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A funny (and seemingly legal, if absurd) proposal during the current debt ceiling debate is to mint a one trillion dollar platinum coin and deposit it with the Treasury to reduce the debt below the limit. This leads to the amusing hypothetical case of someone stealing said trillion dollar coin from the Treasury, or the coin somehow going missing (gets lost in a couch and the couch is sold as-is in a federal auction).

Are there any means by which someone could become the legal owner of this coin, and thereby have a one trillion dollar plus net worth, without actually earning one trillion dollars and buying it? I figure if it's actually stolen property, even if all statutes of limitation have passed and even if you committed no crimes in acquiring it, you'd probably be required to return it, but I'm not sure on this, especially in cases where you committed no crime yourself (e.g. if the auction scenario mentioned above occurred because the thieves dropped the coin on their way out of the building with the buyer legally and inadvertently acquiring the coin as part of the auctioned item).

We can ignore the practical issues with proving it's "the real coin" rather than a counterfeit; I'm just curious about the legality assuming the coin was made in some way that rendered it immune to counterfeiting (handwaves explanation).


Yes, this is a hypothetical, but I'd be willing to bet if any such coin existed, there'd be at least one movie made that involved either stealing it or becoming an overnight trillionaire by accident, so I figured I'd get the jump on the plausibility of such a movie.

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    Is it crucial to the hypothetical that the coin be worth a trillion, as opposed to say a million, or $1,000? What if it was a bill, or a bearer-bond, or a diamond ring? I don't understand what the legal question is.
    – user6726
    Jan 25, 2023 at 15:48
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    @user6726: My idea here is that it is something that is: 1) Worth a lot, 2) There is no possible way you could acquire it fully legitimately, 3) Highly controlled ownership, 4) Unique/uniquely identifiable in some way so (thanks to #2/#3) there is no doubt that if you have it, it was not intended, and 5) (may or not be relevant) it is the property of the gov't, not a private individual. You could substitute things like the UK Crown Jewels in here if you like (though I'm interested in U.S. law on the matter). I admit it's mostly a question of how found or indirectly stolen goods are treated. Jan 25, 2023 at 15:57
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    The most direct example is the Bank of England £100m note. It only exists due to obsolete laws that say they need a note and not a bookkeeping entry. It looks like something somebody ran off on the office printer on A4, with less security features than a £10 note, because there's absolutely no way somebody could spend a counterfeit or stolen one. (There was a Mark Twain story and movie based on this premise.)
    – user71659
    Jan 25, 2023 at 19:10
  • I'm pretty sure that if you did, you'd owe the IRS hundreds of billions of dollars in income taxes...
    – nick012000
    Jan 26, 2023 at 11:03
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    @nick012000: Don't worry, it's legal tender for all debts, public and private! The IRS may have a hell of a time making change though. You'd definitely want to prepay the taxes owed so you don't get further dinged with the biggest underwithholding penalty in history. :-) Regardless, I think I'd be happy to leave the making change up to the IRS and merely become ~3x wealthier than anyone has ever been in all of history. Jan 26, 2023 at 12:10

5 Answers 5

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As current law stands, it would be property of the US Mint if coined, US Treasury, if printed as a treasury note, not federal reserve note.

This was decided by appellate court in regards to 1933 gold double eagles, coins that were struck, but never released to public.

3rd circuit pdf

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    So, so long as it's never officially released to the public, the coin can never become the property of a private individual, under any circumstances? Do you have a cite/link for that court case? That's all it would take for me to accept this as a complete answer. Jan 25, 2023 at 16:16
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    Hmm... The coin in question, according to Wikipedia, would be "deposited at the Federal Reserve's Treasury account" to pay off debt. I'm not sure on the legal status of the Federal Reserve here; would that transfer (from Mint through Treasury to Federal Reserve) change the answer in any way? The answer stands if it's stolen/lost directly at the Mint, not sure if it changes if the theft/loss occurs after ownership transfer. Jan 25, 2023 at 16:25
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Yes

The coin is currency, a holder in good faith who acquired the coin for consideration is the legal owner. So, if someone steals the coin and uses it to buy something without the seller knowing the coin was stolen, then the seller would become the legal owner. As would anyone further along in a chain of buying and selling.

For this particular coin there are a number of obvious difficulties with this.

First, it’s very hard to give change for a trillion dollar coin - the largest ever purchase was the takeover of Mannesmann by Vodafone in 2000, and was worth ~$203 billion, that means you need to find $793 billion in change.

Second, given the uniqueness of the coin, it would be hard for anyone to argue they received it in good faith. They must know what it is and where it came from.

However, in theory it’s possible.

