Friday, 23 January 2009

PAS Reportedly Used to Launder Stolen Coin

In June 2008 a coin of Edward the Confessor dating to 1042 and minted in the minor mint at Malmesbury was stolen by a visitor to a museum display at Malmesbury Abbey from a display case (Joe Ware, Stolen 1,000-year-old coin returned to Malmesbury Abbey, The Wiltshire Gazette and Herald, 23rd January 2009). According to this account, a man was recently arrested in Surrey and the coin has been recovered. The reported circumstances of this discovery raise a few questions. The man was apparently traced as the result of an anonymous phoned tip-off to the Abbey bookshop who said he had heard a “metal detectorist” bragging about stealing the coin.

What is highly disturbing about this however is the fact that although the coin was actually stolen from a public display, the artefact hunter is said to have reported the find to the Portable Antiquities Scheme Finds Liaison Officer in Surrey, claiming he had discovered it with his metal detector in “Tetbury” (presumably the one in Gloucestershire, where there was recently, I believe, a metal detecting rally, presumably he pretended he had found it there). The media report states that the coin passed through the entire PAS system, the FLO examined and recorded it, researched its history and then after a month of work (in which time both the British Museum and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge had expressed great interest in the "new" find of a coin from this comparatively rare mint), the coin was returned to its finder with its alleged provenance officially-documented.

The Wiltshire Gazette and Herald reports that it was only after the anonymous tip-off that Wiltshire police went to Surrey and arrested the man, who at first claimed he couldn’t find the coin; the Police said if he didn’t return it they would press charges, and the “metal detectorist” eventually returned the coin. It is now safely back in Malmesbury, this time not on display but locked away in a bank vault until new security measures can be put in place in the church.

This story has a number of dimensions. The pro-collecting lobby tend not to stress that so-called “metal detectorists" are collectors, and as we have seen in previous posts here, many collectors of portable antiquities are not too bothered about where the things they covet come from, just as long as they can get their hands on them. This man, for example, stole from a church, and since he was bragging about it to one or more of his mates (fellow "detectorists"?), saw nothing wrong in that as an expression of his self-centred collecting passion. Likewise many antiquity collectors think nothing about buying portable antiquities they know have been looted in the Balkans or Middle East and smuggled out of the country by black marketeers.

To add insult to injury, in an attempt to cover up his crime the Surrey metal detectorist apparently tried to supply the coin with a false provenance, which would enable him to keep it in his collection or sell it with impunity. It was in this way that the PAS was unwittingly dragged into this affair. He was only caught out because he bragged about the new addition to his collection. This (together with other similar cases which have come to light by accident) raises a very disturbing question. How many more illicitly obtained artefacts (for example by so-called “nighthawking”, or smuggled from other countries) have been recorded under false provenances by the Portable Antiquities Scheme and thus given false legitimacy? We will not know because as far as I know, the PAS has no consistently-applied procedure established for verifying the reported data. Surely it should have, to ensure that its staff are not running the risk of handling dishonestly-obtained material.

The PAS is very fond of publishing impressive numbers showing how their "partnership" with artefact hunters is growing. This is represented by the pro-collecting lobby as an expression of the degree of "responsibility" in the milieu - the Malmesbury Church Looter reminds us that these bald figures hide a multiplicity of individual motives for contacting the PAS, not all of them connected with "responsible" artefact hunting or collecting. I wonder if any records in the PAS database concerning previous 'finds' from this individual will now be deleted, and researchers made aware of these deletions in case they have previously used potentially tainted information in their research?

One thing is unclear from the wording of the news report (“Police said if he didn’t return it they would press charges”), does this mean that the Police did NOT press charges because he gave the coin back? Do we understand that this "metal detectorist" got off with a pat on the head and a “thank you very much, sir” from the police? Let us reflect that as someone (allegedly) with a passionate interest in history he should be aware that in Edward the Confessor's day stealing from a church would have been punished somewhat differently.

Photo: Stolen coin NOT from "Tetbury" (Photo, The Wiltshire Gazette and Herald).


Roger Bland said...

