What is Bona Vacantia?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Bona vacantia is property that does not have a known rightful owner. No known claimant for the property can be identified either. Many nations have laws surrounding the handling of bona vacantia, with such property usually reverting to the government. The government is required to attempt to locate rightful owners and to dispose of the property if no owners can be found. The roots of such policies date to the medieval era, when unclaimed property and things like treasure troves were considered the property of the Crown.

Ships that are wrecked can become bona vacantia.
Ships that are wrecked can become bona vacantia.

Such property can take the form of an estate belonging to someone who died without a will, abandoned property, treasure troves, shipwrecks, or lost property. In some regions, the person who finds the property is considered the rightful owner and the finder is allowed to dispose of it at will. In others, people who find bona vacantia must attempt to locate the owner, and owners of property can successfully sue to regain control of their property. The law may also distinguish between finds made on public versus private lands.

When property reverts to the government, there may be rules requiring compensation of the finder with things like shipwrecks, archaeological finds, and hoards. In these cases, someone who finds such property is entitled to the fair value, as determined by a property assessor who is qualified to make a valuation. In situations like estates belonging to people who die intestate, no compensation is required because no one has found the property.

Governments log the property that passes into their ownership and make lists available to the public. People can claim bona vacantia if they have documentation to support their claims. People can also purchase such property at government auction or by special arrangement in the event that no claimant can be located. Property sales can sometimes provide people with excellent deals on a wide variety of goods.

If bona vacantia has historic or cultural value, the government may opt to retain it. Works of art, archaeological finds, and important scientific materials can be held in government museums, art repositories, and research facilities. These items are held in trust for the benefit of members of the public and people may make arrangements to see and interact with them if they are stable enough to be displayed in public. National museums and galleries usually have rotating displays of their collections to offer opportunities to see a wide variety of objects held by the government.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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