How to find treasure (but avoid prison)
Who hasn’t dreamed of stumbling across a priceless piece of treasure that not only turns you into an overnight millionaire but secures your place in the history books?
Amateur treasure hunting has never been more popular. Metal detectors can be bought for as little as £20 online, while television programmes such as Detectorists, written by The Office star Mackenzie Crook, has brought the joys of digging around in mud to a new audience.
Amateur “mudlark” David Hiddlestone has a permit to dig up to 3in into the Thames. He’s found 17thcentury lead seals and tokens used by the Knights Templar, thought to be nearly 1,000 years old.
He said: “It takes you back in time. To pick up something someone else dropped hundreds of years ago is amazing.” Other amateurs have been even more successful. In 2008 lorry driver Michael Darke found a trove of Iron Age gold coins in a field in Suffolk. The hoard, worth £300,000, was the most significant for a century.
Yet the rules around what happens to treasure after it has been discovered are ancient and complex. Failing to report finds can land hunters with an unlimited fine and even a prison sentence.
As news broke that archaeologists working on London’s new “super sewer” had unearthed a 500-year-old skeleton in knee-high boots, Telegraph Money dispatched reporters to the banks of the Thames to find out how to
Amateur treasure hunting is booming, but the rules are complicated, find Sam Brodbeck and Sam Barker
treasure hunt without ending up in a cell in the Tower of London.
Jane Sidell, inspector of ancient monuments at Historic England, explained that the treatment of objects you have found depended on several factors including where the discovery was made, who owns the land and whether it meets the baffling legal definition of “treasure”.
What counts as treasure?
Treasure is any metal object at least 300 years old and containing at least 10pc precious metal. If this object is a coin, you need to have found at least two. If coins have less than 10pc precious metal, they are considered to be treasure in groups of 10 or more.
Prehistoric objects are treasure even if the precious metal content is less than 10pc – and, if you find two or more prehistoric metal objects in the same place, these are treasure regardless of what the metal is. If the items are less than 300 years old but contain gold and silver, you must report them if they were deliberately hidden with no clear owner.
Anything you find next to these items becomes treasure too. If you think you have found treasure, you must inform the local coroner’s office within 14 days. They will value it and try to sell it to a museum. You may then be rewarded up to the item’s full value if you own the land it was found on. If not, the reward could be up to 50pc of the item’s value. This will not be subject to income tax but ut may incur capital gains tax (CGT) on figures above £11,700, the annual exempt amount.
Curiously, if you are lucky enough to find gold sovereigns, these are exempt from CGT.
River, field or beach
All land is owned by someone and you’ll need to get permission from them em before searching. Any money made d from finds is normally shared between landowner and finder.
There are special rules governing certain protected areas, known as “scheduled monuments”, where you can almost never dig or detect. To do so without permission risks a fine or prison sentence. On the Thames, these include the launchway of the Great Eastern, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s gigantic steamship, and the shore outside the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich.
Experts encourage hunters to report their finds to the Portable Antiquities Scheme, part of the British Museum. These are recorded on an online database and used by archaeologists and historians.
It can be hard to know what’s worth reporting. For instance, parts of the Thames foreshore are covered in clay pipes and Victorian pottery. Such finds do not need to be reported. ed.
The Thames has its own wn peculiarities. The foreshore ore in the capital is owned by y the Port of London Authority, y, which issues two types of f permit. A standard permit it allows digging to 3in and d costs £77 a year. A full mudlark k permit allows digging to 4ft but can be issued only to a member of the Thames Mudlark Society, which has its own entry requirements. nts.
Objects recovered from coastal beaches are governed rned differently again. As with finds elsewhere, the first test is whether it is treasure. If not, there’s a good chance it wi will be classified as “wreck” material, perhaps from a sunk sunken ship. Wreck material fa falls into four quaintlynamed categories: fl flotsam, jetsam, derelict and lagan. If you find anything you think might be w wreck, you have 28 da days to report it to the Rec Receiver of Wreck, Alison Kentu Kentuck. There are up to 400 such h reports every year, covering thousands of items. If you don’t declare your discovery you could be fined £2,500 for each undeclared find, or have to pay the rightful owner twice the value of each item you have taken.
‘To pick up something dropped hundreds of years ago is amazing’
Fortunately, people who declare wrecks are likely to get a reward for it. Ms Kentuck said: “A legitimate salvor is unlikely to be left emptyhanded.” If no one claims the wreck within 12 months, there is a chance it will be returned to you. The most well well-publicised publici case of this kind happened in 2007, when the contain container ship MSC Napoli ran aground ag off the Devon coast. The Napoli’s cargo washed up on nearby beaches. Amazed locals walked off with bounty including new BMW motorc motorcycles, luxury face cream and empty em wine casks. Pol Police at first tolerated the be behaviour, then began to sto stop it. However, all those who declared their finds wer were later allowed to keep thei their salvage.
Jane Sidell, inspector of ancient monuments, tells Sam Brodbeck how to treasure hunt; an East India Company coin, below; a 17th-century Bellarmine bottle neck, bottom