This article is for general informational purposes only and is not meant to be used or construed as legal advice in any manner whatsoever.
You’re walking along your neighborhood park one beautiful morning, accompanied by the delightful singing of birds. The smell of freshly-baked bread dances through the air from a bakery nearby, and the sun caresses you with its light. You can’t help but feel a little cheeky, so you take your shoes off, smile, and skip slightly in joy as you feel the cool grass beneath your feet.
That’s when it happens. Your left foot comes down hard on a small but solid object. A tiny jolt of pain scuttles up your left leg, and you instinctively lift your limb up to examine the cause of your discomfort.
Your discovery? An old Straits Settlement one cent coin embedded upright in the ground. You promptly pluck it out and place it in your pocket, wondering how much you can sell it for on eBay.
After all, finders keepers, right?
Not quite. In fact, you may have just committed a crime in the eyes of Malaysian law.
Any historical items or treasure you find must be sent to the government
According to the National Heritage Act 2005, if someone discovers any object which he or she believes to have cultural, historical or heritage value, they must submit it to the Federal Government for assessment and examination. This must be adhered to regardless of how small or seemingly negligible such an object may be. However, it doesn’t apply to family heirlooms that have been passed down from relatives.
Section 47(1) of the National Heritage Act 2005 – Discovery of object (In part):
Any person who discovers any object which he has reason to believe has cultural heritage significance shall immediately notify … and where practicable, deliver the object to the Commissioner, authorized officer or the District Officer …
In the context of our opening example, an old Straits Settlement coin would clearly have some cultural heritage significance, and is thus a historical object that must be delivered to the Federal Government for evaluation. Of course, this would also extend to other items which we’ll get into later on in this article.
But don’t worry though… if you turn in an item that has historical significance, you’ll still be rewarded for the discovery. Once a heritage object is recognised by the Federal Government, an evaluator may be called in to determine the exact value of the object, after which you will be paid compensation in proportion to this value. This is explained in Section 48 of the National Heritage Act 2005:
Section 48(2) of the National Heritage Act 2005 – Proprietary right in the object:
A competent heritage valuer may be appointed by the Commissioner to decide on the value of the object for the purposes of ascertaining the amount of compensation, and the decision of the competent heritage valuer shall be final.
While we won’t go into the details, the Act also allows compensation for the owner of the land where a heritage item is found. However, if the Commissioner decides not to keep the item, then it’ll be returned to you.
On the other hand, not turning something in will net you with a fine of up to RM50,000 and/or up to 5 years in prison as per Section 47(5) of the Act. As such, unless you would like to court yourself some trouble, it would be best to adhere to the law and prevent your newly-discovered lucky coin from turning into an unlucky one.
Soooo…. what’s a heritage item?
According to Section 2 of the National Heritage Act 2005, a ‘historical object’ is any item or artifact that has religious, artistic, historic or traditional value attached to it, including:
Household materials or decorative items.
Works of art or traditional weapons.
Manuscripts, coins, currency notes, crest flags or badges.
Vehicles, be it in part or whole.
However, not all antiquities and historical objects are automatically classified as national heritage items. The Act goes on to explain that heritage items are those which fall under a very specific umbrella:
Section 2 of the National Heritage Act 2005 – Interpretation (In part):
… “heritage item” means any National Heritage, heritage site, heritage object or underwater cultural heritage listed in the Register;
The ‘Register’ that is referred to in the statement above is the National Heritage Register – essentially a growing list of all objects that are officially recognised as heritage items in the eyes of the law. This can also include buildings, parcels of land, and even people! Yup, there are currently 21 living people recognized as a National Heritage, though we doubt they going to be too easy to pocket if you accidentally step on one.
In case you were wondering, the Act also applies to historical items that are discovered underwater – which means the water will not be able to wash away the fact that you broke the law if you choose to pocket them.
In the eyes of the National Heritage Act 2005, coins that are found in Malaysian waters are regarded as a type of ‘treasure trove’, which it defines as:
Section 2 of the National Heritage Act 2005 – Interpretation (In part):
“treasure trove” means any money, coin, gold, silver, … or any object or article of value found hidden in, or in anything affixed to, the soil or the bed of a river or lake or of the sea, …
The act tells us through its Section 74 that when a treasure trove is discovered, the discoverer must inform the Federal Government regarding his discovery with as much detail as possible regarding the location and condition of the discovered items. To do this, the party responsible for the discovery can approach the District Officer of the area in which the trove was discovered. Failure to do so carries a penalty in the form of either a maximum fine of RM50,000, imprisonment for a maximum of five years, or both.
Unless it’s a family heirloom, it doesn’t belong to you
Why, you ask? Section 48 tells us that after the Act came into effect in 2006, any item discovered on Malaysian soil which is reasonably believed to have heritage value is the property of the Federal Government by default. This holds even in the case of objects that aren’t officially recognised as heritage items yet.
Section 48(1) of the National Heritage Act 2005:
Any object discovered after the date of the coming into operation of this Act shall be the absolute property of the Federal Government provided that where the object is discovered on an alienated land, compensation may be paid to the owner of the land
This also translates to say that unless you discovered the object before 2005 or inherited it from someone you know, you probably shouldn’t be selling something that isn’t actually yours. If you are caught selling heritage items without the necessary permit or permission to do so, you will be slapped with a maximum fine of RM50,000 and/or imprisonment for a maximum term of five years according to Section 91 of the National Heritage Act 2005. The Act actually has a section about selling permits, but we’ll leave that for a separate article.
So if you’re wondering why this law exists, keep in mind that preservation of a nation’s heritage is important to any country; to the point that some countries are petitioning museums to return artifacts that were stolen or smuggled. Unless we fancy a future where Malaysians would have to travel to Europe to view a piece of their country’s history.