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From the rules on awarding bounties:

How is a bounty awarded?

The bounty period lasts 7 days. Bounties must have a minimum duration of at least 1 day. After the bounty ends, there is a grace period of 24 hours to manually award the bounty. Simply click the bounty award icon next to each answer to permanently award your bounty to the answerer. (You cannot award a bounty to your own answer.)

If you do not award your bounty within 7 days (plus the grace period), the highest voted answer created after the bounty started with a minimum score of 2 will be awarded half the bounty amount. If two or more eligible answers have the same score (their scores are tied), the oldest answer is chosen. If there's no answer meeting those criteria, no bounty is awarded to anyone.

If the bounty was started by the question owner, and the question owner accepts an answer posted during the bounty period, and the bounty expires without an explicit award then we assume the bounty owner liked the answer they accepted and award it the full bounty amount at the time of bounty expiration.

As a special bonus, any reputation you earn from being awarded a bounty is exempt from the daily reputation cap.

Unless I can't read it doesn't seem to say anywhere what happens to the reputation if no question meets the requirements when the bounty expires. Does it get refunded to whoever started the bounty? Does it get lost?

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This is explained in the What is a bounty? page in the help center:

A bounty is a special reputation award given to answers. It is funded by the personal reputation of the user who offers it, and is non-refundable. If you see a question that has not gotten a satisfactory answer, a bounty may help attract more attention and more answers. Slice off anywhere from +50 to +500 of your own hard-earned reputation, and attach it to any question as a bounty. You do not need to be the asker of the question to offer a bounty on it.

  • All bounties are paid for up front and non-refundable under any circumstances.
  • If your new reputation brings you below the requirement for any privileges, you will lose access to those privileges.
  • Users may only have three active bounties at any given time.
  • Questions may only have one active question bounty at any given time.
  • To avoid overly promotional bounties, if you are offering a bounty on a question that you have already posted an answer to, your minimum spend is 100 reputation (not 50).
  • Additionally, if you offer multiple bounties on the same question, the minimum spend doubles with each subsequent bounty (50 reputation on the first bounty, 100 reputation on the second, 200 on the third, and so on).
  • You may not cancel a bounty once it has been started.

Emphasis in the original.

Note that there is precedent for moderator-enacted (or possibly by SE team members?) bounty refunds in exceptional cases, but this applies only if you can convince them that you set the bounty in error.

Why is this? The question How does the bounty system work? on the mother meta has more on the rationale:

What happens if there's no answer after the bounty period?

If after the end of the bounty period a question has no answers, no bounty will be awarded and the question will no longer be featured.

Bounties are best understood as exchanging reputation for higher question visibility and increased answerer motivation. A bounty does not guarantee a response and is not refunded if none are received.

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  • $\begingroup$ thank you! may I in addition ask if there is any reasoning behind this feature? I have currently got a bounty running and it doesn't seem like anyone is interested/able to answer it. That is of course fair enough, but I feel like I should at least get my reputation back :( The only reason I can see is that not getting it back would prevent me from starting another bounty on the same (possibly bad) question. But isn't that already taken into account by the fact that the bounties increase when set on the same question? (see second last bullet point above). $\endgroup$ – Wolpertinger May 3 '16 at 9:29
  • $\begingroup$ @Numrok see edit, or try searching for 'bounty refund' on Meta Stack Exchange. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty May 3 '16 at 9:57
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    $\begingroup$ One thing that may be worth noting: mods (and SE community team members, who have full moderator privileges) do have the ability to remove and refund a bounty, but we only do so in exceptional circumstances, where the bounty is somehow disruptive to the site. For example, reputation exchange between sockpuppet accounts, or when a bounty is preventing close votes. If you set the bounty by mistake, I wouldn't count on getting it refunded for that reason. (You have to click through several dialogs to set a bounty; it's not the sort of thing one can realistically do accidentally.) $\endgroup$ – David Z May 3 '16 at 10:23
  • $\begingroup$ @David Was it this one that had some back-and-forth reshuffling? $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty May 3 '16 at 11:05
  • $\begingroup$ @EmilioPisanty I don't think so, but I can't really tell. All I can see is that there were bounties set on the question, but there doesn't seem to be anything unusual about them. $\endgroup$ – David Z May 3 '16 at 11:15
  • $\begingroup$ @EmilioPisanty i didnt set the bounty by mistake, was just making sure that my precious reputation will be unrecoverably lost in the void unless someone has the answer. $\endgroup$ – Wolpertinger May 3 '16 at 21:48
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    $\begingroup$ @Numrok Think of it this way: Despite the fact that the bounty can be won by someone else, you're not so much paying for an answer as you are paying for advertising. There is a finite amount of attention the members of this site can give, and spending more on your question means spending less on others' questions. The bounty system is designed to limit how cheaply you can buy others' attention. $\endgroup$ – user10851 May 6 '16 at 3:35

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