Lottery tickets, golf balls and gold fillings - finders keepers

David Aaronovitch in pursuit of lost property
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The Independent Online
It is hardly surprising that the family of Juan Villasante Paz were not paying attention when - 10 days ago - the draw was made for Spanish national lottery. For, two hours earlier, the 76-year-old Galician retired roadsweeper had had a heart attack and popped his clogs. Within the week his niece, Maria Antonia Alonsa, and the other family members, had buried their elderly relative in his best suit.

Only when the story emerged that the winning ticket had not been produced, and the pounds 2m had not been claimed, did the grieving relatives realise that the outstanding numbers matched those drawn by the deceased man. In which case his ticket, wherever it might be, was now the passport to vast riches. But where was it?

Leisurely searches through the old man's small dwelling must have become ever more frantic, as the ticket failed to be found. It was not in the chest of drawers. It was not inside an empty biscuit tin in the larder. It was not under the mattress. It was not even in the pockets of any of his clothes. Or wasn't it? There was, of course, they realised, one suit no one had looked in. And that was buried under six feet of Galician soil.

It must have been a painful moment for the appalled family - none of them wealthy - when it dawned upon them that, if they were to enjoy the fruits of Providence, they would first have to exhume Uncle Juan. As I write, their application for this spot of Juanupmanship is still under consideration.

But this raises an important legal and moral question. Can it be said that proceeds of the subterranean ticket, even if they do manage to retrieve it, actually belong to them? Can the money be part of the estate of Mr Villasante Paz, given that he died before the winning ticket was actually drawn?

Consider the situation had Juan - thinking himself a man of modest means - left a will stating that his house, say, and most of his money should go to Maria Antonia, and that the residue (which he believed to be nearly nothing) should be given to her evil (and fictional) sister Fortunata. If the residue now contains the winnings from the ticket, Fortunata will be a wealthy woman, free to indulge her dark and expensive Galician whims.

Bank that one, and let us now return to Britain and to Stafford Crown Court, where, this week, a landmark judgment was made concerning the ownership of another kind of lost treasure - golf balls. The suit centred on a series of "water hazards" (a generic golfing term for ponds, lakes and puddles) in which the more inept golfers at the Branston Golf and Country Club were continually losing their golf balls.

Twice a year, the court heard, the professional golfers and caddies at the club dredged the hazards - as they were entitled to do by virtue of the club's rules - retrieved the balls and sold them in the club shop at 50p a throw.

This happy arrangement was recently disrupted by two enterprising Leeds men, Gary Thewlis and Philip Rzonca, who descended upon the club at dead of night dressed in wetsuits, gathered up the balls, and set off back for home. A policemen intercepted them, and discovered their booty in the back of the car. They were arrested and charged with theft. The golf club confidently expected conviction and restitution of their purloined property.

Amazingly the judge thought otherwise. Judge Simon Tonking advised the jury that "property which has been abandoned cannot be stolen". He continued - even more extraordinarily - "if property has not been abandoned, but a defendant genuinely believed that it had, that defendant cannot be convicted of theft." The jury agreed and Messrs Thewlis and Rzonca were acquitted.

Finally our tour takes us to Montpellier, in the South of France, where a number of local gravediggers were this week charged with the theft - over 15 years - of thousands of pounds worth of gold fillings, jewellery and clothing from corpses buried in the Saint-Lazare cemetery. One of the disgraced men was found to have one pound or more of dental gold in his house. Most of their loot was procured when bodies were being exhumed, after the leases on plots had expired.

The Montpellier miscreants must hope that their case is heard before the French equivalent of Judge Tonking. For if leaving gold in a holefor eternity is not abandonment of property, then God knows what is. Under the Tonking rules there would not be the slightest chance of conviction.

And the same fear must surely impel the family of Juan Villasante Paz to speedy action. For all I know Mr Thewlis or Mr Rzonca may be purchasers of The Independent, and even are now to be counted among the millions of readers poring, as you do, over these words. Even now they may making calls to Spain, or calling up "Galician Cemeteries" on the Internet. For if the lottery ticket has been abandoned - and may be claimed by the man who holds it - the investment in two second-class seats to Bilbao, a pickaxe, a spade and a lantern will seem small by comparison with the riches that await. Fortunata, beware!

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