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Money: Going for gold? Take care ...

Metal detectors can make you rich. But get rich quick, the law is about to change. Ian Hunter reports
Treasure hunting is not only a childhood dream or just a pastime for metal detector nerds. Hundreds of people find something interesting or valuable each year and once in a decade or so, something spectacular turns up, such as the hoard of 120 Roman gold coins worth pounds 100,000 that a first-time prospector found in a field near Didcot last December.

Coincidentally, changes may soon be introduced to the laws governing the discovery of treasure. A Private Member's Bill aiming to modify the rules on treasure trove has just completed a reading in Commons.

Existing law dates back to Edward I. In general, if the original owner of an object cannot be found by reasonable means the finder can keep what he or she has found. However, if the original owner should reappear, the finder must hand over what has been found. If the find consists of gold or silver objects that have been deliberately concealed the find will be declared treasure trove and becomes the property of the Crown. Failure to surrender such finds technically constitutes a theft from the Crown.

The present rules do not extend to coins and antiquities made of copper or other base metals. Treasure trove only applies to property concealed with the intention of being eventually recovered by its owner.

The Bill proposes a number of changes. Specific penalties would be introduced for failing to report treasure finds within 14 days of discovery. In future, coin hoards of whatever composition over 300 years old will constitute treasure. And objects found with treasure troves which, although not falling within the definition of treasure, will also be protected.

The law presently requires any find to be reported to the local coroner, police or local museum. The coroner will call an inquest and decide, often with a jury, whether the find constitutes a treasure trove. The coroner will also rule on any dispute over the identity of the finder.

If the haul is declared treasure trove, it will be offered to the local museum or, if it is exceptional, to the British Museum. If it is not wanted, it will be returned to the finder, who will be paid the market value for the find, as assessed by an independent expert committee appointed by the Treasury.

Finders are entitled to submit expert evidence of their own to the committee. The committee's decision is binding. If a museum wishes to purchase the object, an ex-gratia payment is made to the finder. Usually these payments are made within a few weeks of the committee providing its valuation. However, in the case of a very valuable find, the museum or other body wishing to acquire the object will be given a longer period of time to raise the finance .

One of the greatest recent finds is the Hoxne treasure trove. The Suffolk find consisted of 500 gold coins and 15,000 silver coins, together with gold bracelets and silver spoons. In November 1993 the committee agreed a valuation of pounds 1,175,000 .

The British Museum is usually interested to hear about any finds. The student rooms at the museums will help identify objects, mostly without appointment. However, the museum will not carry out valuations. Both the leading auction houses, Sotheby's and Christie's, offer free verbal valuations, written valuations for insurance, inheritance tax or other purposes. Advice can be obtained on export licences.

Metal detectors vary greatly in price depending on their sophistication, some can be bought for as little as pounds 50, others can cost as much as pounds 700.

According to the Treasure Trove Reviewing Committee annual report l994- 95, "... all but five of the 27 cases of treasure trove recorded in this report were found with the use of metal detectors."

Potential treasure sites can be located by sifting through old public library records. Old market and fair sites are often rich hunting grounds. Old maps and local historical societies can provide useful sources of information.

Some metal detector clubs organise weekend trips and pay farmers for the right to search their land. Many enter into share agreements by which half the value of any find is shared with the landowner. Metal detector users should be aware that it is illegal to use a metal detector on a listed ancient monument unless permission has been obtained from the Secretary of State for the Environment. Permission should also be obtained from private landowners before venturing on to their land.