World Coins

Monday Morning Brief for Dec. 2, 2019: Treasure finders go to prison

A silver penny of Alfred, Cross-and-Lozenge type, from the moneyer Guthred was recovered by authorities, who were able to retrieve 30 of an estimated 300 coins found by four metal detectorists who now face prison sentences.

Original images courtesy of Trustees of the British Museum.

Our longtime London correspondent, John Andrew, reports on Page 1 this week about a trial in a court in the United Kingdom that resulted in prison sentences for three men (and a likely fourth) who found a Viking Age hoard of coins and jewelry, and then broke UK law by not reporting the discovery to the proper authorities.

Their scheme was caught out by numismatists and historians who examined a tiny portion of the find and suspected that something was amiss. Based on John’s reporting, members of the UK numismatic community were the heroes in the case, with a dealer and collector who were the first outsiders to see the hoard advising the finders to report their finds to the authorities. The finders chose not to do so, and when found out, were eventually questioned, arrested, placed on trial, and convicted. Three face prison sentences and a fourth is awaiting sentencing.

John notes that, had they followed UK law, the men would have benefited financially from the sale of the treasure. Under UK law, such treasure belongs to the crown and not the finders. Museums are afforded an opportunity to purchase the treasure if it is deemed of historical significance, and then the proceeds go to the finders and the landowners. Instead, the four men now will spend their next years in prison.

In the UK, great emphasis is placed on the importance of allowing archaeologists, numismatists and others to curate and study treasure finds in an effort to record history and gain new insights. 

UK laws governing treasure finds are quite different from laws in the United States. Remember the famed Saddle Ridge Hoard of 1,427 gold coins uncovered in California’s Sierra Nevada gold country in 2013? Under the concept of “finders, keepers,” the discoverers of the hoard, a man and woman identified by first names only, did not have to contest their ownership of the coins. After researching the coins, they contacted a California coin firm and the coins eventually were marketed to great excitement. 

Not everyone agrees with the U.S. approach. Indeed, prominent numismatists from the academic field criticized how the Saddle Ridge Hoard was handled.

Two countries, two different approaches. 

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