World Coins

Treasure hunters find fortune, but end up in jail

Four residents of the United Kingdom have been convicted in court of failing to abide by UK law after they did not declare their discovery of a Viking Age hoard of some 300 coins and assorted jewelry. Three have been sentenced to prison terms and the fourth awaits sentencing.

After an extensive police investigation, the trial of the four men started at Worcester Crown Court on Sept. 30 and concluded on Nov. 21, 2019.

The story started with two experienced male metal detectorists in June 2015 and ended in November 2019 with both of them behind bars.

It could have been so different. Dr. Gareth Williams, Curator of Early Medieval Coins and Viking Collections at the British Museum, commented after the men’s trial that it was a great shame that they had not declared the find and that a large part of it was still missing.

He added, “It is not just a theft of the items. If we don’t recover everything it’s a theft of our history. The stupidity is that our treasure system is the most generous in the world in terms of providing rewards for those who abide by the law. These men would be rich by now if they had done things by the book.”

Indeed they would have been. Prior to the trial, experts estimated the value of the discovery at £2.9 million, which is possibly on the conservative side.

The leading detectorist was George Powell, aged 38, of Newport, Wales, who was accompanied by Layton Davies, aged 51, of Pontypridd, also in Wales (the first and second defendants). They decided that their hunting ground should be a remote spot in the English county of Hereford. After careful research they focused on what they thought was a promising area just north of Leominster at Eye, close to a wood and high land. The only box they ticked was to seek the permission of the landowner of a field and the tenant of a farm whose land they wanted to search.

UK law requirements

When treasure is discovered, within 14 days the occupier/owner of the land should be informed and the authorities advised. The latter is generally the local finds liaison officer, who will then advise the coroner. 

Powell and Davies unearthed jewelry, coins and ingots. They immediately knew it was no ordinary find, but they decided to treat the discovery as theirs. In short, the court said, they stole the entire hoard. Soon afterwards they contacted Paul Wells, aged 60, of Cardiff (the fourth defendant), who traded in coins with Jason Sallam, a local antiques dealer, at Cardiff’s antiques market based in the old Pump Station. The detectorists met Wells and Sallam and showed them 12 coins and three pieces of jewelry.  

Sallam said the find should be declared to the coroner, but offered to have the coins identified by the coin expert trading as Lloyd Bennett Coins of Britain Ltd. at nearby Monmouth. He also showed Bennett the jewelry. Sallam returned the now identified coins, together with the jewelry, to Wells with the message, “They need to be declared to the Coroner.” He also contacted Davies and repeated the advice. 

When the latter collected the items from Wells, he asked him to keep five of the coins in his safe, as he thought, “the landowner’s gonna be a problem.” 

Despite two lots of advice from recognized professionals, Powell and Davies kept the coins they had found concealed and started releasing them into the market. On June 10, 2015, Powell contacted Simon Wicks, 57, of Halisham, East Sussex, England (the third defendant). He has been described as a coin collector and dealer and a metal detectorist. 

Wicks had a previous conviction for “night-hawking” dating back to 2014. The term means searching with a metal detector without the landowner’s permission — usually on a protected site — to steal artifacts for financial gain. 

Powell and Wicks met at a service station on the M4 motorway (linking London with southwest Wales) on June 11, 2015. This was presumably to hand over coins from the hoard.

On June 18, 2015, Wicks went to the premises of the numismatic auctioneers Dix Noonan & Webb in Mayfair. To quote the Opening Note for the trial, “He had seven of the coins with him. He said they were from Herefordshire but gave no details as to where he had got them from. They all had the same appearance and made the specialist believe they must have been from a hoard. The specialist asked Wicks to leave them with him as they looked like important coins. He then kept them in the safe until he was contacted by the British Museum.” This was around six weeks later.

Rumors circulate

Given the rarity and value of the coins, their appearance on the market generated interest. There were also rumors in the world of detecting regarding an important find. By one means or another, word got to Peter Reavill, the finds liaison officer for Shropshire and Herefordshire. 

Having obtained the email addresses for Powell and Davies, Reavill sent them a message reminding them that it had come to his attention that while detecting they had found items subject to the Treasure Act 1996. He pointed out that not reporting such finds was a criminal offence. He gave them 14 days from the date of the email. Powell responded that he would not tolerate slander.

Powell contacted Mark Lodwick, the finds coordinator in the Portable Antiquities Scheme at the National Museum for Wales. He said he had made a discovery and believed he needed to report it. Powell and Davies visited Lodwick in Cardiff the following day, July 8, 2015. They declared the three pieces of jewelry and each produced a single coin of Alfred, stating they were isolated finds. 

If the coins truly had been found at different locations, they would not be subject to the provisions of the Treasure Act 1996. The two men could not give Lodwick the date of the find, only saying “the first week of June.” While they could identify the general area of the find on a map, they could not name the farm or the farmer. Powell also phoned the coroner’s officer Nigel Phillips to report the find.

