News | July 7, 2023

Change to the legal definition of “treasure”: pearls of wisdom for landowners

The government has announced that the legal definition of “treasure” in the Treasure Act 1996 will be expanded. Currently, the definition includes that objects must be “at least 300 years old” and made “from precious metal” but this is set to change to “objects of historical importance more than 200 years old”, made of any type of metal.

One example of an object that would not have previously been considered treasure, but will be under the revised definition, would be the exceptionally rare Bronze Age Rudham Dirk – a ceremonial dagger which is currently being displayed at Norwich Museum. The change will make the discoveries of treasure easier for museums to acquire and less likely to end up in private hands, a move which was heralded by historian Dan Snow as having “huge benefits for local communities across the country, ensuring more people can see more treasure in our museums”.

The development will be especially relevant for landowners (or their estates) with land on which treasure has been found or is being sought. Under the Treasure Act 1996, any treasure found on the land will belong to the Crown, and landowners or the finders will need to pass the object to the relevant authorities within fourteen days. The penalties for failure to disclose to the authorities a finding of treasure include an uncapped fine or up to three months in prison, but if the finding is reported, the finder and/or the landowner may receive an ex-gratia reward (depending on the circumstances). Evidently, if approached by a metal detectorist wanting to undertake a search on their land, it is advisable for landowners to have a written agreement in place, and consider taking legal advice in relation to the terms on which permission is granted and the steps that will be taken when treasure is found, including the apportionment of any reward or, if the treasure is not acquired by a museum but returned to the finder, how the landowner will be compensated.

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