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Charrier v. Bell

    Brief Fact Summary. An amateur archeologist excavated American Indian artifacts from burial plots on land which he did not own. He attempted to sell the collection, but could not prove ownership of the artifacts.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. Objects found in burial plots are not abandoned property; instead, they belong to the descendants and cannot be acquired over the objection of the descendants.

    Facts. Charrier is an amateur archaeologist, and he found an area which was once the site of an American Indian village. He spent three years excavating the site and excavated a large amount of artifacts, even though he knew he did not have permission from the landowner. Because he was unable to prove ownership over the artifacts, he could not sell the collection. He sought a judgment declaring himself the owner of the artifacts, or in the alternative, compensation under the theory of unjust enrichment for his time and expenses. The trial court denied both claims.

    Issue. When a person expends a large amount of time and money excavating buried cultural objects, do those objects belong to him?

    Held. No. Judgment affirmed.
    Even though the American Indian tribe claiming ownership of the objects cannot provide a perfect chain of title that traces their ancestors to those buried in the village, enough evidence exists to prove there is descent.
    Even though the tribe moved from the location of the burial plots, they did not abandon the property. Objects that are buried are done so with the intention that they remain in the ground. Another person cannot claim ownership of those objects by simply excavating them.
    For a claim of unjust enrichment, the plaintiff must prove that he sustained an impoverishment. An impoverishment occurs when the plaintiff was not at fault or negligent or did not take the action at his own risk. Here, Charrier knew he was acting at his own risk or possibly out of negligence because he knew he did not have permission from the landowner.

    Discussion. Objects buried with the dead belong to the deceased’s ancestors and are not abandoned property. If they are excavated by a third party without permission of the owners, the third party is not entitled to any unjust enrichment


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