When most people think of treasure they conjure up images of pirate loot or an Aladdin’s cave brimming with gold and precious stones. This may be true in legend, but treasure in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, as defined by the Treasure Act 1996, refers to objects that contain at least 10% gold or silver and are at least 300 years old when found.
In the case of coins, the treasure classification includes all coins from the same find provided that they are at least 300 years old when found. (If the coins contain less than 10% gold or silver then they must be at least 10 of them, to be so classified). In 2003 the Treasure Act was extended to include metal prehistoric finds with a low precious metal content, such as bronze axe heads and weapons, and any group of two or more metal objects of any composition of prehistoric date, provided they come from the same find. Such items may not have the same aesthetic appeal of, say, a medieval jewelled brooch, but are of no less significance historically or archaeologically.
One of the aims of the Treasure Act is to ensure that important pieces of the nation’s portable heritage can be acquired by museums offering access to the public so that they are not lost to private collections or sold overseas. This has been largely achieved by offering a rewards system to finders regulated by a Code of Practice for reporting and dealing with finds and backed up by sanctions if the Code of Practice is not complied with.
Finders are required to report discoveries to the Coroner in whose district the discoveries are made and who, following a Coroner’s Inquest, (not of the corporeal type) will declare whether the items are in fact Treasure. If they are, then title to them automatically vests in the Crown. It is then open to any museum interested in acquiring the object for their collections to offer to purchase it at market value, in which case the matter is referred to the Treasure Valuation Committee which recommends a valuation to the Secretary of State. The price paid is usually divided between the finder and landowner in equal shares unless they have some prior agreement. If no museum is interested, then the Crown will disclaim ownership of the Treasure and it is returned to the finder to sell or keep as they wish.
The rewards system has been successful – since 2003 there has been a significant increase in the number of reported finds which have been preserved for the nation. The Ringlemere Gold Cup, an exquisite Bronze Age gold cup found in 2001 by a metal detectorist in Kent, was sold to the British Museum and a hoard of 52,503 Roman coins found in Frome, Somerset was bought by the Museum of Somerset in Taunton in 2011, to mention but two.
What, however of those items that do not fall within the current definition of Treasure but are no less important to the nation, archaeologically, historically or culturally? In 2009 a Roman cavalry helmet was discovered in Crosby Garrett in Cumbria but because it was made of copper alloy it was not declared Treasure and was subsequently sold to a private bidder at auction, the local museum having been outbid. What protection would there be if the equivalent of the Vindolanda Tablets, priceless Roman handwritten wooden tablets currently in the British Museum and regarded as number one in their “Top Ten Treasures”, were discovered today?
Gold or not, there is a compelling argument that all glittering finds should be available to the nation, but that will require a further change to the Treasure Act. In the meantime the current system must be commended for encouraging responsible metal detecting and the reporting of finds, which has already enhanced the collections of many national and regional museums.
This article, by ArtResolve member Hetty Gleave, first appeared in Hunters Solicitors Autumn/Winter 2014 Newsletter – “Law Matters“.