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Ever wondered the law if you find treasure in your back garden?

Image © Portable Antiquites Scheme (CC BY 2.0)

Ever wondered about treasure you find?

We do not deal in coins before 1600 or any antiquities and there is a reason for that.

The international trade in illicit antiquities is second only to the drugs trade in financial gain. Just think of all the sites that have been looted in Syria and Iraq. People have been murdered. The spoils of this trade often fund terrorism and other organised crime. Closer to home metal detecting is a popular hobby and while may detectorists are law abiding and only interested in history, there is an underworld of illegal detecting and a trade in stolen ancient artefacts and coins. There are dodgy detectorists and of course dodgy dealers.

Image © Portable Antiquites Scheme (CC BY 2.0)

So, what are the rules if you dig up a silver spoon in your back garden, a coin on your allotment or a Medieval hoard of gold with your new metal detector?

Well, if the object is over 300 years old and has at least 10% precious metal (gold or silver) then you have a legal obligation to report it to the local Coroner within 14 days of discovery (or being told that it qualifies as Treasure). This is the Treasure Act 1996. If you find a single silver or single gold coin over 300 years old these does not currently qualify as treasure although the Act is under review.

If your silver spoon predates 1719 it would qualify as treasure. If you dug up two or more silver or gold coins of roughly the same date and which are over 300 years old, or a whole pot full (hoard) on your allotment they could qualify as Treasure and would need to be reported to the Coroner. There are other criteria for treasure including ten or more bronze coins, two or more objects of prehistoric date (pre-A.D. 43) or prehistoric objects that have any precious metal content. But let’s face it digging up a bronze age axe hoard in your back garden is hardly likely.

So, you need to report you potential Treasure object to the Coroner; you can do it yourself but usually people go through their local Finds Liaison Officer (FLO). Your local FLO works for the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS). The PAS is a scheme administered by The British Museum and operates across England and Wales (there are different rules for Northern Ireland and Scotland).

The FLO will liaise with you and the landowner (if not you) and report your find to the Coroner on your behalf. There is a process which involves: Reporting to the Coroner; a detailed report including photographs and measurements; National and local museums expressing an interest in acquiring the object; a Coroner’s Inquest if a museum is interested and the object qualifies as Treasure (under the Act).

After the inquest professional valuers made up of auctioneers and finds specialists put a current market value on the object (what they would expect the item to realise at auction). The finder can contest the valuation providing that he has proof that a similar item sold for more at auction – it should be reiterated that he needs proof not just the word of his mate down the pub or on a forum.

It could be argued that if a find is so rare and there are no similar examples to judge it by that it is impossible to value without being sold on the open market – this process is not fool proof but it can work both ways; a finder never complains when he is offered more than he was expecting.

Once all parties have agreed and accepted the valuation the interested museum must raise that money to purchase. When that money has been raised it is paid to The British Museum (who receive it on behalf of The Crown) it is split 50 / 50 between the finder and landowner as a reward from the Crown. Tax free.

Image © Portable Antiquites Scheme (CC BY 2.0)

If your item is over 300 years old but is not covered by the Act it may be worth taking it to your local FLO who can add it to the Portable Antiquities data base. Your find will be returned with a description and as everyone has access to the database could be viewed there.

As previously mentioned, the Treasure Act is currently under review and a draft was recently published for public and academic consultation; hopefully as many members of the metal detecting community as possible who are not happy with the current Act managed to comment on it.

The Portable Antiquities website www.finds.org.uk/treasure

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