So Whaddaya Think? A Legal Question

Here’s a legal question for you.  Say you buy an old house once owned by a famous artist.  While remodeling you discover an original painting behind a rack in the wine cellar.  It is signed and dated by the artist and is unknown to the art world.  It’s clearly worth a lot of money and you are thrilled to be the new owner.  But then the grandchildren of the artist learn about it and sue you.  They say they inherited all the artist’s unsold paintings and even though this one was stored in your new home, by the terms of the will it belongs to them.  Does their claim hold water?  What do you think?

I’m asking because the characters in my novel-in-progress ate faced with a similar predicament and I don’t have a handy judge or lawyer around.  Your opinion could influence the entire course of fictional history!

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8 thoughts on “So Whaddaya Think? A Legal Question

  1. If I bought an old house and found a Walrus Pemmican poem written on the bathroom door, I would assume it would be mine to keep. Finders Keepers is a n ancient commonlaw practice dating back to when my Uncle Art found a rough draft of Picasso’s “Guernica” on a cocktail napkin. It never made him rich, but it was his, by golly. But I digress.

    How long has it been in the house? How long has the painter been deceased? I would think there might be some statute of limitations on that sort of situation, or like an adverse possession thing, to stop unnecessary and interminable litigation.

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  2. Hmmm, very good question … I used to work for some awesome lawyers but, of course, nothing this enticing ever came up…I think that if there’s a will and it directly states the artist’s heirs own rights to all of his unsold work then they probably have right to it. Of course, the will says “unsold” paintings – if it was sold at one time to, say, the previous owner of the house…in that case (and if there was a bill of sale to prove it, it would probably belong to the previous owners heirs instead). But this is just a guess, and I’m rambling =) Very interesting question, though……

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  3. OK, does intent matter at all? Every artist has canvases he or she started and never finished because they’re weren’t working. But say this painting was hidden because the artist didn’t want anyone to see it. Maybe it was too graphic in some way – maybe it’s too erotic and he or she is known as a Norman Rockwell type. The artist likes it, but wants to keep it secret. Then at the age of 72 he suddenly dies of a stroke. No one knows it’s there behind the wine rack. Seventy years pass before you find it.

    Meanwhile, the family has amassed a fortune from this artist’s painting. They have their own museum in the town. They want this painting bad. They’ll do anything legal to get it, short of buying it of course. What chance do they have? Keep going!

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  4. Why pose this question outside of a lawyer’s convention. It’s strictly a legal issue. Ethically the painting is yours, as the house purchaser. I know of situations where people have bought homes and found valuables behind the walls. One would need to read the “last will and testament” for clarification. I would think that the purchase of the house included all things remaining. That in fact the painting was purchased, was covered by the cost of the house. Why am I responding to this question? I’m no lawyer.

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  5. Since the will said “unsold” paintings I would have to say that the painting became sold when the house was purchased. Therefore if belongs to the owner of the house.

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  6. I still think the artist’s family probably has the most right to the painting – the sale of the house includes all “fixtures” I assume, but I wouldn’t think that a hidden painting would be a fixture – I would think it would be private property … and if intent does have anything to do with it (like PP brought up), and it was hidden by the artist for a reason, then wouldn’t it make the most sense that it would pass on to his heirs? (If I sold my house and left behind something behind I would go back and say I left my purse, file, whatever … and I would guess that the new owner would give it to me…)I’m no lawyer either – but I sure wish I’d gone to law school, I love these types of questions =)

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  7. But if the “purse” the new owner finds is worth several hundred thousand dollars – his perspective may change. Especially when it’s your grandmother’s purse that she forgot behind a box in 1937. That’s where lawyers come in. My guess is whoever wins the suit will use his new fortune to pay his legal fees.

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  8. Ah, but if it were worth that much it probably would have been sold on eBay a long time ago, my friend LOL … I was thinking more along the lines of my purse (which – when I’m lucky – has 5 or 10 bucks in it) …
    totally agree about those legal fees … =)

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