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Saturday, March 30, 2013

Why We Support the UK Treasure Act (1996) -- & Wish Other Countries Would Follow Suit

One News Story among Many Similar from the UK, Reported in November by COINWORLD: "Gold coin hoard find in UK among largest" by Jeff Starck, last November 12:

What is regarded as one of the largest Roman gold coin hoards ever found in the United Kingdom was discovered in early October. The hoard of 159 late Roman gold solidus coins, found by an anonymous metal detectorist on private land in the north of the district of St. Albans in Hertfordshire, was announced Oct. 16 by local officials... Finds such as the coin hoard are governed by the Treasure Act 1996. The next stage is for the British Museum’s panel of independent experts to examine the coins and make their report to the coroner (a local official who decides such cases), who will determine whether they are to be considered as ‘treasure’ under the act.

If the hoard is declared treasure, the local museum will have a chance to raise the money to pay for the hoard that will be distributed to the anonymous finder (the finder usually shares the fee with the landowner, if they are not the same). The value of the coins has not yet been determined.

What this means is that the British Museum is going to have a chance to document and perhaps purchase the coins, but that the owner will not automatically lose them. This is exactly why we support laws like the UK's Treasure Act. It removes strong incentives in other countries to conceal finds of ancient coins and antiquities (because "finders keepers" applies unless the government raises funds to purchase them), while at the same time allowing the find to be professional documented before it sold piecemeal on the private market.

As we posted on our facebook page, any number of news stories streaming in weekly from the British Isles illustrate its value in solving the dilemmas of ownership, provenance, and cultural heritage of antiquities. Similar laws should be adopted much more widely. More recently, from "The Press" (York, UK), "York Experts Want to Keep Treasure Hoard in Country" (March 27, 2013), but the owner isn't compelled to give up the Viking antiquities discovered. Yet again: A pragmatic solution ("compromise" may be a better word for it) to the problem of private v. governmental proprietorship of antiquities discovered and/or in the possession of private citizens.

It seems unclear so far whether the items will be purchased by a museum or any scholarly, or governmental organization. Regardless, because the private discoverer retains rights to the find, the artifacts are not simply removed from their cultural, historical context for ownership in the private market -- thus eliminating the opportunity for developing the archaeological knowledge base. Instead, they are first professionally excavated and documented. Even if the items remain in private control, they are now professionally recorded in the context of their discovery (often the Treasure Act gives enough opportunity for local or national museums and universities to purchase or convince the owners to put the items on "loan" before they are sold off a few pieces at a time).

This, like many others in the UK, illustrates the value of laws such as the UK Treasure Act. We've personally seen private collections of thousands of Greek- and Etruscan- to Roman- to Viking-era antiquities that include thousands of larger in-tact pieces, including swords, military helmets, various pottery and ceramics, as well as statuary items. Countless private museums exist in basements, mostly consisting of items that were, officially speaking, obtained illicitly. As we've written, we stopped collecting antiquities (besides coins) some time ago because we recognize the damage that the unregulated market can do to archaeology.

Still, we do buy and sell non-provenanced coins, which would have been of cultural and historical if documented upon discovery. Of course, many items have been in the private market since long before anyone started considering issues of cultural heritage and national rights to ownership. These items are more of less "lost in space," as no one has any idea where they originally came from. But we also purchase large quantities of coins that have been unearthed or put on the market much more recently, only rarely with provenance or governmental approval by antiquity export authorities.

We would strongly prefer to be able to purchase items that were provenanced and legally sanctioned in fashion that could be documented (if only to maintain our professional ethics), even if it resulted in a predictable increase in the price on the private market. Do the Baltic states not have such laws (one prime source)? If implemented it would be a great improvement, we feel.

Perhaps there are unanticipated consequences we do not recognize. But, on the face of it, the UK's Treasure Act seems the best model available for solving these challenges -- at least for new finds.

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