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    If somebody has the stolen 100kg Canadian "Big Maple Leaf" gold coin, it would be hard to claim that they recieved it in good faith since only 6 were minted and other 5 coins whereabouts are known. Giant gold coin trial opens in Berlin - BBC News Jan 26, 2023 at 11:31
  • I'm now envisioning a series of events: 1) Coin is stolen. 2) Thief loses coin. 3) Someone else finds it, doesn't realize what it is (how unique would it look?) and pockets it. 4) They later use it as a quarter or a dollar coin along with other change, and the person receiving it doesn't even notice until later. 5) Profit! (To the tune of ONE TRILLION DOLLARS, insert Dr. Evil meme here) Jan 26, 2023 at 12:08
  • @ShadowRanger If you need a wheelbarrow to transport the change from a quarter or a dollar coin, then I would think you would start to think that something is not quite right.... Jan 26, 2023 at 12:19
  • @MarkJohnson: The idea is both the person paying and the person receiving would only think it was only worth a quarter or a dollar, not $1T. The same way the old Susan B. Anthony dollar coins and Canadian quarters sometimes get used a U.S. quarters because they're the right shape and color and people don't check that carefully. The person who received it only notices the difference later, and is suddenly a trillionaire (well, upper-hundred-billionaire after taxes). Jan 26, 2023 at 14:05
  • @MarkJohnson you do realise the finder is also a thief under the law. Google theft by finding.
    – Dale M
    Jan 26, 2023 at 21:31
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If the coin is lost behind the cushions of a sofa which is then sold in a “market overt” in British Columbia then (at least under BC law) the purchaser acquires a clean legal title to the sofa and the coin regardless of whether or not the seller actually had a good title, as long as the buyer (but not necessarily the seller) was acting in good faith at the time of the transaction. One could argue that they couldn’t possibly be acting in good faith if they knowingly bought the coin, but they could easily buy a sofa in good faith and find the coin later. “Markets overt” are an ancient English legal concept which has now been abolished in UK law but survives in some other common law jurisdictions.

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  • Yeah, a scenario like this is something I was thinking the most likely scenario. Not being a lawyer, I don't know the details of how property sales work, but there'd definitely be no crime committed if you purchased some larger item, as-is, complete with contents (couch, house, etc.), and some of those contents, unbeknownst to you (and possibly the seller as well), were illegal or proceeds of a crime. And if the items are themselves not inherently illegal to possess, it goes beyond my amateur understanding of property rights. Thanks for the info on that legal concept! Jan 27, 2023 at 17:56
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A series of very-fortunate events:

  • Criminal mastermind AJ Raffles manages to steal away the trillion dollar coin. He takes it home to his estate in Yorkshire and throws it into a cardboard box along with hundreds of ancient Roman gold coins. He then hides that box in his henhouse.
  • Time passes. Raffles passes away, and his material possessions are sold off.
  • Basil Baker buys the Yorkshire estate. One day while cleaning out the henhouse he discovers a hoard of coins!
  • Basil promptly and properly notifies his local coroner, as required under Treasure Act 1996
  • As per the Act, he offers the treasure trove for sale to various museums at the assigned price. All decline to purchase it.
  • Basil Baker is now the legal owner of the trillion-dollar coin, free and clear.
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    So the "(at least 300 year) old gold coins" make it "treasure", and the trillion dollar coin becomes an "associated find" and thereby part of the find (I feel like this is not in the spirit of the law, since the associated find is supposed to have been something historically related to the treasure, but at least the Wikipedia overview has no obvious holes). Clever! Jan 27, 2023 at 0:35
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Assuming a series of highly improbable events, there is a non-frivolous argument that an individual could take ownership through adverse possession.

The rules vary a bit from state to state, but under the law of adverse possession, Person A can generally take ownership of Person B's property simply by possessing it, assuming that possession meets several criteria:

  • continuous for a specified period (usually seven years, I believe);
  • "hostile," meaning that Person A is infringing on Person B's rights, as opposed to possessing it with permission;
  • open and notorious, meaning that anyone who is paying attention to the item can see that Person A possesses it
  • actual, meaning that Person A actually has the item in such a way that Person B would be entitled to take legal action to recover it; and
  • exclusive, meaning that Person A is not sharing the property with anyone.

So if you steal the coin, find it in a couch, or purchase it from someone who does, you could theoretically take ownership of it by meeting the above criteria. So after the heist, you would need to do something like put it on display, let everyone know you have it, refuse to return it.

If, for some reason, the government declined to take any legal action in those seven years, you'd have a pretty good argument for taking permanent title to the coin.

One hiccup could be the principle that adverse possession is typically not available when the other party is the government. The Federal Reserve is sort of a weird quasi-governmental entity, so I couldn't say how that defense would work.

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  • I love it. It feels like a weird version of common law marriage, but with property. Beyond the weirdness of the Fed's status though, I think it has a separate problem. According to your link, "Adverse possession is a doctrine under which a person in possession of land owned by someone else may acquire valid title to it"; it uses "property" later, but I think it is defining the legal aspects of what is informally termed "Squatter's Rights", referring solely to land ownership, not arbitrary property. Unless I can somehow treat the coin as land (that would be awesome!), I think I'm stuck. Jan 25, 2023 at 23:27
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    I believe that adverse possession applies only to real estate, at least in most jurisdictions. Jan 26, 2023 at 0:16
  • Interesting. I've never heard of that as anything but the minority rule, but property law is definitely not my strongest area. Where are you getting that from?
    – bdb484
    Jan 26, 2023 at 3:46
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    @ShadowRanger Real property is the normal context in which adverse possession usually comes up, but it definitely applies to personal properties in many jurisdictions. Here's the Georgia statute, for instance: law.justia.com/codes/georgia/2010/title-44/chapter-5/article-7/…
    – bdb484
    Jan 26, 2023 at 3:50
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    I'm certain that in Washington it only applies to real property: one of the requirements is that you pay property taxes on the disputed land.
    – Mark
    Jan 26, 2023 at 4:22

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