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Treasure Island

10 min read

Recent changes to the Treasure Act will redefine what counts as ‘treasure’. But will it mean that more found items appear on public display, or create new problems for museums and others? Chris Chafin reports. Illustrations by Tracy Worrall

In May of 2010, a Roman cavalry helmet was found by a person using a metal detector – a ‘detectorist’ – in Cumbria, near the village of Crosby-Garrett. Forever after known as ‘the Crosby-Garrett Helmet’, it was sold at auction at Christie’s for £2.28m, a sum roughly 10 times higher than the auction house’s estimate of £200,000 to £300,000.

“It was brought to us in a box of soil” with a “tinned bronze face peering out” remembers Georgiana Aitken, then the auction house’s head of antiquities. “I felt immediately that it was something very special … [it] generated a buzz that extended far beyond Christie’s.”

Dating from the 2nd or 3rd century AD, it was not simply a helmet, but a full facemask of the type worn for cavalry sporting events, depicting a young man in surprisingly lifelike detail, with the auction catalogue highlighting its “idealised youthful features,” “tight corkscrew curls” and “fleshy lips slightly parted”.

The British Museum’s senior curator of Romano-British collections, Ralph Jackson, wrote at the time that it was “an immensely interesting and outstandingly important find”. It’s one of only three of its kind ever found in Britain.

It was also made out of copper alloy, and as such did not meet the United Kingdom’s legal definition of treasure, according to the Treasure Act of 1996. At the time, this legislation required objects to be at least 10 per cent by weight precious metal to be considered treasure, which then allowed the country’s museums to acquire them at what a government system determined to be a fair market value. The helmet, being copper, didn’t apply. But this didn’t sit well with the country’s antique experts.

“It was alarming that objects of national importance could simply disappear into private collections,” says John Naylor, the national finds adviser at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, as well as an official with the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), the government body charged with overseeing the finds unearthed by the nation’s rapidly expanding number of detectorists and other treasure finders (methods of discovery tracked by PAS include gardening and mudlarking). Naylor says his colleagues watched with despair as the auction price went up, far beyond the budget of any of the bidding museums, and it was eventually won by an anonymous bidder. “It did cause concerns,” he says, “that we were losing really important things.”

This find and its resulting sale have been cited by the advocates of changes to the Treasure Act, recently passed, which vastly expand the definition of treasure. Its proponents hope this will allow domestic museums to capture more significant objects; others have questions about how well these changes will function in practice, and whether they were needed in the first place.

Legally defining treasure has been part of English life since at least the 12th century, when a collection of laws purportedly dictated by Edward the Confessor to William the Conqueror stated that: “Treasures from the earth are the king’s.” Setting the stage for the next 1,000 years, the text immediately backtracks on this bold and simple pronouncement with a list of rules and conditions (“unless they shall be found in a church or in a cemetery … if silver, half is the king’s and half is the church’s where it is found, regardless of whether it is rich or poor”). Over the next millennium, those qualifications continued to multiply;  the Code of Practice explaining how the Treasure Act of 1996 functions comes to just under 150 pages.

Underneath the conditionals, the basic framework of the legislation was this: if an object is at least 10 per cent precious metals, more than 300 years old, and a few other qualifications having to do with how objects found together influence each other, it was legally declared treasure after an examination by experts associated with the PAS. In 2002, this definition was broadened to include prehistoric base metal hoards.

This year, the definition has expanded yet again. First, the temporal threshold has been moved from 300 to 200 years, in part to allow for the inclusion of objects related to the industrial revolution. Secondly, an object no longer has to be made of precious metal to be declared treasure. It does have to be made of metal, however, except in cases where a find is deemed to be of historical significance – this last category is something of a catch-all, allowing experts to declare certain rare objects historically significant and therefore worthy of public ownership and preservation.

“Treasures don’t only come in gold and silver,” says Naylor.

Undergirding these changes is the idea that items sold at auction disappear from public patrimony. Announcing the changes, a Department for Culture, Media and Sport press release promised that under the new system “more artefacts can be saved for the nation”.

A statement from arts and heritage minister Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, who has been a vocal proponent for the effort to update that law, read in part that: “Thanks to the changes we have made, we will see many more important artefacts go on public display where they can be enjoyed and studied by future generations, instead of being lost to private collections.”

But those working in the antiques trade take issue with this characterisation. A dichotomy between public viewing and private ownership “demonstrate[s] little understanding of what motivates a collector,” says Joanna van der Lande, the chair of the UK Antiquities Dealers’ Association, “but they do expose the difficulties collectors face in this age of repatriation and returns, where private ownership of cultural objects is often demonised.” She points out that the collector who acquired the Crosby-Garrett Helmet has already lent it for public view four times.

