At 8.30 on a summer Sunday morning, the last ‘detector aficionat’ on the beach at Barceloneta loped barefoot across the sand toward a xiringito. He waved in a familiar way to the owner as he began to dismantle his metal detector and stuff it into a medium-sized rucksack. ‘Boticario’ was the name that he gave, though his eyes searched the sky for a moment before he let it roll slowly off his tongue. “I work this beach every morning, for about three or four hours.”
Dressed only in trousers and a faded baseball cap, his lithe frame and dark skin corresponded to that of most every other beach resident in the world. Everything else about the man was guarded and mysterious, even if his evasions were delivered with a mischievous smile. “Let’s just say I’m a multi-tasker,” was his answer when asked about his full-time job. “I have various gigs.”
Boticario, who also declined to be photographed, was necessarily reserved about providing too much personal information. He’s a man who profits from other people’s losses, who skates the fine line between what is illegal and what the authorities actually enforce. He combs the beach every morning with a metal detector looking for items that—by Spanish law—should be turned over to the authorities for assessment.
Historical Heritage Law 16, dated June 25th, 1985, basically states that anything under the ground belongs to Spain. And the discovery—either intentional or by accident—of any valuable object must be handed over to the authorities for study. Once a proper value is assessed, the state will pay out half that value to be shared equally among the property owner and discoverers.
The gap from legislation to actual enforcement is rather large, however. “I don’t believe there’s any rule regulating this activity,” said Kiku Santiago, a communications officer in the mayor’s office. “There’s no policy to enforce this. Of course, if it’s an archaeological excavation, a person can’t go on site without a permit. But that’s another story.”
Just such a case happened in Badajoz, Extremadura, when a man was arrested by the Guardia Urbana and fined €1,500 by the Council of Culture for using a metal detector within 800 metres of an archaeological site. But the case was thrown out in June of this year on the grounds that nothing pertaining to Spanish heritage had been discovered. The defence also argued that the fine was out of proportion, given that the law was not well-known. Such cases are rare. In Barcelona, they are nonexistent.
“The Guardia Urbana has never arrested or fined anybody for using a metal detector,” said Jordi Vilasaló, director of the Guardia Urbana’s press department. “Nor is there any policy I know of that regulates or controls this activity.”
The cop on the street—or beach, as it were—is certainly unaware of any law regulating the search for valuable items in Spanish soil. An affable Guardia Urbana officer (who said that due to policy he could not give his name) stood in the door of the beach-front police station and spoke positively of the treasure hunters. “They come by every day and turn over ID cards and keys that they find. Nice guys.”
Boticario, with three heavy gold chains hanging from his neck, gave a patronising smile when asked what he does with the more valuable items he finds. “You can use your imagination.”
He tapped his pocket, which seemed to have about a quarter of a kilo of metal in it. “Some days are better than others. Today, only coins.”
Did you know?
* Instructions for building a metal detector are at www.easytreasure.co.uk
* In 1999, a novice metal detector user and his cousin found 9,310 silver Roman coins in a field of their family farm in Britain. A year later, a museum paid them £265,000 for the treasure.
* Physicist and inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, used a metal detector to try to find a bullet in the chest of American President James Garfield in 1881. It didn’t work because Garfield was on a metal bed.
First published October 2007.