The following day Powell revisited the find spot, spoke to the farmer and mentioned jewelry had been found on the field near the cottage. At the trial, both the farmer and the lady in the cottage were called to give evidence, and it was revealed that at some stage Powell had given each of them a few coins. These were of low value. The lady was also shown images of the jewelry by either Powell or Davies and was told that the pieces were at a museum. No mention was made of the discovery of a hoard of approximately 300 coins. That number has been estimated from images on the detectorists’ phones. These had been deleted, but were restored by the police.

Only 30 of the estimated 300 coins have been retrieved. Of these, five are of the Two Emperors type, which are great rarities. Two were issued by Alfred the Great and three by Ceolwulf. The Court’s Opening Note values these at £35,000 to £50,000 each. Apart from an earlier Cross-Crosslets type penny of Archbishop Wulfred, a denier of Louis the Pious, an Ummayad dirham and a single Alfred Two-Line type penny, the rest were Cross-and-Lozenge issue pennies of Alfred or Ceolwulf. With coins of this caliber being touted round the market, it is not surprising that the British Museum was hearing from dealers who did not want to handle them.

On July 28, 2015, Wicks returned to Dix Noonan & Webb and showed coins to an expert different from the one he saw in June. To quote the court’s Opening Note, he told the expert “that someone had died in the 1970s and they [the coins] had passed to the wife and onto a son and he had bought them from the son. He also produced a letter that referred to the 1990s. On 31st July the total of 16 coins were handed over to the police [by Dix Noonan & Webb].” 

Police informed

Meanwhile, both Reavill, Shropshire and Herefordshire finds liaison officer, and the British Museum independently advised the police of suspicions that a hoard had not been declared.

Powell and Davies were arrested on Aug. 18, 2015. On Sept. 16, 2015, Wells was interviewed at his home. In his statement he said he immediately recognized the importance of the find “both historically and from the monetary value” and that it should have been declared. He said he was holding five coins for Davies, and he was arrested for conspiracy to conceal criminal property.

On Nov. 16, 2015, a search warrant was executed at Wicks’ home, but nothing relevant was found. He was later interviewed under caution. He answered “no comment” to all questions about the coins, his phone contacts and association with other people in the investigation. He was subsequently arrested.

Found guilty

All four defendants were found guilty on Nov. 21, 2019. Judge Nicholas Cartwright sentenced three defendants the following day to terms of imprisonment: Powell, 10 years; Davies, 8.5 years; and Wicks, 5 years. Wells became unwell when the verdicts of the jury were announced and was rushed to hospital. He will be sentenced on Dec. 23.

After the trial, the Herefordshire local policing commander, Superintendent Sue Thomas, said, “This has been a lengthy and detailed investigation that I am pleased to see has resulted in four men being found guilty of the crimes and we await sentencing tomorrow. I hope the result from this trial demonstrates to the metal detecting community that we take this sort of crime very seriously. It is a criminal offence to not declare finds of treasure to the local coroner’s office.” 

The investigating officer for the operation, Detective Constable Nigel Cleeton, commented, “In all my policing years of service this is the most unusual investigation I have been involved in.”

Williams from the British Museum said, “I am pleased that this case has now been resolved after four years of police investigation. This is an unusual and important find, both in terms of what it can tell us about history of the period, and because some of the individual objects are so rare and beautiful. Discoveries such as this are an important part of our national heritage and the Treasure Act (1996) is designed to ensure that such finds can be acquired by museums for the benefit of the general public, rather than being quietly sold on the black market.”

According to Williams, the combination of coins and objects suggests a fairly clear date and context for the burial of the hoard. “With so much of the hoard missing, we cannot be absolutely certain of the date, but the combination of intact jewellery, bullion and a mixture of Anglo-Saxon, Frankish and Islamic coins is characteristic of a Viking rather than an Anglo-Saxon hoard, while the presence of a single Two-Line penny of Alfred indicates that it is unlikely to have been buried before c. 879. This is consistent with the presence of a portion of the so-called Great Army of the Vikings in that part of England in 878-879. These Vikings, led by Guthrum, were defeated by Alfred at the battle of Edington in 878, and following a peace treaty at Wedmore moved across the border into south-western Mercia, where they remained for a year, before moving on to East Anglia where they settled.

“Analysis of the activity of the Great Army shows that in many cases they made use of royal and monastic estates as bases because these already had supply systems that they could exploit. The find-spot at Eye was within sight of what is thought to have been an important monastery at Leominster. So, it seems likely that it was in some way associated with the Viking occupation of that area, just as the very similar hoard from near Watlington in Oxfordshire later in 2015 was found close to the likely route of the Great Army from Mercia to East Anglia.” 

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