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There are countless stories of buried treasure, for example, the recent a huge find of Roman artefacts unearthed in London, but the public at large know little of the law relating to treasure trove and especially the law relating to items washed up on shore – most commonly because they have washed overboard from a ship during a storm.
In England and Wales, such finds are regulated by the Treasure Act 1996.
Strictly, any item washed ashore from a ship, whether wrecked or not, constitutes ‘wreck’ under the law. Such goods belong to whoever had title to them before they fell into the sea. Where the goods are washed up as the result of a shipwreck, they must be declared to the receiver of the wreck, by the person finding them, within 28 days. The receiver may subsequently pass them back to the finder (if the owner cannot be found). Otherwise, a payment for the salvage of the goods may be payable by the receiver to the finder.
Failure to report items of wreck found is a criminal offence and the retention of goods ‘unofficially salvaged’ could lead to a prosecution for theft.
The position relating to buried treasure is completely different. If something has been found buried, is made substantially of gold or silver and its owners or their heirs are unknown, it will be classed as ‘treasure’. In some instances, the pre-1996 requirement that such items had to have been buried with the intention that they would be recovered still remains. Discoveries of treasure must be reported to the local coroner and it is a criminal offence not to report them. It is also necessary to report any finds to the landowner. The coroner will decide on the fate of the treasure and the finder is entitled to a finder’s fee if the find is ruled to be treasure. In such cases, ownership passes to the Crown.