Monday, 26 October 2009

The Müller Coin Case: »Spätrömischer Schrott« ist keine Hehlerware

As has been reported in the coiney media, in Germany there have been a number of cases involving collectors of ancient dug-up coins. US collectors were up-in-arms about collectors having their houses searched and collections seized the rhetoric even evoking images of Brownshirts and swastikas.

The cases concerned had resulted from collaboration between police officers and eBay concerning online purchases of coins thought to have come from illegal excavations. A 47-year-old installer Sylvio Müller from Hessen had been buying bulk lots of unprovenanced uncleaned coins on eBay (mostly the type called disrespectfully "Spätrömischer Schrott" by collectors over there), cleaning them and reselling them to collectors on eBay. Since there was no documentation that the coins involved were of licit provenance, and there was believed to be the likelihood they had come from illegal looting of unknown archaeological sites, he was charged with the handling of stolen goods (hehlerei). The police then carried out preliminary investigations of 347 collectors who had bought coins from Sylvio Müller. In some cases houses were searched, and even some collections of coins which could not immediately be documented as of legal provenance were seized for further investigation. Presumably the police were interested in identifying other suppliers of similar material which these people had been buying coins from. Many of the collectors whose title to some of their items was questioned instead of facing court cases in fact relinquished these coins, which prevented the examinations proceding further.

On September 21st, 2009, Müller stood trial. The trial was brief and he was acquitted unconditionally of the charges of handling stolen goods. This case was taken to mean by the German media that in that country no proof of origin is necessary in the acquisition or sale of dug up ancient coins. According to the Wetterauer Zeitung from September 22nd, 2009, Judge Franske put her estimation of the case this way: "Rest assured - you are entitled to further pursue your hobby".

UPDATE (June 18th 2010)

The cases against some collectors in Hessen who had been under investigation initially because they had bought material from Muller have been continuing. A chief superintendent in the Bavarian police accused of dealing in stolen goods since he had bought ten Roman coins at the price of 6 Euros from Mr Müller for his son refused the closing of the proceeding because he didn't want an endorsement in his personal file. He also was acquitted of all charges.

Collector Alexander Krombach was also investigated and his case is discussed in a recent issue of Coin News. He had his house searched and his collection of 821 coins was saved as evidence. The owner estimated the value of his collection at Euros 8.000 to 13.000 (the collection was later valued by the administrative court at 20 000 euros). Most of the coins had no “proof of origin”, though some were accompanied by papers (invoices) showing they had been bought at of well-known German coin dealers (Künker, Lanz, Ritter et al.). The material seized was mostly Roman Imperial, dating from the second to fourth centuries and many of them that could be assigned a source (by mintmark) came "from the east part of the Roman Empire, only a few from the west parts". It was later suggested that – according to their kind, amount and composition – the coins had come from digging on different sites in the east Balkans (Bulgaria, Serbia), with only very few coins perhaps coming from Germany and France.
As reasoning of the start of judicial proceedings the following aspects were stated: the accused had acquired five historic coins without the necessary proof of origin an March 8th, 2005. In addition, he had bought another 358 historic objects, mainly coins, of which he did not have any proof of origin. “The coins’ provenance could not be clearly ascertained so far. With a probability bordering on certainty they were purchased illegally. According to § 259 StGB, there is suspicion of receiving stolen goods”.
At the end of the preliminary proceedings, the collector was proposed a closure of the case with the surrender of the coins and a fine of 1000 euros. He refused because there was no evidence of "wilful misconduct with a probability bordering on certainty" which would be necessary for a conviction.

In July 2009 the Hessian Ministry of Higher Education, Research and the Arts for some reason issued a directive for the 821 coins to be seized and deposited in the Institute for History and Archaeology of the Roman Art and Subsidiary Science of Archaeology, to be used in that institution for “reasons of study and education”. Krombach resisted and took the case to the administrative court of the Federal State of Hesse in Wiesbaden and then Geissen. In the meantime Muller was acquitted, and on May 6th the directive of the ministry was dismissed.

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