Rust never sleeps when treasure hunters roam the land

Click to follow
NO LUCK with the National Lottery yet, but still dreaming of instant wealth? Treasure hunting could be the answer. All you need is a metal detector, some enthusiasm and a lot of luck.

The laws relating to treasure date back to Edward I. The general position is that if the original owner of an object cannot be located by reasonable means, the finder can keep what he or she has found. However, if the true owner should reappear, the finder must hand it over.

If the owner of gold and silver objects, which have been deliberately concealed, cannot be traced, the property is declared treasure trove and becomes the property of the Crown. The rules do not extend to coins and other antiques which are made of copper, bronze or other base metals. Nor does it include property deliberately abandoned or lost.

Treasure trove applies only if the last owner intended to recover the property at a later date. Any find must be reported to the local coroner, the police or the local museum. It should then be handed over. If finders fail to comply, they may be convicted of theft.

A coroner may decide to hold an inquest to decide whether the find is a treasure trove. If the haul is declared treasure trove, it will be offered to the local museum or, if it is exceptional, to the British Museum. The finder will be paid the market value of the find, which is assessed by an independent committee appointed by the Treasury. It is then possible for the British Museum, or another museum, to acquire the find on the payment of the market value.

The sum paid is passed on to the finder by the Department of National Heritage as an ex-gratia reward. It is intended to encourage the proper reporting of finds. If no museum wants the treasure trove, it will be returned to the finder. Any payment is made to the actual finder and not to the owner of the land on which it is found.

The British Museum is supporting a new treasure bill that, if implemented, will change the law governing treasure trove. The main aims are to remove the need to show that objects have been deliberately concealed; to make clear how much gold or silver the goods found must contain in order to qualify as treasure trove; and to include objects found in association with finds of treasure within the definition of treasure trove. The bill would also provide a new offence of non-declaration of treasure.

Both the leading auction houses, Sotheby's and Christie's, offer free verbal valuations. Written valuations for insurance, inheritance tax or other purposes are also available. Advice can be obtained on application for export licences.

The British Museum is usually interested to hear about any finds. The student rooms at the museum will help to indentify objects, generally without appointment. However, the museum will not carry out valuations.

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

Potential treasure sites can be located by sifting through public library records. Old market and fair sites are often rich hunting grounds. 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.

Users should also be aware that it is illegal to use a metal detector at a listed ancient monument unless permission has been obtained from the Secretary of State for the Environment.