The Law of Treasure

Daniel Priestley - Writer and Editor

You’re out and about with your metal detector and, after it goes off, you begin digging. Your spade hits something with a “clink”. You pull a confused expression and dig around to discover a true bounty. You’ve found a solid gold crown. You scream “I’VE FOUND TREASURE!” in excitement but remember that no one else wanted to come metal detecting with you, so you’re just talking to yourself. But then the rational side of your brain gets thinking; is this even treasure? Do I even own this treasure? Am I breaking the law if I don’t declare this to the relevant authorities - presumably the treasure police? Well fear not dear reader, because here you will find all the treasure related legal answers you are looking for and it all comes down to a piece of law aptly named the Treasure Act.

“An Act to abolish treasure trove and to make fresh provision in relation to treasure.”

This was the goal of the Treasure Act 1996, which came into force on September the 24th 1997 and replaced the common law in England, Wales and Northern Ireland of Treasure Troves. The old law dated back to the 13th Century and allowed the Crown to claim any ownerless gold and silver, with “the purpose of replenishing the royal coffers”. The first major change by the Treasure Act was defining treasure. Treasure is defined by The Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a quantity of precious metals, gems, or other valuable objects’. In accordance with the Treasure Act, under UK law Treasure is roughly defined as an object at least 300 years old, which is over 10 percent by weight precious metal (excluding natural objects or minerals). The Secretary of State may also by order designate any class of object as treasure as per s2(2) of the Act. There was also the introduction of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) to recognise that not all treasure is precious metal. This allowed for a significantly wider definition of treasure and in the first 20 years after the act, 14,000 findings of treasure were reported by PAS. More interestingly the amount of reported treasure found increased over this 20 years from a mere 201 cases in 1998 to 1267 cases in 2017. This is due to the effect of this broader definition and the overarching scheme created by the Act.

In PAS guidelines it states that any objects found whose owners can be traced do not qualify. Nor do ‘unworked natural objects’ such as human or animal remains. In addition, any objects from the foreshore which are wreck, do not qualify. In relation to coins, singular coins do not qualify, nor do groups of coins lost one by one over a period of time. However, they specify that if you are unsure, you need to locate your local Finds Liaison Officer who will report any owned items, animal or human remains, singular coins and wrecked objects you may discover.

Once designated as treasure by a coroner, the item is then valued by the Treasure Valuation Committee - which is an independent body run by the British Museum. The finder and landowner of the treasure are eligible to be rewarded for the full market value of the find, with the money being split 50:50 between them. More interestingly, if you fail to report the finding of treasure within fourteen days, you will have committed a criminal offence which is punishable by up to three months in prison and a fine of up to five grand. The aim of this part of the law is to get treasure into the hands of Museums, as public collections are given first refusal on significant archaeological, historical and cultural discoveries. This stops important historical relics falling into the hands of private owners and allows them to be enjoyed by all. Due to these reforms, 40% of all treasure finds in the last twenty years are now in UK museums including significant finds such as the infamous Staffordshire hoard from 2009.

Consultations have been opening and closing for the last few years on potential reforms on the UK’s scheme for treasure. The main suggestion regards widening the scope of definition for treasure to allow for more valuable items to fall into public hands. The scheme is itself generous to the finders so this suggestion has been met with positivity from the detectorist community. There has also been suggestions of reforming the definition from a rolling 200-year date to a static date of pre-1714 to allow for the clear longevity of the legal scheme. The Treasure Act 1996 is a clear example of how the law can manage and balance the interests of many parties, and how relatively subtle legislative reform can lead to the preservation and public use of incredibly significant historical artifacts.

In short, if you’re out and about and happen to discover treasure, remember the words of Indiana Jones: “it belongs in a museum!”

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