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Are Finders Keepers When It Comes to Treasure?

Two Israeli teens recently happened to unearth a 1,100-year-old buried pot with hundreds of gold coins. What happens next in such situations?
August 25, 2020, 2:27pm
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Photo courtesy of Suzy Hazelwood / Pexels

On August 24, two Israeli teenagers unearthed a trove of hundreds of gold coins that date from 1,100 years ago. The coins—425 in all—were made of pure 24-karat gold and weighed 845 grams. 

The hoard, buried in a clay jar, was discovered at an archaeological dig in Yavne in central Israel. The amount, which is already hefty today, was immensely valuable back then. With such a sum, a person could buy a luxurious house in one of the best neighbourhoods in the ninth century caliphate cities. The coins which were in such an excellent condition that they have not even oxidised, were taken by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) after they were found. 

But imagine being a teenager on summer break and coming across hundreds of ancient gold coins. Not only is the idea of antiquity in your hands a little fascinating, but can also potentially be worth a lot of money. Which might make you wonder: What would happen if you came across a treasure trove yourself? Would you get to keep it or would you have to, unwillingly and mercilessly, surrender it?  

If you were a Roman walking around the Colosseum grounds ages ago and stumbled upon a half-buried pot full of bronze bars, half would go to a lucky you, and a half to the king. But today, centuries later, different governments treat buried treasure differently. 

In India, construction workers at a village called Hareenahalli in the southern state of Karnataka  chanced upon a pot containing coins from the British-era, in 2018. The coins had a face value of rupee 1 and dated back to the 19th century with years ranging from 1840 to 1887. And the lucky labourers could have probably even had a share of those coins. But they broke the Treasure Trove Act. 

The Treasure Trove Act of pre-colonial times says: “Whenever any treasure exceeding in amount or value ten rupees is found, the finder shall, as soon as practicable, give to the Collector notice in writing—of the nature and amount or approximate value of such treasure; of the place in which it was found; of the date of the finding. The revenue officer will then follow due procedures under the Treasure Trove Act and the coins will either become government property or the land owner's if he can prove his ownership.” 

If no person claims ownership of the place it has been found in, the treasure is given to the finder. In the above case though, the labourers not only ran away with it without informing the owner of the land but also failed to alert the revenue official or collector about the booty. If a treasure finder attempts to bypass the Act, they can be fined and even imprisoned for not duly following its procedures. 

In the U.S., laws vary by state, but the general conclusion is that going treasure hunting is often a waste of time because you likely can’t keep it. The Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 states that any “archaeological resources” found on the land of the state belong to the government. This law has been extended to just about anything over 100 years old. 

Various state legislations have ruled that a “treasure trove” can be gold, silver, or paper money. The prevailing thought is that other types of coinage or tokens, despite being made of different kinds of metal, should be included in this legislation, but this hasn’t been legally established yet.

Exactly how old an object must be to be considered treasure is unclear. The court rulings have defined it as both, after a point that the original owner is unlikely to claim it or after at least a few decades. And if what you found cannot be legally considered a treasure, you are required to take it to the police. It will go into the U.S. state custody and be handled like any other case of lost property. Some state courts, though—including those of Georgia, Maine, New York, Ohio, and Wisconsin—have decided to stick to the finders-keepers concept, though. So if you somehow do get a bonafide treasure trove (and it didn’t involve trespassing), chances are you get to keep it. 

In contrast, if a Brit unearths rare gold coins in his backyard, those belong to the royal family—who would likely pay the digger a handsome fee. In 2009, a Scottish man unearthed four Iron Age gold necklaces worth £500,000 and subsequently became one of the world’s most famous treasure hunters. When he handed the treasure in, he got a six figure fee for handling the 2,000-year-old treasure. However, if you try to hide your find from the government, you might even end up in prison—not unlike the three men who found, hid and were trying to sell found Viking loot worth almost $5 million in 2019.

In Australia, two diggers found gold nuggets worth $350,000 last week. The nuggets, which had a combined weight of 3.5 kilograms, were unearthed as a part of TV show Aussie Gold Hunters. The country allows recreational gold mining—which means, if you have a miner’s permit and go on a literal search for gold, what you find would be yours. 

In the Philippines, the National Museum of the Philippines is responsible for the issuance of treasure hunting permits and licenses. As is with the case of Yamashita’s hidden gold, there have been hundreds of people who have been treasure hunting looking for this mythical hoard of treasure. 

The bottom line is, go treasure-hunting in your country—but don’t expect much to come out of it, apart from bragging rights. And if you do come across something, report it first. If you're unlucky, you'd have to part with what wasn't yours anyway. But, if you are lucky—or an Australian—consider it yours. 

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