Gold always captures people’s imaginations. So when a huge hoard of U.S. gold coins, found in California, was announced recently, coin collectors, journalists and the public at large were fascinated by the story.
Walking their dog, a couple found on their property a treasure of over 1,400 coins, valued at $10 million. The hoard contains great numismatic rarities, most in Mint condition, and is likely to be this country’s most important coin hoard ever. More details emerged about the circumstances of the find, in a story carefully orchestrated by a public relations firm and a California coin dealer.
Despite the desire to remain anonymous, the couple, now known as Mary and John, described how they found the first of several cans of coins, which they carried home only to find a gold treasure. Eventually, coin experts were consulted and an agreement with Amazon reached, where most of the coins will be sold. Mary and John describe themselves as having had, just “like a lot of people lately,” financial trials. Their find will allow them to keep the property where they have lived for many years as well as donate some money to charity.
A wonderful story with a happy ending, but is it really? When I read almost weekly discussions about looted antiquities from Mediterranean countries, I wonder why the same standards of archaeological scholarship are not applied to finds in the United States. In the case of this new find, numismatic scholars neither know anything about the exact find spot (“northern California”) nor the surrounding terrain. Not even the various coin varieties represented in this hoard are clear, as only a tiny selection of rarities has been publicized. The entire find is unlikely to get any full publication, if nobody assembles a complete record and makes it available to the public.
Having worked for over 20 years reconstructing coin hoards largely illicitly excavated in countries such as Greece, Turkey, or Egypt, which often appear in comparable circumstances on the coin market as this new U.S. hoard, I see clear parallels in the attitude to such archaeological finds in the United States and abroad. Foremost, they are treasure, which the finders guard, often in contravention of national or international laws, in order to maximize their financial profit. Rumors about discoveries emphasize the remote areas of find spots, the poverty of the finder, and the need for secrecy. Just as in the California hoard story, the archaeological context is of very little interest, and thus the loss of historical knowledge is considerable.
When one considers the various legal issues, claims from potential title holders, tax issues, and general privacy concerns, it is not surprising to see that the finders of the Saddle Ridge Hoard have been overly secretive. Sadly, much historical information is lost when such important archaeological finds — and this hoard is most certainly in this category — are not properly recorded and published.
People often ask why this archaeological context matters, in particular for objects such as these late 19th century gold coins. Quite simply, it can tell the story of objects such as the Saddle Ridge Hoard. It might answer questions that are now at the center of the debate: Who buried the hoard? When did they bury this impressive sum of money? And what caused them to hide these coins and from whom?
When more such hoards are properly recorded, patterns can emerge to tell us something about the history of the area in which these burials occurred. The coins themselves, once cleaned, look no different from any other California gold coins: it is rather the circumstances of their burial that are so interesting.
As long as we do not show more interest in local history, knowledge will be lost. In countries such as the United Kingdom, similar hoard finds have been treated differently. The old law of Treasure Trove has been modernized to encourage proper reporting of finds. This might serve as a model for the United States. How much can be gained from an open and public investigation is clearly shown by the case of a different find of U.S. gold coins, this one in London’s Borough of Hackney in 2007. Finders discovered a hoard of 80 U.S. gold double eagle coins in a garden, which they declared to the English authorities. After some research and an inquest, the son of the original owner, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, was located and the hoard declared his property.
One can only wonder what information might become available if a similar process were applied to the Saddle Ridge Hoard. For now, the finders and coin dealers benefit from this situation, but not the general public or the descendants of the person who owned and buried the hoard over a century ago.