Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Living With the Treasure Act

Other than having a good quality metal detector there are three factors which keep good finds coming my way: frequent searches, site research and dowsing. The more times I go out metal detecting the more I find; site research keeps me looking in productive areas and dowsing helps me put my metal detector searchcoil in the right place more often. But it’s not all beer and skittles, the snag is I am frequently being caught in the Treasure Act – seven times so far!

At present, treasure is defined, under the Act, as any object other than a coin, at least 300 years old when found, which has a metallic content, of which at least 10% by weight is gold or silver. And all coins that contain at least 10% by weight gold or silver that come from the same find consisting of at least two coins, at least 300 years old. And all coins that contain less than 10% by weight gold or silver that come from the same find consisting of at least ten coins at least 300 years old. And any associated objects, except unworked natural objects (e.g. a pot or other container), found in the same place as treasure objects. And any objects or coin hoards less than 300 years old, made substantially of gold and silver that have been deliberately hidden with the intention of recovery and for which the owner is unknown. It is further planned to extend the definition of treasure on prehistoric (i.e. up to the end of the Iron Age) finds to include all multiple artefacts found together and single artefacts deliberately containing any quantity of precious metal.

The Act applies to objects found anywhere in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, including in or on land, in buildings (whether occupied or ruined), in rivers and lakes and on beaches above mean low water, providing the object does not come from a wreck. If the object has come from a wreck it will be subject to the salvage regime under the Merchant Shipping Act 1995 and must be reported to the Receiver of Wreck via Customs and Excise.

There is little wrong with the Treasure Act itself but problems can arise when the Code of Practice isn’t followed. My major concern is the lack of confidentiality promised regarding the findspot, for it seems that a number of Coroners have given away fairly precise details of findspots to the Press. For the benefit of novices the implication is that if metal detecting thieves, usually called ‘Nighthawks’, learn the location of your site they may raid it in the hope of finding more treasure and may cause serious damage to the landowner’s crops or other property in the process. You wouldn’t blame the landowner if he then banned you from his land with his neighbours probably following suit. Painting the blackest picture, you could loose access to vast tracts of land and countless other treasures.

You are probably thinking if that is what could happen when you comply with the law you’ll keep quiet when you find treasure. Unfortunately the penalty for not reporting is far greater, for if you get caught; you may be fined up to £5000 and be imprisoned for three months. You are then branded a criminal, which could seriously ruin your life.

But things are not as bad as they may look, mostly good things come from your honesty, like access to the next metal detecting site and your next treasure find. The problems can be overcome if you know how so here are my unofficial suggestions for protecting yourself and your landowner friends when you find potential treasure:

  • The National Council for Metal Detecting will willingly advise in the process of reporting treasure and it is well worth involving them from the start when you have possible treasure to report.
  • Your only legal obligation is to report the finding of potential treasure to the Coroner within fourteen days of becoming aware that it is possibly treasure.
  • Discuss the matter with the landowner as soon as possible.
  • Do the reporting yourself. The legal responsibility for reporting rests with the finder and no one will look after your interests as well as you.
  • Bear in mind, especially if you want to keep the coin, that the first coin found of a scattered hoard may not be treasure, if it was the only coin found on that occasion and there was sufficient time to sell the coin before the finding of the second coin.
  • Report your find to the Coroner in writing within 14 days and keep a copy of the letter. In the first instance only report the findspot as the name of the parish in which the find was made. If it is not clear which Coroner needs to be informed, write to the most likely and ask for your letter to be passed on, as necessary.
  • Always take photographs or have photographs taken of all possible views of all objects, before you hand the objects over. You will at least have something to show an independent valuer and, if you want to publish, you won’t get stung with hefty copyright fees.
  • There is no time limit for handing over the find and you should be allowed a reasonable amount of time for such things as photographing, valuing, showing it to the landowner, displaying it at a metal detecting club meeting etc. Bear in mind, however, that you are responsible for the security of the find until you hand it over.
  • Finds Liason Officers (FLOs) are increasingly taking on the role of collecting and dealing with treasure finds. If there is no FLO in your area, you will probably be asked to take your find to a museum, at your own expense, to hand your find in. If you can arrange this without too much inconvenience then in the interest of good relationships it is best to comply. However, you are under no legal obligation to take your find anywhere and perfectly within your rights to politely suggest the Coroner arrange collection from you.
  • Insist on being given the Treasure Receipt, (filled out in your presence) in exchange for your find.
  • The Treasure Act Code of Practice requires that the precise find spot must be established and should be kept confidential. You can insist on the confidentiality requirement when the Treasure Receipt is completed and have the precise findspot kept separately.
  • Only enter vague details of the findspot on the Treasure Receipt such as name of Parish, four-figure map reference or a nondescript name for the site such as ‘Field A’.
  • If a museum is interested in acquiring the find, a Coroner’s Inquest will be arranged. You should be invited to attend the Inquest for which you can claim expenses and I suggest you should attend if you possibly can – you will at least know who was there and what was said. The press may be there, so be careful not to reveal findspot information if they are.
    Following an Inquest the Press will probably want to speak to you. Whether you speak to them is up to you but you can at least appeal for some confidentiality and perhaps avoid them uncovering, or making up, more than you would like revealed.
  • The final stumbling block is the valuation, which will be given via the Department for Culture Media and Sport some weeks after the Inquest. You need to know if the valuation given is indeed ‘A Fair Market Value’ so that you can decide whether to accept it. Fair market value is an attempt to arrive at the price you should expect to get if selling your find on the open market and the Treasure Valuation Committee try to arrive at the ‘hammer’ price without auctioneers deductions. I suggest you look at the advertisements in Treasure Hunting and pick out a couple of dealers specialising in coins or objects similar to yours. Ask the dealers to give you their buying-in price for your find (you’ll probably have to send photographs). I am sure they will oblige for little or no charge (I wouldn’t pay more than say £5-£10 unless there is a lot of work involved or the treasure is very valuable). You will find that they will only give you a ballpark figure without seeing the actual finds, which you don’t have. If the treasure is very rare it should be possible to arrange viewing for independent appraisal. You should be offered two opportunities to contest the valuation, one before the valuation committee meets and one after. I would accept the valuation if it falls within or above your dealers’ ballpark figures and contest it if it falls below. If you are going to contest the valuation, get in before the committee meets if you can. There is a slight possibility that the museum involved may contest the valuation and succeed in getting it reduced – if this happens, unless there is clear justification, you could appeal against it all the way to the Secretary of State, if necessary.

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