The Department of Finance has said there may be constitutional issues around proposals to ensure banks give back the contents of abandoned safety deposit boxes to either the State or descendants of its original owners.

It was responding to a proposal from former bank official, Jim Connolly, who asked an Oireachtas committee to amend the Dormant Accounts Act to ensure that banks inform individuals or the State of properties held in abandoned boxes.

Mr Connolly told the Committee on Rural and Community Affairs that much of the property held by banks in vaults or safes is up to 200 years old and, although the majority of the contents is unknown, he believes it represents a "vast reservoir of our own cultural and historical heritage".

From his own experience, he said, some of the property held includes paintings and envelopes inscribed with the words 'to be opened on my death' which he said could contain a deed, a will or a confession.

"I've seen currency, antiques, weapons and even war memorabilia," he added.

The property remains the estate of the original deposit maker, he said, and in many cases the bank records are either vague or non-existent.

"There is no active appetite from the banking fraternity to address or engage with this issue, which is understandable given some of the legal exposures".

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

Mr Connolly told the committee he believes there is no legal impediment to prevent banks from dealing with this, but there needs to be legal impetus to force banks to do so, which he proposes should take place through an amendment to the Dormant Accounts Act.

The act allows the State to transfer the funds of a bank account if it has not been accessed for 15 years.

But Mr Connolly said that a period of 100 years dormancy period would be more appropriate to deal with abandoned bank safety deposit boxes.

He said the State should be empowered to seize such boxes when their contents or of historical or cultural importance.

Eoin Dorgan of the Department of Finance told the committee that there is no data available on how many safety deposit boxes there are, or the nature of their content, because they are not regulated.

He said there would be cost implications for the State around the proposals arising from the transfer, cataloging and storage of such assets which could be of significant value.

There would also be costs to the individual banks, he said, which would no doubt be passed on to customers.

Mr Dorgan also raised concerns about the constitutional implications around the right to property.

"Yesterday I was speaking to the official involved in the Dormant Accounts Act back in 2003 and she informed me they were looking at safety deposit boxes at the time but it became such a legal quagmire that they just decided to progress the core legislation," he added.

Fianna Fáil TD Eamon O'Cuiv - a former minister in the department with responsibility for the Dormant Accounts Scheme - said the principles of the scheme ensure that the banks always makes an effort to find the account holder and is always obliged to give it back if the owner does not come forward.

He does not believe there are constitutional impediments to expanding the scheme.

"If an artifact is found that is over a certain age, the State has a claim to it anyway. If I find a golden chalice on my land, unfortunately I don't get to own it. That principle is well established," he said.

"The thinking I would have is that they would be lent to the State and put on display but would still belong to the owner if the owner ever turned up. You are not transferring ownership; you are just putting them on display. If you go into Kilmainham (Gaol) or any of these places, you find artifacts on permanent loan to the State," he said.

"On the issue of privacy, we have already published the 2011 Census," he said.

"We have decided that even though census documents are totally confidential they can be public up to 2011," he said.

Mr O'Cuiv said there could be many artifacts that could give a "much wider understanding of our history and would show some beautiful things that have been hidden away".

He said: "For all we know there is a Caravaggio there or a Ruben or something else there. Wouldn't it be an awful pity not to have it on display, and owners could come forward if they can prove their ownership".

Sinn Féin's Martin Kenny said the State has an obligation to come up with a solution.

"It's very likely that there are a large number of very valuable items. It may be things that are just of value to the individual. It could be a set of love letters from someone who was India that they were receiving all their life and the bundled up and put in a box.  Maybe it's only of value to them but it is of historical interest and historical value".

Committee Chairman, Fine Gael TD Joe Carey, said there was a "very strong case" to look at the laws in this area.

"There is no regulation, there is no law, and there is no obligation on the financial institutions to do anything in this area. A good starting point would be an obligation on the banks to catalogue the issues that are there," he said.