a precious coin collection legally obtained by private citizens. In 2012, Judge Legrome Davis of the Eastern District Court of Pennsylvania affirmed a 2011 decision that a box of 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagle coins discovered by the family of Israel Switt, a deceased dealer and collector, is the property of the United States.
A few months ago, an anonymous California couple found their pot of gold near a path on their property, end-of-rainbows notwithstanding. At first, the glint from a mostly buried can near the base of a tree caught their eye. Before it was over, the two had dug up five canisters of rare coins, mostly uncirculated and in mint condition. The money has a face value of $27,000 but is worth millions.
Even if the government does not seize the collection, it stands to collect about half of its fair market value in taxes, charged to 2013 when the couple discovered the collection. According to U.S. tax law, the pair will owe the taxes whether or not they sell the coins.
"Since 1981, people have been coming to us with one or two coins they find worth a few thousand dollars, but this is the first time we get someone with a whole cache of buried coins... It is a million to one chance, even harder than winning the lottery," coin expert Dr. Don Kagan from Kagin's, Inc. recently told ABCNews.com.
Unfortunately, the California couple’s find reportedly matches the contents of a 1900 gold heist from the San Francisco Mint. This means, the government that recently spent a half-million dollars to study shrimp on a treadmill, millions more for a catfish study and this year blew $175,000 to examine the swimming abilities of fish, may ultimately claim ownership of the booty.
U.S. courts do not limit their authority to confiscation of hard-earned fortunes to the U.S. government. In 2012, a US court ruled $500m of gold and silver coins recovered by US treasure-hunters from the Atlantic in 2007 belonged to Spain.
With a population of about 47 million and its economy in tatters, Spain owes close to $1 trillion in national debt, but its thriving underground market amounts 25-percent of GDP. In comparison, Spain’s government debt represents about 90-percent of its GDP.
Perhaps the U.S. and Spanish economies would fare better if the California couple kept their booty and Spain returned the treasure that the Atlantic divers risked their lives to salvage.
On the other hand, we can be sure that both governments re-minted the value of both hauls and spent it years ago without the consent or knowledge of “the people.”