In an effort to give museums a better chance of acquiring historic items before they disappear into private hands, the government has announced plans to expand the definition of ‘treasure’.
At present, those who find items at least 300 years old made substantially of gold and silver, or which are found with artefacts of precious metals, have a legal obligation to report to a coroner within 14 days. If the object is deemed to be treasure, the Treasure Valuation Committee decides how much the artefact is worth and who is entitled to it.
In a scheme administered by the British Museum, the Treasure Act 1996 was put into place to give museums an opportunity to buy these items first, at market rates. However, in 2017 there were 1,267 archaeological finds in Britain and only a few ended up in museums.
The government has now announced plans to widen the definition to include any finds with a value over £10,000.
A significant Roman helmet
The plans come years after a spectacular Roman helmet was discovered by an amateur metal detectorist in Cumbria, 2010. The Crosby Garrett helmet—one of the most impressive Roman artefacts ever found in Britain—did not fit the legal definition of treasure as it was made of copper.
Consequently, museums did not get the first opportunity to buy it and the item was sold at Christies for £2.3 million to an unknown private buyer.
The event was described as a ‘real blow’ by the local Tuille House museum, which had collected scores of small donations in a desperate but futile attempt to keep the helmet in Cumbria on public display.
Help for museums
Dozens of nationally important finds are thought to be lost to private buyers each year, with finders under no obligations to report their discoveries. The plans to appeal these rules will be open to public consultation until 30 April 2019.
Upon making the announcement, the heritage minister, Michael Ellis, said: ‘These new proposals will help our museums acquire these treasures and make it harder for nationally important finds to be sold for profit.’
Michael Lewis, head of the portable antiquities scheme at the British Museum, welcomed the proposed changes, saying: ‘Archaeologists have been keen for this to happen for some time, and from our perspective it’s a very positive thing.
‘In the case of the Crosby Garrett helmet, for instance, the finder did tell us about it, but ultimately it’s not in a museum collection—it’s in private hands. If you or I wanted to go and see it, we can’t, and that’s a loss to our national heritage.’
Andrew Mackay, director of Tullie House, added: ‘It would have been fantastic to have allowed the public to access the helmet but ultimately it didn’t have the right gold or silver content. We welcome the news about the change in the act and hope this will ensure more national heritage can be secured for the public to enjoy.’