There was a similar outcry and similar outcome around the Ryedale Hoard, a cache of some of Yorkshire’s most significant Roman objects, including an 1,800-year-old bust of Marcus Aurelius. It was sold at auction in 2021, but donated to the Yorkshire Museum by the winner.

“Pieces rarely disappear completely from public view,” van der Lande says.

This is not just academic. Having an item legally declared to be treasure enters it into a process by which a committee of experts called the Treasure Valuation Committee determines its value, shops it around to museums, and eventually pays the person who found the object and the owner of the land on which it was found.

Some critics of this process say as well-intentioned and generally well-respected as it is, it is impossible to put a definitive value on historically unique items. Take the Crosby-Garrett Helmet, which Christie’s underestimated the value of by a factor of 10.

“Nobody really knew what the market value should be and sometimes public auction is the fairest way to establish this,” says its former antiquities head, Aitken. In other words, something is only really worth what someone else will pay for it, and sometimes the only way to figure that out is to sell it.

There are other issues. Museums are already overflowing with artefacts and may not have room to display or even store additional ones; the British Museum famously displays a mere one per cent of its collection. Is an object disappearing into a museum storeroom functionally different than it disappearing into a private collection?

Regional museums have also found themselves the victims of austerity-minded budget cuts in recent years. According to a 2018 report from the Museum Association, 14 per cent of local authority museums were forced to reduce their opening hours due to budget shortfalls. And a report from the County Councils Network concluded council spending on museums, libraries, arts, and culture was reduced by almost £400m over the eight years from 2011 to 2019.

Though there are methods in place for regional museums to borrow money or apply for grants to acquire new objects, budget woes have only been worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic and the attendant decline in visitors to museums and heritage sites.

A 2022 investigation by The Art Newspaper found that The National Gallery in London had nearly 3.3 million fewer visitors in 2022 than in 2019, while several other institutions – Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, V&A Dundee and the Wellcome Collection in London – all saw visitor declines of almost 60 per cent on 2019 figures.

There also simply might not be the appetite for more items at regional museums. “My local museum, if I try to give them anything, they’ll always ring me back saying, ‘Keith, when can you come to pick up your box of things?’” says Keith Westcott, the founder of the Institute of Detectorists. “You can’t give it away to museums.”

Westcott is one of an estimated 40,000 detectorists working in the UK. In 2021, they reported 45,581 finds, including 1,085 treasure cases. The hobby has been exploding in popularity over recent years, especially during lockdown when it offered a safe, socially-distanced way to enjoy the outdoors.

My local museum, if I try to give them anything, they’ll always ring me back saying, ‘Keith, when can you come to pick up your box of things?'

The Treasure Act and the entire Portable Antiquities Scheme relies on detectorists, as they’re the ones actually out in the field discovering objects. It’s beholden on them – on penalty of prosecution – to properly report and catalogue their finds. The system doesn’t function if they, in the first instance, don’t participate.

“The reality is, detectorists are going out there targeting small finds, and will find things most times they go out,” says Westcott.

No one knows exactly how many detectorists are properly engaging with the PAS system. Westcott estimates it’s around 10 per cent, and that “the majority probably want to put [their finds] in their little coin box in their house. Quite often it’ll just go on a tray and they’ll be able to show somebody occasionally when they come around for a cup of tea.”

By introducing new and slightly difficult to understand treasure criteria, Westcott thinks the updated treasure system will change that.

“You may be finding something which you think is fairly standard because you’ve seen on Facebook that they found them two counties away, but the fact that you found them in your particular county and they’ve not been found before makes it treasure,” Westcott explains.

Treasure hunters, not wanting to fall foul of the law, may err on the side of caution and begin reporting every coin and piece of scrap to PAS.

“One of the benefits of the legislative changes should be to reduce friction between museums, collectors, detectorists and the trade,” says van der Lande. “This is, however, only possible because the system, unique to the UK, is admirably fair and largely respected by all parties.”

Indeed, several people interviewed for this article praised the treasure system in the UK, which is liberal compared to the systems in most European countries.

By all accounts, almost everyone involved, from detectorists to curators and antique dealers, values our shared cultural heritage and wants to make a more perfect system for preserving it.

“What I love about these objects is what they tell me about the past,” says Naylor. “I can understand better what societies were like, how they changed, how people moved, traded, just lived their everyday lives.”

So far, working out how to share the things that inspire that love has taken about 1,000 years to figure out. Everyone feels they’re very close to getting it right.

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