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From Roman coins to Bitcoin: buried treasure in a digital age

05 Mar 2019

It is amazing to think that over 1,600 years after the end of the Roman occupation of Britain, hoards of Roman coins still continue to be found across the country. Whilst many form part of the discovery of wider Roman settlement sites, some have a fantastic air of mystery surrounding the abstract location of their discovery.

It is often assumed that hoards of coins were buried for safekeeping in an unconventional location personal to the owner, in an ancient time of political or social turmoil. Why they were then never collected by their owner is also fascinating in itself, and it is often assumed that the owner died, and with them the secret of the location of the hoard.

Fast forward 1,600 years, and political and social uncertainty can still lead wealthy individuals to move their assets to more secure locations. With the advent of distributed ledger technology like Blockchain (coupled with distrust surrounding conventional and centralised financial institutions), popularity in cryptocurrencies has increased and their value has soared in recent years.

Similar to the ancient coins buried in a chest, cryptocurrency is often held on some form of hardware with access granted by a passkey known only to the owner. As a decentralised system, without knowing the location of the hardware and the passkey, access to the cryptocurrency is lost and with it a potential small fortune (or large fortune, as the case may be).

This was recently demonstrated in Canada when the co-founder of the cryptocurrency exchange Quadriga, Gerald Cotten, suddenly died at the tender age of 30. With Cotten the only person to know the details of the cold storage site holding the reserves for the online exchange, it is estimated that around £105 million of cryptocurrency is currently unreachable, with around 115,000 users affected.

Richard Marshall

Whilst this again highlights the lack of regulation within the emerging tech market, it is also a stark reminder to anyone holding cryptocurrency, and any other digital assets, to have a memorandum of wishes setting out the nature of the account (whether it be online or stored on some form of hardware), the password or passkey, and any other information to locate and access the asset.

In the case of our ancient coins, it was not until 1881 that the first metal detector was invented, which arguably paved the way for many undisturbed ancient coin hoards to be discovered throughout the twentieth century and beyond. In an age of intangible assets stored on and offline in a decentralised and unregulated ecosystem, if such assets are not managed properly prior to the owner’s death or mental incapacity, how and when this digital buried treasure will ever be discovered is anyone’s guess.

At Hay & Kilner, our Private Client Team work closely with our IT and IP teams to understand the nuances surrounding digital assets, and the bespoke issues for Tech Entrepreneurs, so as to fully assist in the preparation of Wills, estate succession planning and Inheritance Tax planning.

For more information and assistance with digital assets, please contact Richard Marshall, or call 0191 232 8345.