Digest>Archives> Jul/Aug 2015

Wickie's Wisdom

Who Owns It?

By Timothy Harrison


There are probably thousands of lighthouse and Coast Guard related artifacts on display at museums and lighthouses around the nation. Some of those items are on loan from the Coast Guard. However, many of these items came from private donors whose family members had them in their possession for many years before they loaned them or donated them to a lighthouse or museum. In nearly every single case, these were items that were discarded in one way or another by the Coast Guard.

It now seems that the Coast Guard is of the belief that any artifact without a paper trail belongs to them. And not only do they expect to take ownership of them, but they want whoever is displaying them to insure them at the value that they, the Coast Guard, place upon them. If this policy is enforced, it would place an extreme undue hardship on nearly every lighthouse in the nation with an exhibit or museum with lighthouse and Coast Guard artifacts in their collection.

The law of the land has always been that, if anyone throws something out in the trash or discards it in any way, it no longer belongs to them. For example, if you place an old lamp in the trash or take it to the dump and someone else picks it up and takes it home, you no longer own it. They do. You can’t go to their home ten, twenty, or thirty years later and claim that you own it just because they don’t have a receipt. Another example would be if a garbage collector, who is employed by the local government to pick up trash and dispose of it, decides to take some of it home and keep it, the government can’t go to the trash collector’s home ten or twenty years later and claim ownership of the item or items.

So, the way we see it, if someone picked up a lighthouse or Coast Guard artifact that was being discarded at a lighthouse or Coast Guard station and took it home, they own it. And if those items are eventually donated by them or their descendants to a lighthouse or a museum, the museum or lighthouse now owns it. The same applies to that person or their descendant who loans an item or items to a lighthouse or museum - that person or descendant still owns it.

If the Coast Guard does claim ownership of every discarded artifact, the issue may have to end up in federal court. This would also cause undue financial hardship in attorney fees to every lighthouse or museum in the nation that has discarded lighthouse or Coast Guard artifacts as they defend their stance to keep ownership of the item or items.

In a perfect world, the Coast Guard could issue a blanket order or directive stating that they relinquish ownership of every discarded item. But that is highly unlikely to happen.

So, I would recommend that all the lighthouses and museums that hold discarded lighthouse or Coast Guard artifacts in their collection that they form a special alliance to ask Congress to pass legislation that would give blanket ownership of any and all discarded lighthouse or Coast Guard items to the person or organization that holds possession of the item or items. This could be done as an amendment to the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, or as an amendment to any other maritime act or law passed by Congress. And, before this really gets out of hand and is too late, the time to act is now.

That’s my opinion and I welcome yours.

Timothy Harrison

Editor & Publisher

Lighthouse Digest

P.O. Box 250

East Machias, ME 04630


This story appeared in the Jul/Aug 2015 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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