Treasure Act reforms to benefit museums

The government is in the process of making important changes to the 1996 Treasure Act which will means museums will have first refusal on a greater number of significant items found in the UK.

The current legal definition of ‘treasure’ encompasses items which are at least 300 years old and which are made substantially of gold or silver or are found with artefacts of precious metals. Under this act, treasure which is found must be reported to the authorities within 14 days of its discovery. Next, the items are valued by a panel of experts, and museums are given the opportunity to raise funds for their purchase. The government are now planning to expand the definition of ‘treasure’ to encompass items of more than 200 years old which contain metal. The reforms have been prompted by more and more discoveries of objects which fall outside of the legal definition of treasure, from the Crosby Garrett Roman parade helmet found in 2010, to the Birrus Britannicus copper alloy figurine found in 2014 and the Roman-era Ryedale Hoard found in 2020.

Kate Mavor, chief executive of English Heritage, writing for The Guardian, highlighted how many important pieces of British history were lost to the general public under the 1996 more stringent definition of treasure, stating that “under this current definition of treasure, it’s possible that untold numbers of fascinating finds slip back into the shadows as soon as they come to light”. Without museums having the right to first refusal, private collectors can easily outbid public institutions at auction for these types of objects. In 2010, the Crosby Garrett Roman parade helmet was discovered by a metal detectorist and subsequently sold at Christie’s. A private buyer outbid the Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery in Carlisle for it, purchasing the object, which Ralph Jackson from the British Museum described as “an immensely interesting and outstandingly important find” which is of “the greatest national (and, indeed, international) significance” for over £2m.

Those in the arts and heritage sector have welcomed the reform to the Treasure Act. Arts and heritage minister Stephen Parkinson said, “there has been a huge surge in the number of detectorists – thanks in part to a range of TV programmes – and we want to ensure that new treasure discoveries are protected so everyone can enjoy them.” Parkinson added that, “we are changing the law so that more artefacts uncovered by archaeologists and members of the public can go on display in museums rather than ending up in private hands. This will make sure they can be studied, admired and enjoyed by future generations.”

Michael Lewis, head of portable antiquities and treasure at the British Museum, said, “the British Museum welcomes the extension of the Treasure Act to ensure museums across the country have the opportunity to acquire more finds of archaeological significance.” Similarly, Kath Davies, director of collections and research at Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum of Wales, said, “we are pleased that, through this proposed new treasure definition, a greater number of archaeological finds of the highest significance for Wales may be declared treasure each year. This means that more treasures may be acquired by local museums across Wales, for people to see and enjoy in their own communities.”

Metal detectorists play a huge role in locating treasure across Britain. The latest Treasure Annual Report and the Portable Antiquities Scheme Annual Report said that 96% of archaeological and treasure finds were made by metal detectorists. Only last week, Hereford Museum and Art Gallery announced that it had acquired a 1,200-year-old coin from the reign of King Offa which a metal detectorist had located.

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