The sale of the so-called Crosby Garrett helmet for £2.2 million ($3.6 million) has started to raise some uncomfortable questions. It is now clear if the helmet was found by “a young guy” (Georgiana Aitken of Christie’s) or “an unnamed father and son” from Peterlee County Durham (The Independent). Dr Roger Bland of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) has talked about “the real gap” in The Treasure Act (1996). (Indeed the real issue is the term used for the act.)
A month ago Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn called a review of The Treasure Act in a letter to The Times (London).
On October 20, 2010 Lord Renfrew tabled a written question:
To Ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will review the definition of “treasure” so that major heritage discoveries, such as the Roman parade helmet found at Crosby Garrett and recently sold by public auction, should fall within the scope of the Treasure Act.[HL2515]
Baroness Rawlings (the President of the British Antique Dealers’ Association [BADA]) presented a written reply:
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport plans to review the Treasure Act Code of Practice and this will include the definition of Treasure contained in the Treasure Act 1996. This review will take the form of a public consultation and so 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 at Crosby Garrett.
Lord Renfrew has now returned to the theme in the House of Lords by asking the question (November 11, 2010):
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.
Baroness Rawlings reminded Lord Renfrew of her written reply. In response Lord Renfrew noted:
It is strange that a national treasure can be sold at public auction by an anonymous vendor to an anonymous buyer.
But he then added a question that must cause concern for those dealing in antiquities within the United Kingdom:
will the Government consider reviewing the law on antiquities at sale by auction in favour of some transparency?
Transparency would mean auction houses and galleries providing full details of collecting histories and vendors.
Lord Redesdale returned to the issue of the Crosby Garrett helmet:
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.
The restorer’s report on the helmet is indeed enlightening and I am very grateful to Georgiana Aitken of Christie’s for sending me a copy. There is indeed real concern that such an unusual object – could we use the term ‘national treasure’? – was not put in the hands of an archaeological conservator.
But Lord Redesdale also raises the issue about eBay. He appears to be suggesting that archaeological material from the United Kingdom is slipping abroad. Are these just chance finds? Or are there those who make a deliberate search for archaeological material? And are all these items recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme? How much material goes unrecorded?
Baroness Rawlings responded by talking about ‘provenance’ (or more accuratley ‘collecting histories’):
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.
This brings us back to Lord Renfrew’s point for the need of greater transparnechy in the market and the full disclousre of documented collecting histories when archaeological material is offered for sale on the market.
The sale of the Crosby Garrett helmet may well be seen as a turning-point in the debate over the market in archaeological material.