13 June 2018
The discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard in July 2009 brought the law relating to the ownership of treasure back into the headlines. Currently in storage at the British Museum, the largest Anglo-Saxon hoard of gold ever found has now been valued at £3.25 million. Treasure belongs to the Crown and a key concern for landowners is whether they own or have any rights over items found on their land.
‘Treasure’ is defined in the Treasure Act 1996 (the ‘Act’) as any object that is at least three hundred years old at the date it is found and which has at least a 10 per cent gold or silver content. Coins must be found as a group to be classed as treasure. Anything found with treasure is also included, as is anything at least two hundred years old, but designated by the Secretary of State as being of ‘outstanding historical, archaeological or cultural importance’. This currently includes pre-historic base-metal assemblages.
There is a legal obligation for treasure finders to notify the local coroner within fourteen days of making a find, or realising a find was treasure. To fail to do so is a criminal offence, punishable by a maximum term of imprisonment of three months or a fine of £5,000.
The Act introduced a Treasure Valuation Committee which values the find and determines the reward. The standard recommendation is for the reward to be divided equally between the landowner and the finder, as happened with the Staffordshire Hoard. Where the landowner and finder have agreed a different apportionment of any reward, the agreement will be considered and probably followed. The reward may be abated or withdrawn if either side has shown bad faith, for example, if the finder was trespassing at the time of the find. Archaeologists are not entitled to a reward, but the landowner would still normally receive their 50 per cent.
Different rules apply to an item that is not ‘treasure’. Items found ‘under’ the ground are considered part of the property and therefore belong to the landowner. Someone who finds an item ‘on’ the ground has a right to keep it unless the landowner shows he controls and has an intention to keep all items found on his land, e.g. the land is fenced and clearly signed to that effect.
Landowners would therefore be advised to enter into written agreements with archaeologists and metal-detector users. This should set out the basis for splitting a reward for treasure, as well as expressly stating that all finds that are not covered by the Act remain the property of the landowner.