Volume 57, Number 1, January 2020
Treasured possessions THE recent court case surrounding the metal detectorists who discovered a Viking hoard of coins and jewellery in Herefordshire in 2015, has attracted a great deal of attention and debate in recent weeks. We discussed details of the hoard back in July and John Andrew’s excellent article in this month’s magazine sheds more light on the story so I won’t repeat it here but rather I will comment about the issues surrounding “treasure” and its declaration. Every time I mention this particular topic I get people on both sides of the debate writing, emailing and calling in to express their views, it is a contentious issue and I have no reason to believe this time it will prove any different! The rules in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are simple (in Scotland it is a matter for Scots Common Law) if you find something that is likely to be of historical importance then you really should declare it through the voluntary Portable Antiquities Scheme; if it is something that is deemed to be “treasure” then you are legally obliged to report it within 14 days of its discovery. The full Treasure Act 1996 can be found here: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1996/24/contents but in essence “treasure” is: (a) any object at least 300 years old when found which— (i) is not a coin but has metallic content of which at least 10 per cent by weight is precious metal; (ii) when found, is one of at least two coins in the same find which are at least 300 years old at that time and have that percentage of precious metal; or (iii) when found, is one of at least ten coins in the same find which are at least 300 years old at that time. It will also include coins less than 300 years old, that are made substantially of gold or silver, that have been deliberately hidden with the intention of recovery and whose owners or heirs are unknown. (https://finds.org.uk/treasure/advice/summary) There are many people who believe that if something is declared “treasure” then the finders will lose out and to a certain extent that is true—the find will no longer be their property as it has been deemed to be of historical importance and thus in need of being properly documented, studied and, in many case kept together. However, just because something is “treasure” doesn’t mean the finders (and the land owner/occupier) lose out completely—they are in fact given full market value for their find as determined by the Treasure Valuation Committee, an advisory body under the auspices of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport who will also determine how monies are divided. That, however, is still unacceptable to many and the arguments regarding treasure and what should be done with it and by whom rage on. There are some who say that it should be “finders keepers”, with those lucky enough to come across a hoard or similar being able to do what they want with it with no outside interference from anyone (the argument being that they may well get a price higher than the committee‘s valuation if they sell on the open market or, indeed, may wish to keep their find for themselves). Others state that all finds should be declared so that they might be documented but after that the finder should be able to do what they want, whilst some are quite happy with the way things are and feel that those who don’t adhere to the law should be punished as those involved in this saga have been. There is, I think, something to be said for all points of view—a finders keepers approach seems fair in many ways, after all why should the state interfere? But then you have the issue of things going unreported that could, in fact, shape the way we look at history and the risk that a hoard might be broken up and never seen in its entirety again (the current Treasure Act enables museums to be able to acquire such finds in a way they may not be able to were they competing on the open market). A “declare all but after that it’s yours” approach might get rid of the worry that finds of historical importance are lost but it still doesn’t help securing the item for museums and thus the public at large. The current system as outlined in the Treasure Act addresses the major concerns above but has its own issues—after all why should the government interfere? Would the finders get more money by selling it themselves? And if a hoard is declared treasure then that means that we collectors are never going to be able to own part of it so we miss out too! In short there is no easy answer, no perfect solution but whatever your feelings on the matter one thing is inescapable—the law, whether right or wrong, is the law and to ignore it can land you in serious trouble—in this particular case up to ten years of trouble. Personally I don’t think I’ll risk it and should I find anything more than a .303 cartridge (unlikely I fear) I think I’ll report it regardless. It’s safer that way!
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