Ian Richardson, Portable Antiquities and Treasure, British Museum
On 18 April 2011, the Coroner for Inner St Pancras (London) concluded an inquest into the ‘Hackney Hoard‘ of 80 gold American double eagle coins.
The coins had been found buried in a residential back garden and it was for the coroner to decide if they qualified as ‘Treasure‘ and were the property of the Crown.
As a group of precious metal objects deliberately hidden with the intention of being recovered at a later date, the coins met most of the criteria for Treasure, but in a surprise twist, the family of the original owner of the coins came forward to claim them successfully.
The court heard how Mr Martin Sulzbacher, a German Jew, had fled Nazi Germany with his wealth and settled in London in 1938.
When Mr Sulzbacher was interned as an ‘enemy alien’ in 1940 and sent to Australia, his family, fearing an imminent German invasion of Britain, buried his coins in the back garden of their Hackney property. Tragically, they perished in the Blitz and the property was destroyed.
When Mr Sulzbacher was allowed to return home, he was unable to locate the coins amid the rubble and destruction. 70 years later, they were found by accident as the residents dug a frog pond for their garden.
Mr Sulzbacher passed away in 1981 but his surviving relations were made aware of this recent discovery, and came forward to claim the coins. The coroner determined that the coins were not Treasure because the Sulzbacher family had sufficiently supported their claim. The Sulzbachers graciously gave permission for the coins to be displayed at the British Museum for a week following the inquest.
But how did the British Museum become involved in this historical mystery in the first place?
The answer lies with one of the newest and smallest departments in the Museum, Portable Antiquities and Treasure. The coins of the Hackney Hoard had been discovered by residents who reported them to an archaeologist working for the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS).
The PAS is a network of specialists called Finds Liaison Officers (FLOs) based at museums and universities throughout England and Wales who record finds of archaeological objects made by individuals in those countries.
The Department of Portable Antiquities and Treasure coordinates the PAS and runs the online database where this information is stored and made accessible to researchers, students, and the general public. The department also performs much of the administration of the Treasure Act 1996 by keeping a registry of all the finds of potential Treasure made every year, and helping to ensure that the most important of those finds are acquired by public museums.
In the case of the Hackney Hoard, the Finds Liaison Officer to whom the discovery was reported worked with the Department of Coins and Medals to write a report on the coins for the coroner, and produced the information for the database record.
The hoard is a totally fascinating find. Most of the finds recorded by the PAS (over 90,000 last year) and reported as potential Treasure (850 last year) are older than 300 years old, and represent a vast array of object types and coins from prehistoric times through the period of Romano-British settlement and into the middle ages.