The definition of “treasure” is to be redefined under new plans by the government to prevent dozens of valuable historic artefacts being “lost” to private collections.
Proposals outlined today by the government would see ancient objects worth more than £10,000 classed as treasure for the first time regardless of the metal they are made from.
The rules are designed to protect more important finds for the nation, after a series of items were sold privately under the current definition.
In 2017 there were a record number – 1,267 – of archaeological finds in the UK, many made by amateur hobbyists, but only a narrow selection can be acquired by the Crown then offered to museums.
The number of treasure finds has been steadily increasing in recent years, thanks to the growing popularity of metal detectoring and the increased understanding of how to report objects.
Experts have previously attributed a growth in interest to television programmes such as Time Team and BBC sitcom Detectorists.
Unearthed treasures are being sold online without being declared, it is claimed, and there are currently no sanctions on those buying Britain’s artefacts.
The Government is seeking to change the definition of treasure to keep finds on public display in museums and galleries.
Heritage minister Michael Ellis said: “The search for buried treasure has captivated people’s imagination for centuries and in recent years the number of finds has continued to increase.
“However some outstanding artefacts of great archaeological and cultural importance have been lost to private sellers simply because they do not meet the current criteria for treasure.
“These new proposals will help our museums acquire these treasures and make it harder for nationally important finds to be sold for personal profit.”
The Government is looking at making it a requirement for those buying artefacts to report their purchases as treasure.
Currently,the law defines treasure as a find more than 300 years old, consisting of gold, silver or another precious metal, where an owner cannot be found. Other items found amid a hoard of precious metals would also count.
In 2010, a 1,700 year old Roman era Crosby Garrett helmet found by a metal detectorist was sold to a private collector for £2.3 million despite its historical significance, because it was made of copper.
The Government is now seeking to widen the definition of treasure to include any finds worth more than £10,000, to give museums a better chance of acquiring objects for the public.
Michael Lewis of the British Museum said that the Government plan: “Offers an opportunity to change the definition of treasure to capture new and significant items, ensuring that museums are able to acquire the most important archaeological finds for public benefit and to advance knowledge.”
He added: “It also offers a chance to strengthen the [Treasure] Act in terms of law enforcement and to further normalise the treasure process, recognising we now have a network of archaeologists across England responsible for logging public finds, including treasure.”
The plans will now enter a consultation period.
If they go ahead, they will be the first major changes since the Treasure Act came into effect more than 20 years ago.
A spokesman for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport yesterday said that “more items than ever are being discovered by treasure seekers across England, Wales and Northern Ireland” with the number of finds increasing by over 1,500 per cent since 1996.
The latest figures show that 2017 was a record-breaking year for treasure finds with a total of 1,267 items unearthed, including ancient Roman statues, Bronze Age rings and a Stuart pocket watch.
In the last 20 years, 13,000 finds have gone through the treasure process. Of these, over 30 per cent are now in museums and can be enjoyed by millions of people each year.