Finds of ancient coins and other gold and silver artefacts will no longer be subject to the curious anomalies of the medieval law of Treasure Trove under a Bill given an unopposed Second Reading in the Commons yesterday.
In 1994-95, 27 finds were considered by the special committee which fixes the value of treasure. The largest valuation was pounds 52,600 for 88 12th-century coins from King Stephen's reign, found by a metal detectorist at Box, Wiltshire.
But, as the Commons heard as it debated a Treasure Bill introduced by backbencher Sir Anthony Grant, the present common law, dating from the era of Richard the Lionheart, is "riddled with anomalies".
Until comparatively recent times, Treasure Trove was not seen as part of the nation's heritage but as a lucky boost to the monarch's coffers. Today it is part of the hereditary revenues of the Crown surrendered in return for the Civil List money.
Objects made of gold or silver found in the ground have to be reported to the local coroner. If they are declared Treasure Trove, museums are given a chance to acquire the objects and the finder is paid the open market value.
In the case of Britain's most expensive find, the Hoxne Hoard, discovered in Suffolk in 1992, the Treasure Trove Reviewing Committee sought four estimates to help it decide on a market value of pounds 1.75m. The 15,000 Roman gold and silver coins and jewellery went to the British Museum.
However, an object can only be declared Treasure Trove if it has been deliberately buried with the intention of recovery. As Mark Fisher, a Labour heritage spokesman, put it: "It is ridiculous to expect a coroner's court in 1996 to be able to say whether Ethelred the Unready actually intended to put a pot with 10 gold coins into the earth or not."
The Bill will remove this anomaly and widen the types of treasure to all coin hoards of whatever composition, except for groups of fewer than 10 base-metal coins, and to all other objects with a minimum precious metal content of 5 per cent. Both coins and objects must be at least 300 years old. Failure to report a find to the coroner within 14 days could result in a fine of up to pounds 5,000 or up to three months in jail.
Sir Anthony, Conservative MP for Cambridgeshire South West, said the current law was a "medieval lottery" and had resulted in important finds being lost to the nation.
Enjoying government support, the Bill is fairly certain to reach the statute book.