Monday, 11 February 2013

So, How Easy is it....?

It's beginning to look like at the moment there are blokes out and up to no good every few days in the Staffordshire Hoard field. It is my hope that they get nothing but severe backache and a cold. They might be hoiking out something mundane like George III halfpennies (despite three official metal detector surveys of the field, we have no published information about what other metal objects are in that field or those around it). But they might be finding objects related to Anglo-Saxon activity on the hilltop. So, what happens if trespassing Terry Thugwit  the Tamworth Treasure Hunter with his GPX 5000 beeps and hoiks out a piece of Anglo-Saxon gold jewellery. How easy or difficult is it to hang onto it or get rid of it?

The finder has two option. Basically, he can add it to his own collection, and there is in reality no mechanism in British law which would lead to its discovery there or challenge to his ownership. If asked where it came from there are a number of lies that basically cannot be challenged which would get him off the hook (forgive me for not divulging them).

Or he might flog it off. How difficult is that? Well, click on eBay and have a look.  At the moment of writing there are two objects on sale which show how easy it is to put objects up for sale there without anyone challenging the lack of any information about its actual legal status (and you thought PAS was monitoring eBay). Let me be clear that I am not saying these two items are stolen or undeclared Treasure, merely that they clearly demonstrate that if anyone wanted to put something up for sale on eBay there is no mechanism forcing them to declare their legal status, which is simply assumed by all concerned to be kosher.

There's a "beautiful and Unique 7th C Anglo-Saxon Gold & Garnet Spiral Ring" being sold by clarks-curiosities (Claire Brumell, a bungalow in Kings Lynne, Norfolk). This she says is kosher because it is "Ex English private collection". No other details are offered (compare with the description of another items she is selling). So, what in the sales description is there to show this is not undeclared Treasure, and why does the seller not feel obliged to present it?  

Then there is a "rare Anglo-Saxon ring with 2 dragons and a semi-precious red gemstone (sard?)" being sold by x-entrix antiquaire Kim J. Nazzi, Brussels. The "provenance" is laughable: "Ex art and antique trade (UK)", so not undeclared treasure then.

[Note the number of Anglo-Saxon brooches being sold this week, as in weeks previous, for one to two thousand pounds. It obviously pays to go grave robbing on Anglo-Saxon cemetery sites in England. There are several archaeological corpora of known examples giving NGRs (more accurate ones than those generally being reported to the PAS for such finds) which will lead detectorists straight to the mother lode].

Quite obviously there is no obligation  in place on the sellers to show that these items are not undeclared Treasure, so they do not bother. But this raises a number of questions concerning how it would be possible to prevent the wholly open sale of illicitly-obtained artefacts in such a situation. Has the PAS monitored these objects? And the silver pins and silver brooch currently on sale by a UK dealer?

So basically the moment an illegally operating metal detectorist is over the fence with a piece of stolen gold in his pocket or finds pouch, he really will have no problem with having it. He either lies about where it came from, or just keeps quiet about where it came from, there are always people willing to sell them for him as "from an old collection" or "from the antiquities trade", and we all know that there are always people out there looking for old stuff to buy and keep at home, who are not going to ask too many questions.

If we are to do anything about the illegal excavation, we need to change the law on the way we treat archaeological artefacts as collectables.  This is what the Nighthawking Report proposed over three years ago. What, since then, has actually been done about it in the UK? How many drafts have been prepared and discussed now? What is the point of commissioning a report when no attempt is made to put its recommendations into practice? Meanwhile the site of the Staffordshire Hoard has been visited, probably on quite a regular basis, many times and is still, three years later, being visited by people with metal detectors and spades. Whatever they are taking away, it seems they have no difficulty of getting rid of it without being caught. Surely it is time to look at those policies, time to look at those laws. Can't Britain do the job of protecting its heritage much better? Britain should be a world-leader in this rather than the laughing stock that it is.

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