Paul, as usual your desire to portray all co-operation with metal detector users in the worst possible light has meant that this account is seriously misleading and may be libellous. In particular you have omitted to say that PAS staff played a key role in helping the police recover this coin. At no point was the record on the PAS database contaminated. We will be seeking legal advice about this posting on Monday.

Paul Barford said...

Thank you for your comments.

It is clear that the content of my blog post is based on the text to which I refer therein; you can read for yourself what Joe Ware writes on the basis of what Malmesbury Abbey warden Dr Chris Simons had told him and consider whether you’d like to sue them for libel too.

I spent a considerable amount of time last night trying to find other stories on the matter that were not derivatives of the same text, and finding none, I wrote what I wrote. I could therefore hardly have “omitted to say that PAS staff played a key role in helping the police recover this coin” if that role had not been made known beforehand.

So you say there was no phoned tip-off from this guy’s more responsible colleagues to Malmesbury? In other words the Abbey is lying to the journalist? Was it the PAS who turned him in to the police, then? Instead of threatening, you could supply the full information to set the record straight, and I could amend my post accordingly. I am sure I am not the only one who would like to hear in more detail how PAS helped catch a coin thieving artefact hunter, if that is what happened.

I am glad to hear that after all “at no point was the record on the PAS database contaminated”, the article gave the impression that the object was returned to the finder after recording (if it was not, who allegedly “could not find the coin” when the police asked for it?). I did try to check what the PAS database contained last night, but it was “down”, as it has been for some time.

Nevertheless, this case does reveal the ease with which the PAS database could become contaminated by false data, which is the perfectly valid point I was making. We both recall that in the news there was also the recent case of the planting, presumably as a joke at the expense of the finders, of the eBay-bought ring at Oldham in 2005, which only came to light by accident (sharp eyes at the BM), but in both cases these were items already known.

What safeguards have you to ensure that newly-discovered finds do not get recorded (and thereby legitimized) under false provenances by the PAS? How can you prove to all of us that in the 300+ thousand items (I am sure you will correct that figure by the up-to-date one) recorded in the PAS database aftyer being reported by all sorts of people, there are no items with false provenances (for example from 'nighthawking')? There’s a post on this blog about a video by a UK metal detectorist showing off his “finds” which clearly include items he has not actually found in fields near his home (there are several more of foreign ones too, its obviously not a rare situation). In pre-PAS days I was involved in a case that seems to have been one of these situations. I know several museum colleagues have had similar experiences. I do not think this is a subject that should be lightly dismissed.

Paul Barford said...

As for: "your desire to portray all co-operation with metal detector users in the worst possible light". Let it be on record that I have had some very good experiences with co-operation with metal detector users in archaeological projects.

I dam very concerned about the issue of portable antiquity collecting and its effects on the archaeological rcord and public perception of archaeology. I therefore do not think that what is being done in the UK to present metal detector using artefact hunters as archaeology's "partners" as is currently being done by my British colleagues, including (especially) the PAS is in any way "desirable". In my opinion it obscures and dismisses so many important issues which I think should be being actively discussed in Britain and beyond.

That is my opinion and I express it here, whether Roger Bland likes it or not. Nobody forces him or anyone else to read my blog or pay any attention to what I write or think.

So please Portable Antiquities Scheme, tell us the true story of the Malmesbury Abbey coin affair.

Thank you.

pulse said...

Is this data reliable ?
If the PAS Staff played a key role in helping the police recover this coin is perhaps to hide an inconvenient truth. I m observing the English system and I'm amazed. And for me the objects from the research of metal detector users may not be reliable to be used as scientific data !
How to guarantee the origin ? How to be sur if the object is not a replica in a world where the cultural object has a market value ?
G. Compagnon - HAPPAH

Paul Barford said...

Well Gregory, there seems to be something "inconvenient" for the PAS in my drawing attention to the story and its potential significance, doesn't there?

Of course you are right, the findspot data recorded by the PAS is only as good as what they are told by the 'finder' - after all nobody is in the field with them looking over their shoulder, these are not data collected in a controlled manner.

"I'm observing the English system and I'm amazed ". Believe me, it's a source of amazement for more than just you. Not without reason is "metal detecting" referred to in some parts of our continent as "the English Disease".

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