Talking about the financial value of Archaeology and archaeological objects is something that many heritage professionals shy away from, and the ‘value’ of heritage (in a wider sense) is the subject of on-going debates (for example, see ‘Can you put a price on culture?’ in the July/August 2013 instalment of the Museums Journal). But value is something that I deal with every day in my job. As the Treasure Registrar in the British Museum’s Department of Portable Antiquities & Treasure, I am responsible for compiling the minutes of the meetings of the Treasure Valuation Committee (TVC), and this particular task is what is facing me on the Day of Archaeology 2013.
The TVC is, in official parlance, a Non Departmental Government Body (in non-official parlance, a Quango) whose role it is to recommend to the Secretary of State the value of Treasure finds that come before it. This value is then used to pay a reward to the finder of a Treasure cases and the owner of the land where it was found. In cases where an interested party has acted improperly, the TVC also advises on the abatement of rewards. It is made up of a group of independent experts with knowledge of certain artefact types and other expertise and coming from a variety of backgrounds; current membership of the Committee, which is chaired by Lord Renfrew, can be seen here.
Fairness and equality are the underlying principles of the TVC’s existence and its work. The Treasure Act 1996 obliges finders of potential Treasure to report their finds to the coroner, and if the finds meet the criteria for Treasure, then the law says those finds belong to the Crown and they can be placed in an appropriate museum, with a reward equal to the market value of the find being paid to the finder and landowner. The effective working of the Act depends on finders coming forward and reporting their finds, and they will only do so as long as they feel they are being treated fairly by the law.
That is where the TVC comes into the picture. Its members fastidiously apply the Committee’s terms of reference (spelled out in paragraph 65 of the Treasure Act Code of Practice) and go to great length to arrive at mutual decisions as to the value of the finds which come before them.
The term ‘value’ is complex and prone to misunderstanding. What the Committee is tasked to do is to arrive at a recommended value equal to what might be paid for a find in a sale on the open market between a willing seller and willing buyer. The Committee recently adopted a memo explaining that it understands this scenario to be equivalent to a theoretical auction ‘hammer price’ – so in other words, the Committee endeavours to determine what a find might fetch at auction. This is different than a retail price set on goods in a shop, because the retail price incorporates a mark-up applied by the merchant to cover expenses and to bring a profit. Therefore the Committee usually finds it more straightforward to look at similar examples which have gone to public auction.
Discussion of an object’s value always begin with a report provided for the TVC by an independent ‘provisional valuer’, someone in the antiquities trade, external to the Committee, who has studied the object and done an assessment of it worth. This is also shared with the interested parties in a case – the finder, landowner and acquiring museum – who can supply their own comments on the provisional valuation or commission a valuation of their own.
What is clear, in my experience of working with the TVC, is that it is absolutely focussed on calculating an accurate ‘hammer price’ for these finds. It doesn’t allow itself to be influenced by whether or not a museum (who is responsible for paying the reward) will be able to afford a recommended value. Similarly, it doesn’t ‘take sympathy’ on a finder and inflate a price in order not to appear mean. The TVC makes its determination based simply on experience and evidence.
But it doesn’t stop there – in a further effort to demonstrate fairness, the TVC’s recommendation is circulated to all of the interested parties in a case, and they are invited to submit a ‘challenge’ to the valuation if they disagree, and the TVC will reconsider the case and take account of any new information or evidence that the interested parties provide.
It is these recommendations of the TVC which has me occupied today. We feel it is desirable (especially with higher valued finds) to provide interested parties with some of the rationale behind the Committee’s decisions, rather than just passing on a value. Therefore the minutes of the TVC meetings can grow into rather large documents! Minutes of past meetings, where all of the cases have been closed, are available for viewing on the website of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, here.
So the entire process is engineered to ensure that interested parties can see that the Committee is acting on the best information it has available, that its decisions are objective and that it is willing to take account of their evidence. The consequence of this is that it can take some time for valuations to be agreed, rewards to be paid, and cases closed, but that seems an acceptable sacrifice to ensure due diligence, fairness and transparency. If this in turn contributes to finders reporting potential Treasure and the important discoveries ending up in museums, we’ll feel like we’ve performed a service to the heritage of this country. Just don’t ask me how to value that…