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UK’s Treasure hunting boom has a new set of rules

Treasure hunters in the UK could see more of their finds museums and less in private hands/ Photo by David Bartus via Pexels
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Treasure hunters and detectorists are rising in number as more stories of buried treasure reveal themselves in the mainstream press. Find out what now constitutes treasure in the UK, and what that means should you be the lucky one to find it.

  • New definition of what constitutes treasure will mean many more objects of exceptional archaeological, historical and cultural importance are protected
  • Objects of historical importance more than 200 years old and containing metal will now fit the criteria of ‘treasure’
  • Move will see more finds on display in museums across the country for the public to see and enjoy in England, Wales and Northern Ireland
  • You must report treasure to the local coroner 
  • You only need to report items officially defined as treasure.
  • There’s an unlimited fine or up to 3 months in prison for not reporting treasure.

Treasure enthusiasts and museum visitors are to benefit as the Government changes the legal definition of treasure so that more artefacts can be saved for the nation, the government and  Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, Arts & Heritage Minister have reported.

Lord Parkinson, Arts & Heritage Minister

The change will mean that more new discoveries go on public display and help deepen people’s understanding of the country’s history.

The search for hidden treasure has captivated us for generations but it is so much more than gold and silver. From ancient rings and coins, to Tudor drinking vessels, every discovery teaches us something new and helps us understand who we are and where we came from.

Our shared history, and the artefacts that help us tell that story, are for everyone. That is why the treasure process is so important. These changes will have huge benefits for local communities across the country, ensuring more people can see more treasure in our museums.

Dan Snow, Historian

What does this mean for treasure hunters and detectorists?

Under the current definition, newly discovered artefacts can only be legally classified as treasure if they are more than 300 years old and made of precious metal or part of a collection of valuable objects or artefacts.

But to make sure the most significant future discoveries are acquired by museums for the benefit of the nation, the Government is expanding the definition set out in the Treasure Act.

The move has been prompted after a number of recent discoveries fell outside the scope of the Act, including spectacular Roman finds such as the Ryedale Hoard, now at York Museum, and the Birrus Britannicus figurine on display at Chelmsford City Museum. While these artefacts were, thankfully, acquired by museums, this new definition will make it easier for them to do so in the future.

The new criteria will apply to the most exceptional finds over 200 years old – regardless of the type of metal of which they are made – so long as they provide an important insight into the country’s heritage. This includes rare objects, those which provide a special insight into a particular person or event, or those which can shed new light on important regional histories.

Discoveries of treasure meeting these new criteria will be assessed by a coroner and will go through a formal process in which they can be acquired by a museum and go on display to the public.

Arts & Heritage Minister Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay said, “There has been a huge surge in the number of detectorists – thanks in part to a range of TV programmes – and we want to ensure that new treasure discoveries are protected so everyone can enjoy them.

“Archaeological treasures offer a fascinating window into the history of our nation and the lives of our ancestors.”

“We are changing the law so that more artefacts uncovered by archaeologists and members of the public can go on display in museums rather than ending up in private hands. This will make sure they can be studied, admired and enjoyed by future generations.”

Arts & Heritage Minister Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay

Professor Michael Lewis, Head of Portable Antiquities and Treasure at the British Museum, said:

“The British Museum welcomes the extension of the Treasure Act to ensure museums across the country have the opportunity to acquire more finds of archaeological significance. The reform of the Act will also update its Code of Practice to acknowledge the fundamental role of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (managed by the British Museum in England) in ensuring the successful operation of the Act.”

Historian Dan Snow said, “The search for hidden treasure has captivated us for generations but it is so much more than gold and silver. From ancient rings and coins, to Tudor drinking vessels, every discovery teaches us something new and helps us understand who we are and where we came from.

“Our shared history, and the artefacts that help us tell that story, are for everyone. That is why the treasure process is so important. These changes will have huge benefits for local communities across the country, ensuring more people can see more treasure in our museums.”

Alan Tamblyn, National Council for Metal Detecting, General Secretary, said:

Each year over 96% of all archeological finds reported by the public come from the detecting community resulting in many amazing new finds in our museums. We are very proud of the massive contribution our members make to archaeological knowledge.

“The National Council for Metal Detecting (NCMD) supports the principle of the new significance category and the increased legal protection it gives to our Nation’s most important new finds. We also welcome the proposed improvements to the smooth running of the Treasure process.”

Farmers’ fields and their history with treasure hunters

This new definition will mean that future discoveries of objects made of non-precious metals, like the Bronze Age Rudham dirk, a ceremonial dagger which is displayed in Norwich Museum Castle, could be classed as treasure. This exceptionally rare find was dug up in a farmer’s field in Norfolk before being acquired by the museum in 2014 thanks to support from the National Heritage Memorial Fund.

Other finds, however, have been lost to the public, such as the Roman Crosby Garrett Helmet, which was sold at auction for £2.3 million after being discovered by a metal detectorist in 2010. A private buyer outbid several museums to acquire the artefact.

The Treasure Act 1996 was introduced to enable archaeological discoveries to be acquired by museums. By widening the definition of treasure, the Government aims to improve its ability to preserve important artefacts for the nation.

What happens if you do not report a treasure you have found?

The Treasure Act applies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Under the Act, treasure is owned by the Crown when found and a person who finds an object they believe to be treasure must notify the relevant authorities within 14 days.

Report treasure – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

How much tax do you have to pay if you find treasure?

If a treasure is retained by the Crown and a reward is paid out to the landowner and / or the finder, this reward will be considered a pure gift of cash and there will be no tax consequences on this ex-gratia payment, according to Boodle Hatfield.

“Objects found which are not deemed to be treasure are considered chattels for Capital Gains Tax purposes,” said Boddle Hatfield’s Fred Clark and Sophie Harcourt. “These objects benefit from the chattel exemption meaning that any CGT only applies where the disposal proceeds are more than the current threshold of £6,000.”

But there are other considerations when it comes to the date of the treasure’s acquisition by the detectorist and the date of the land’s acquisition so read up on this or give tax specialists like Boddle Hatfield a call.

What is the Treasure Act?

  • The statutory instrument to widen the definition is due to be laid in Parliament on Monday 20 February. It will be made under the Treasure Act 1996 which provides the Secretary of State with powers to designate new classes of treasure. This power was last used in 2002 to expand the definition to include prehistoric hoards.
  • The associated codes of practice, which detail the operation of the Treasure Act and its administration, will be laid in Parliament on Thursday 23 February.
  • Both are affirmative and are therefore subject to Parliamentary debate. If Parliament approves the change, it will come into force four months after signing.
  • The Treasure Act is administered by the British Museum in England with support from the Portable Antiquities Scheme, by Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales in Wales, and by National Museums NI in Northern Ireland.
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