Finding treasure

So you've found some hidden treasure... now what do you do?

By: The History Detectives webteam (Programme and web teams)

  • Duration 5 mins
  • Updated Tuesday 4th September 2007
  • Introductory level
  • Posted under Heritage
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some old letters Copyrighted image Copyright: photos.com

It is every historian’s dream retirement plan. You are walking in a field and your toe strikes something metal and gold. In the family attic, your hand reaches behind a rafter and there is a priceless packet of letters, unopened since the 18th century.

It does happen, of course, but not as often as many would like. In 2002, for example, a collection of 20 Roman coins and a gold ring from the 17th century were found in a field near Shrewsbury. In 2004, a 13th century silver brooch was discovered in Martley in Worcestershire.

If you are fortunate enough to make a valuable find, there is a lot more to do before you can think of booking the holiday of a lifetime or ordering a new car. What follows is a very simplified briefing of what can be a much more complicated and involved process. So the first rule is, consult expert advice straight away.

Treasure trove in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is governed by the 1996 Treasure Act, which came into force on 24 September 1997. This was added to, but not basically altered, by The Treasure (Designation) Order of 2002. Scotland has its own arrangements that differ in some regards.

In some cases what exactly constitutes treasure trove is very complicated. For example, objects other than coins are treasure trove, provided they contain at least 10 per cent gold or silver and are at least 300 years old. The best way to find out if your find comes under the Treasure Act is to consult the Code of Practice. You can access this on the Department of Culture, Media and Sport website. Key issues include:

  • possible ownership of the house or area where the find was made;
  • how old the object is;
  • its financial and historic value;
  • why and whether it was concealed; and
  • the circumstances of discovery.  

Treasure can be defined as gold, silver, gemstones, money, jewellery or any valuable collection found in cellars, attics or the like.

All treasure trove, or articles that are likely to be treasure trove, must be reported to the local Coroner within 14 days. There are a few areas, such as the Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall, the Corporation of London and the City of Bristol, where the procedures are slightly different but finds should still be reported to the Coroner.

You can find the address and phone number of your local Coroner in your phone book. A very good bit of advice is to consult your local museum straight away; they will have a much better idea of the procedures involved and will be able to help and advise you.

You will normally be asked to take your find to a local museum or archaeological body. Your telephone book will also help you here but Coroners will also have lists of these organisations. The body receiving the find will notify the Sites and Monuments Record so that, if necessary, archaeologists can investigate the site where the find was made. If you don’t report what might reasonably be defined as treasure trove, you could be liable to up to three months in prison or a fine of up to £5,000. You can’t be prosecuted if it could be claimed that you reasonably did not realise that it was treasure trove at the time of discovery.

If the museum or archaeologist believes that the find may be treasure trove, they will inform the British Museum or the National Museums and Galleries of Wales. If no museum wishes to acquire the find, the object will be returned to the finder. If a museum does want to acquire the object, the Coroner will hold an inquest to decide whether the find is treasure. The Treasure Valuation Committee, which is made up of independent experts, will make a valuation of the find’s worth. It is illegal under the Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003 to sell, buy or deal in illegally acquired objects of historic or cultural interest.

In Scotland, all items found of archaeological or historic interest are the property of the Crown. It is a legal obligation to report any such finds but a reward may be paid.  Full details can be found by contacting the Treasure Trove Unit of the National Museums of Scotland (tel: 0131 247 4082/4355 or email info@treasuretrovescotland.co.uk).

The second golden rule is to take enormous care in handling any find. By bad handling, however well-intentioned, you might easily harm or ruin items of great value or interest.  Some items of advice include:

  • record exact details of the spot where the discovery was made and how it was made;
  • do not clean anything;
  • keep finds in separate, clearly labelled bags;
  • never apply any substances to the find; and
  • dry anything that is damp or wet very slowly.
  • Again, seek expert advice as soon as possible.

Metal detecting has added a whole new dimension and has led to some exciting finds. The best advice is to join a local metal detecting club that will offer support (for more information The Federation of Independent Detectorists website includes details of clubs. here is a National Code of Practice that all responsible enthusiasts follow. All legal requirements also apply to metal detecting.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme website gives important information about what to do when you make a find. The Portable Antiquities Scheme is a voluntary scheme to record archaeological objects found by members of the public in England and Wales. Finds should be reported to the local Finds Liaison Officer.

You never know – you could be lucky!

Useful Contacts

  • Treasure Section, British Museum, London WC1B 3DG. Tel: 0207 323 8546/8611.
  • Portable Antiquities Scheme, British Museum, London WC1B 3GD. Tel: 0207 323 8611/8618. This is a very helpful organisation and will offer a lot of help and advice.

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