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Treasure 'cowboys' face pounds 5,000 fines: Bill targets illegal sale of historic items

TREASURE seekers who dig up Britain's heritage to sell abroad would face fines of up to pounds 5,000 and three months in jail under a Bill promoted by archaeologists.

The measure is intended to clamp down on metal detector enthusiasts who fail to declare the gold they find and sell it illegally to dealers abroad.

The National Council for Metal Detectors says there are only 500 such 'cowboys'.

But the British Museum estimates that 'several hundred thousand' objects of historical interest are found every year. Of these, no more than 20 to 30 are declared to be treasure. The rest are not recorded and either enter private collections or are dispersed, often abroad.

Treasure trove law only protects objects that contain a 'substantial' proportion of gold or silver. The Treasure Bill, due for its Second Reading next week, would mean that objects (other than coins) need to contain only 5 per cent of gold or silver to qualify as treasure. Another anomaly is that objects that are not made of gold or silver have no protection. This would change under the Bill.

But the 'real teeth' lie in the final clause of the Bill, according to Lord Perth, who is presenting it. Until now, museum experts have had to establish that a hoard is treasure before legal protection can be offered. To do this they have had to prove that the object was buried by the owner with the intention of recovery.

Under the Bill, put forward by the Surrey Archaeological Society and the British Museum, this 'irrelevant' requirement will be scrapped. A hoard will automatically be deemed treasure until an inquest proves otherwise.

The Bill has had its First Reading in the House of Lords; the Second Reading is on 9 March. Lord Perth predicts a '50-50' chance of the Bill passing in its present form.

Leading article, page 17