On the year marking the 20th anniversary of the modernisation of treasure law in England, a case has come to light serving as a throwback to the earlier law of ‘treasure trove’. The Treasure Act 1996, implemented in 1997, marked a significant advance on the previous law. The definition of ‘treasure’ under the Act is clear, if somewhat complex, and the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which complements the legislation, is widely regarded as an enormous improvement on what had gone before. The media now frequently report the results of remarkable finds usually made by metal detectorists in fields and open spaces.
An unusual recent find, however, shows how the old law may still resurface. Bishop’s Castle Community College was presented in 2016 with an old upright Broadwood piano which was inspected by a piano tuner. Beneath the keys he found a package which he initially thought contained mothballs. On further investigation it turned out to be the largest collection of gold sovereigns found in Britain worth somewhere, it is thought, in the region of £200,000. The 913 coins had lain undisturbed in the piano for at least 70 years.
On 20th April the Shropshire coroner found that there was no satisfactory evidence to support a claim to ownership by any other party and declared the hoard to be treasure. The evidence of shredded wheat packaging around the coins suggested that they were hidden no earlier than 1926 and no later than 1946 owing to the woodstain used in the cavity. Beyond that who put the coins there, and why, is currently a mystery. It appears that any award made under the Act will be shared equally between the finder and the college as current owner of the piano.
Part of the legal interest of this case is that the find falls well outside the definition of treasure as a coin of precious metal which is at least 300 years old. The coins in the hoard only date from between 1847 and 1915. However, section 1(1)(c) of the Act includes any item which would have been treasure trove if found before the commencement of the Act. This provision is capable of applying to a find such as this, although it produces the rather curious result that it then becomes necessary to consider if such a find would have amounted to treasure under the pre-existing law which it was the intention of the 1996 Act to replace.
One of the most problematic aspects of the old law was the need to find an intention on the part of the person who deposited the item to recover it at a later time. This, for example, would rule out something placed in the ground, or a stream, as a votive offering. In this case it is not stretching probability to infer that there was an intention to recover the money. It seems unlikely that it was intended as a votive offering to the Muse Terpsichore!
This case bears comparison with the discovery of 80 American double eagle coins placed in a jar in the back garden of a house in Hackney. The difference is that in that case a descendant of the original owner came forward with convincing proof that the family had buried the gold during the second world war in fear of a German invasion. As a result the Crown’s claim of treasure was defeated and the coins restored to the successor in title of the person who made the original deposit.