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Treasure Act 1996

Volume 722: debated on Thursday 11 November 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will review the definition of “treasure” in the Treasure Act 1996 in the light of the sale at auction of the Roman parade helmet recently found in Cumbria for £2 million.

My Lords, I refer the noble Lord to the Answer given to him on 20 October:

“The Department for Culture, Media and Sport plans to”,

conduct a consultation that will,

“review the Treasure Act Code of Practice and … the definition of Treasure contained in the Treasure Act 1996. This … will provide the opportunity to consider whether it would be appropriate to extend the definition of treasure to include items such as the Roman parade helmet found”,

in Cumbria,

“at Crosby Garrett”.—[Official Report, 20/10/10; col. WA 186.]

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that helpful Answer. It is strange that a national treasure can be sold at public auction by an anonymous vendor to an anonymous buyer. Can the noble Baroness tell us where the Crosby Garrett helmet is now and who bought it? If not, will the Government consider reviewing the law on antiquities at sale by auction in favour of some transparency?

My Lords, I acknowledge the expertise of my noble friend Lord Renfrew on the subject of antiquities and greatly appreciate his long-standing dedication to this area. I understand his concern that the buyer and the seller may remain anonymous. However, I am told that it would be a breach of the principles of confidentiality and data protection for information about buyers and sellers to be released into the public domain without their consent. I am afraid that I cannot tell him where the helmet is.

My Lords, does the Minister appreciate how disappointed the people of Cumbria are that they have lost this fine artefact? Will she join me in congratulating the staff of the Tullie House Museum in Carlisle, who led a campaign that raised £1.96 million to try to purchase it? I understand that the buyer is based in the UK, which means that an export order was not required. Will the Minister assure the House that, if the artefact were to be exported or transferred abroad, an export order would be required?

I thank the noble Lord for that question. I understand that there have been calls for an export licensing ban to be placed on the helmet. I cannot speculate on what will happen next. However, the general position is that, if the Secretary of State decides that an object of cultural interest is of national importance and the owner has applied to export it, he may impose a temporary export ban under the Waverley criteria, as the noble Lord will know. That would quite rightly give an individual or institution time to raise the money to make a fair and matching offer to try to keep the object in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, my noble friend will be aware of the valuable work of the Portable Antiquities Scheme in recording important archaeological information about finds under the Treasure Act, such as with this helmet. Can she give the House any assurances about the future funding and management of the Portable Antiquities Scheme?

The Portable Antiquities Scheme is very important and I thank the noble Lord for that question. I appreciate that there is concern over the future of the scheme in the light of the announcement that the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, which currently provides most of the scheme’s funding, will be wound up by April 2012. I am pleased to confirm that the scheme will continue. Discussions are taking place about the best way for it to be managed and funded.

My Lords, can the Minister offer any comfort to archaeologists, faced as they are with cuts to funding for museums, universities, English Heritage and local authority archaeological departments and, indeed, the collapse of archaeological businesses that are dependent for their funding on developers? Do the Government have any policies to support archaeology?

The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, is very much involved with this subject and I understand his concern about the cuts, which will be across the board and which we all know about. Measures included in the Coroners and Justice Act to improve the treasure system will be implemented. Ministers are still considering the feasibility of a coroner for treasure. DCMS and the Ministry of Justice are working together to assess the extent to which measures on treasure may be implemented within current financial constraints.

My Lords, are moves afoot to look at the practices of the auction houses, given that this helmet was found in many pieces and an enormous amount of archaeological information was lost when conservators put the pieces back together without consulting archaeologists? Is that a practice that auction houses should undertake, given that loss of information on a very rare artefact? Are the Government looking at sales of antiquities through internet sites such as eBay? That is becoming a real source of worry, as much of our heritage is disappearing abroad without any record whatever.

My noble friend Lord Redesdale makes interesting points on the pieces and on eBay. It comes back to provenance. It is in the interests of both auctioneers and dealers to check that the provenance of items is acceptable to reduce any risk of prosecution for handling stolen goods or dealing in tainted or mended goods. However, the Government consider that the existing offences adequately satisfy the United Kingdom’s obligations under the 1970 UNESCO convention and would be wary of introducing further legislation unless there was a proven need to do so.

My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art. Bearing in mind the Minister’s reply to my noble friend Lord Renfrew, can she confirm that the review of treasure will include wide consultation, not least with my noble friend?

My noble friend Lord Inglewood makes a very good point and of course we will make certain that it does.