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The PAS are particularly concerned to identify objects unearthed on British soil classified as Treasure under the law, which must be reported and cannot be sold without relevant documentation.

As early as 2004 the PAS had called upon eBay to agree to halt sales of artefacts it believed should be classified as national treasure under the definitions laid down under the 1996 Treasure Act or (for items found before September 1997) the old law of Treasure Trove.

More recently, when volunteers monitored the site for a month – viewing an average of 600 archaeological objects a day – 54 objects with a gold and silver content were found that merited further investigation and 36 of those should have been reported to the authorities.

Given that a total of only 597 objects were issued with disclaimers by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport in 2005, the PAS believe that perhaps as many again were sold on eBay without documentation. Important archaeological information, including previously unrecorded Roman and prehistoric sites, is being lost with them.

In the past eBay have refused to take objects off the site unless the experts could prove they were stolen or illicitly obtained. However, under the new agreement – evidence perhaps that eBay are growing more circumspect about what is traded on their website after some negative publicity – a small team from PAS will monitor the site and correspond with sellers to ascertain whether or not they have the right to trade them.

In the event that a seller is unable to satisfy the PAS enquiries, Scotland Yard’s Art & Antiques Squad would be notified and eBay would stop the sale.

However, Michael Lewis, deputy head of portable antiquities and treasure at the British Museum, said that the initiative was as much about education as it was about securing prosecutions against those who flout the laws. He told ATG he believes most amateur metal detectorists who sell their archaeological finds do so without being aware that they may be breaking the law if items have not been reported.

eBay have now posted a code of conduct on their website, reminding buyers and seller of their responsibilities. Visit http://pages.ebay.co.uk/buy/guides/antiquities

The site also gives legal definitions of Treasure.

By Roland Arkell