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In English law there is the interesting, and perhaps initially baffling, concept of ‘relative title’. I recently had a complicated case involving inheritance issues, where this was relevant.

Put simply (though it rarely is simple), one can obtain a right to keep a valuable painting, for example, by exercising a ‘possessory’ right, ie showing an act of possession. This could even arise just by placing one’s hands on the painting, as against the next claimant down the line.

This was what we had to show in a case involving a valuable 16th century statue, in order to defeat a subsequent purchaser’s claim. Mystified? A case that actually went to trial and is still directly relevant, from as long ago as, can you believe it, 1722, should help to clear the fog.

Sweeping claims

In Armoury versus Delamirie, the claimant, a chimney sweeper’s boy, had found a ring which he handed to the defendant goldsmith for valuation. The defendant removed the jewel from the ring and refused to return it. It was held that the claimant had a property right in the jewel which enabled him to sue the defendant for detaining it.

The judge held that the claimant had “such a property as will enable him to keep it against all but the rightful owner…” There was, of course, probably someone else who owned the jewel at the time when the claimant took possession: the person who lost it initially.

However, because of the system of relative ownership which is a part of English law, that system allows for a number of parties having a right in the work in dispute and so the claimant could, by taking possession, acquire ownership for himself. The claimant’s title was good against everyone, except for those with a preexisting right in the jewel – such as the person who lost it.

Better right

The court was interested only in who had the better right as between the claimant and the defendant, so the existence of a third party with a pre-existing right in the jewel was irrelevant. So, the claimant had an ownership right that was good relative to the defendant, though not as against the unfortunate person who lost the jewel.

Similarly, the defendant goldsmith acquired a right in the jewel when he took possession. This again was a relative right, no use with regard to those who had a pre-existing right, eg the claimant, as the claimant’s right arose before the defendant’s right. His right was useless relative to the claimant or the unfortunate individual who lost the jewel in the first place.

Nevertheless, if a thief had walked in and taken the jewel from the defendant goldsmith, the goldsmith would indeed have had a claim against that thief.

This all applies whether the jewel, or the painting, is worth £100, or £100 million.

Milton Silverman is senior commercial dispute resolution partner at Streathers Solicitors LLP, London.