Woman finds €500,000 in suitcase in Paris apartment building

The woman found the money in a suitcase in the basement of her apartment building, but there are questions over who gets to keep it. We explain.

5 October 2020
A pile of euro notes. A woman has found €500,000 in a suitcase in a Paris apartment she inherited.Police are holding the money while they investigate who the suitcase belongs to.
By Joanna York

The woman inherited the apartment in the 7th arrondissement of Paris, a chic area close to the Eiffel Tower, from her mother. 

After she asked an estate agent to value the property in August, the question of whether the apartment had a cave (an area in the basement designated for each apartment in a building) came up. The daughter researched the property to find out which cave belonged to the apartment, but upon entering the basement found her space in-use and padlocked by someone else. 

She posted a sign in the building asking the person using her cave to come forward, but one month later no one had. At this point she decided to call a locksmith to break the locks, so the estate agent could go in and continue the valuation.

Then, inside the cave they found a suitcase full of €100, €50 and €10 notes. 

The daughter called the police who are now holding the money, estimated to be over €500,000. 

Who does the treasure belong to?

According to France’s civil code, if you inherit a property and discover treasure “by chance” that can be legally described as “hidden or buried”, you get to keep it, as it belongs to the property owner.

But, if the treasure is found by someone other than the owner, the person who finds it is entitled to 50%, and the owner the other 50%.

In the Paris apartment building, the surveyor sent by the estate agency found the suitcase in the cave, so it seems that the valuable contents should be spilt 50/50 between them and the owner of the apartment.

However, things can get more complicated when issues of ownership are not clear. For example, in 1938, over 3,000 gold coins were found in a building that was being demolished on Rue Mouffetard in Paris. The treasure was eventually divided between the owner of the building, the city of Paris, and heirs of Louis Nivelle, the French lawyer who the coins had belonged to.

Of the three workmen who actually found the treasure, judges ruled that only one could have a share—the person whose spade first hit the gold.

‘Real’ owners and estate agents also have a claim

In the Paris cave, the estate agent charged with selling the apartment could also claim to be the owner of the property, and there is, of course, the “real” owner of the suitcase and its contents.

Lawyer specialising in property rights, Ms Albane Demptos-Journu, explained to news source Le Figaro: “There is no time limit on legal proceedings. The real owner of the treasure can make a claim at any time. 

“As the treasure was found by chance, the person who found it obviously knows that they are not the owner and cannot, in good faith, be considered as such. The real owner generally wins the case, as long as they can prove their ownership.”

This came to pass in 2002 when sellers of a second-hand gas oven managed to prove that they were the original owners when the buyer found 5 gold ingots, a sack of gold coins, gold pieces and bearer shares inside. 

Similarly, in 2018, property buyers found gold ingots buried in their garden by chance, which were eventually passed on to the heirs of the original property owner.

Police holding cash for now 

In Paris, the suitcase is staying with police for now. 

Investigations have been transferred to specialist unit la Brigade de recherches et d'investigations financières (BRIF), experts in money laundering and organised crime. 

The unit is studying the suitcase and its contents to try and establish who the owners are.

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