Flying the Flag

Posted on Fri, 19 March 2010 by Phil Mussell
Posted in: Coin News
Flying the Flag An unfair dig?

AN interesting story broke in early March that had coin collectors and metal detectorists all of a lather. A Ludlow woman, Kate Harding, became the first person successfully prosecuted under the Treasure Act 1996 for failing to report a find. She was given a three month conditional discharge and ordered to pay £25 costs after failing to report a 14th century French Piedfort to the County Coroner. On the surface there are a number of worrying aspects to this story for numismatists: firstly the “coin” was, apparently, given to Ms Harding when she was only 9 years old, some 14 years ago—it had been found by her mother some time before that, i.e. before the 1996 Treasure Act came into being, so was it right that she should be prosecuted under that law? Secondly, the Act is quite clear about single coins. It states that any object found, other than a coin, more than 300 years old with a precious metal content of more than 10 per cent must be declared. Single coins, regardless of their composition, are exempt. Coins need only be declared if two or more with a precious metal content of more than 10 per cent or 10 or more (regardless of precious metal content) are found together. In other words why did this single “coin” need to be declared at all? Hasn’t Ms Harding been treated very unfairly? The first point I won’t comment on — the exact date of the find cannot be proven and thus the prosecution was made under the 1996 Act, whether that was right or wrong is not our concern—but what of the need to declare a single coin? Now that is an interesting question. The fact is what Ms Harding actually had was not a coin at all but a piedfort, which were special items designed probably as commemoratives or presentation pieces, being twice the thickness and weight of the standard coin on which they were based. This was not an ordinary circulating coin used to buy the groceries, in fact this is an important piece and one of only four ever to have been found in this country. And that is why it was necessary for her to declare it, not for its monetary but rather its historical value. In fact the real issue here isn’t actually whether she should have declared the find—after all she would not necessarily have known about the 1996 Treasure Act. But whilst ignorance of the law is no defence, one might still feel sympathy for her were it not for one salient point. Ms Harding was only convicted after taking the piedfort to Ludlow museum for identification under the Portable Antiquities Scheme and being told (after further identification by experts at the British Museum) that it was of historical importance and needed to be reported. This, apparently, she refused to do, despite repeated attempts to contact her by the Finds Liaison Officer and the Coroner. So let’s get this straight. Someone goes to a museum where they are told that what they have is important and needs to be declared, but they refuse. They are then repeatedly reminded that they really do need to declare this item and again refuse. Is it any wonder a prosecution was the result?

Needless to say there are those up in arms about the conviction and the on-line community is buzzing with talk of a miscarriage of justice, heavy handed tactics, etc., and there numerous people keen to drum up support for Ms Harding and get her conviction quashed. The same people also seem to be scare-mongering in the coin world telling us that this is just the beginning and soon every find will be snatched by the state and we numismatists will have nothing. We even had emails coming into us at COIN NEWS after we were quoted (rather worryingly verbatim) on the BBC website as saying that Ms Harding’s actions were “bloody stupid” in not declaring the find. The authors of the emails are keen to let us know that they disagreed with what we’d said and that poor Ms Harding couldn’t possibly have known the implications of the Treasure Act.

Well, sorry, in this case we do consider the actions to be “bloody stupid”—not because she didn’t declare the item in the first place, not everyone can be expected to know the full Treasure Act (although if you detect regularly you really should read it) and she wouldn’t necessarily have known at first that this wasn’t a coin and therefore should be declared. No, the stupidity has come purely because she was told to do something and didn’t. She was then advised to again and again and still refused. To expect no come-back is naïve in the extreme, stupid at best.

Of course one of the major issues about declaring an item has always been the fear that the finder will lose out, that somehow the State will snatch away your lovely finds and you will be left with nothing. The fact is that if your item is declared Treasure you may well lose it. It won’t have a place in your collection that’s true, but you won’t lose out entirely. You will get the market value for your find and something is only ever “taken away” because it is believed to be of historical or archaeological importance and is subsequently offered to museums. The Treasure Act isn’t there to rob us, and it certainly isn’t there to “destroy” numismatics, it is there to safeguard the heritage of this country and to allow far more of us to enjoy seeing coins (and other artefacts of course) that we might not necessarily otherwise get to view. But that is actually irrelevant — whether or not you agree with the Treasure Act, whether you think it is good or bad for our hobby really doesn’t matter in this case. What does matter is that if you take something to be identified or valued and someone tells you to declare it, you then get repeated requests from those in authority to do just that then you would be wise to actually do so. Anything else, well that would just be stupid wouldn’t it?

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