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Treasure Trove Law

gold coin treasure trove

Treasure Trove Law

Is it not the dream of all new detectorists to find their very own buried treasure?!

If you are going to use a metal detector in the UK and you are lucky enough to get lucky with a find, you need to know the rules of treasure trove before you start spending your windfall.

Anything gold or glittering or magical that you dig up in the UK could be classed as treasure and you'll need to know the law surrounding it so you know whether it's really yours to keep.

Treasure Trove Law

So what is Treasure Trove?

Treasure trove is money or coins, gold or silver, plate, or other bullion which has been found hidden buried underground, or else in places such as cellars or attics.

The phrase treasure trove literally means 'treasure that has been found', but it is also often used metaphorically to mean a valuable find.

It must be old enough that it is easy to presume the original owner is dead and the heirs are undiscoverable. Sometimes the word hoard is also used to describe such treasure troves.

The legal definition of what counts as treasure trove and also the law surrounding what to do with it varies considerably from country to country, and from era to era.

Technically, all hidden treasure found in the UK belongs to the Crown. The rights and legal obligations of the finders and landowners are covered by two different laws, one for England, Wales and Northern Ireland and the older treasure trove law which is still applicable in Scotland.

English Treasure Trove Law

The rights and legal obligations of the finders and landowners are covered by the Treasure Act of 1996.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, objects are considered to be treasure if they meet the following criteria:

  • they are at least 300 years old
  • they are made of at least 10 per cent of a precious metal – gold or silver - if not prehistoric.
  • they are made of precious metal in any amount or part if the object is prehistoric
  • they are coins that are least 10 per cent gold or silver. If discovered as a whole coin hoard and all the coins don't contain that proportion of precious metal, then at least 10 individual coins must.

Before the 1996 act, finders and valuers had to prove the objects had been buried and that they had been deliberately hidden with the intention of digging them up at a later date. But this proof isn't required anymore.

Treasure Trove Law

Scottish Treasure Trove Law

In Scotland the Treasure Act 1996 does not apply in Scotland, instead treasure trove is dealt with under the common law of Scotland.

The general governing law for 'bona vacantia' or 'vacant goods', meaning objects that have been lost, forgotten or abandoned, is 'quod nullius est fit domini regis' or 'that which belongs to nobody becomes our lord the King's'.

So as in England, the Crown in Scotland has a right to treasure trove, because it is one of the regalia minora, meaning minor things of the king. The Crown may exercise these property rights as and when it pleases and which it may also alienate (or transfer to another party).

To qualify as treasure trove, an object must be precious, it must be hidden, and there must be no proof of its property or reasonable presumption of its former ownership. However, unlike under English common law, treasure is not restricted to only gold and silver objects. 

Finders of items are required to report such finds to the Crown Office or to the Treasure Trove Unit (TTU) at the National Museums of Scotland in Edinburgh. Each find is assessed by the Scottish Archaeological Finds Allocation Panel, which decides if the find is of national importance.

United States Treasure Trove Law

The law of treasure trove in the United States does vary from state to state, but some similarities are across the country. To be treasure trove, an object must be of gold or silver, but then paper money is also deemed to be treasure trove since it previously represented gold or silver. For the same reasoning, it might be imagined that coins and tokens in metals other than gold or silver are also included, but this has yet to be clearly established. 

The object must have been concealed for long enough so it is unlikely that the true owner will reappear to claim it- The consensus appears to be that the object must be at least a few decades old.

A majority of state courts, have ruled that the finder of treasure trove is entitled to it. The theory is that the English monarch's claim to treasure trove was based on a statutory enactment which replaced the finder's original right. When this statute was not re-enacted in the United States after its independence, the right to treasure trove reverted to the finder.

Finders who are trespassers generally lose all their rights to finds, unless the trespass is regarded as "technical or trivial".

Treasure Trove Law

So what do you do if you find treasure trove?

Throughout the United Kingdom, the process is similar, although there are different authorities and valuing bodies involved in Scotland. If you find objects that you believe to be treasure, you must report your find the appropriate authority. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, finds must be reported within 14 days - and failure to do so can get you a £5,000 fine and three months in jail.

The coroner holds an inquest to determine if the object is, in fact, treasure. If it is not treasure, it will be returned to the finder, who may keep it - after settling any claims made by the owner of the land on which it was found and any tenant of the land.

If it is treasure, it will be offered to appropriate museums. If no museum chooses to bid on it, the Crown may relinquish its claim and, once again, it is returned to the finder.

Treasure Trove Law

And is there a reward?

The finder of treasure has no legal right to any payment at all. In Scotland, this is made very clear in the policy on Treasure Trove: 'Finders have no ownership rights to any find they make in Scotland and all finds, with the exception of Victorian and 20th century coins, must be reported to the Treasure Trove Unit for assessment.

But in practice, the finder and the landowner are almost always awarded the full market value of the object, paid by the museum that acquires the treasure, to share, 50-50. 

If you are a metal detectorist, the odds of striking gold are apparently a lot better than winning the lottery. So What are you waiting for!


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