Sunday 28 February 2010

When is a coin not a coin?

"A 23-year old Shropshire woman has been ordered to hand over an historic coin after being brought to court in what is believed to be the first case of its kind in the county". She got the coin from her mother, who died shortly afterwards. They had dug it up together in their garden in Tenbury Wells when Kate was nine. The problem is, single coin finds do not fall under the Treasure Act, nor as I recall would it necessarily have been Treasure Trove when found. Neither, it seems, was Kate Harding, the person who actually found it. She was told by FLO Peter Reavil that she should surrender it to the Coroner, and she did not, so the police were called in. Apparently the object, a French "piedfort coin" is not treated by British law as a coin at all.

A piedfort coin (in Medieval times, the meaning has changed somewhat since which may be part of the problem) is a coin struck with official dies but on a thicker flan. They probably served as presentation pieces, which does not mean that they were not (and could not have been used as) coins. This one wandered from France to England somehow after 1322 and is now for some reason being claimed as part of Britain's national heritage. But she will probably not get any compensation for being forced to hand it over as she did not report it to the Coroner within the fourteen days laid down by law.
So when the museum gets its hands on this object, where will they keep it? In the numismatic collection, or in the store with the boxes of pottery and soil samples?
There have been differing reactions to this story. Dr Michael Lewis, Deputy Head, Department Portable Antiquities and Treasure at the British Museum, hails this as "a landmark case and it sends a clear message to those who fail to report Treasure. It shows that the police and the coroners' service give Treasure and archaeological heritage law a high profile and will take proactive measures against those that disregard it". Really? Bloggers see it differently, Peter Reavill is described as a "jobsworth archaeologist" here. Coin collecting blogger lunaticg in Malaysia suggests: "She look like a victim for the authority effort to stop metal detector treasure hunter in the country". Metal detecting forums are calling this a great mistake: "the idiots involved have potentially damaged the whole business of reporting and this is indeed very bad news... [...] The fools jumping around saying this is a landmark case are celebrating an anti detecting but rather Pyrrhic Victory ...and most definitely should enjoy it whilst they they sure as hell wont get any finds handed in from now-on if this is the case, as this appears to be a total legal c**k up" (Julian Evan-Hart).

While I am generally of the opinion that the law is the law whether collectors like it or not, I think it is incredibly dodgy prosecuting this woman on the grounds that this is an "artefact" not a coin. I would like to know what expert opinion was called here. It is especially relevant in a situation when we have a group fighting the US government's import restrictions on the grounds that coins are not archaeological artefacts. It is probably of great interest to them that some coins are and other coins are not in English law. Michael Lewis crowing that the case allegedly "shows that the police and the coroners' service give Treasure and archaeological heritage law a high profile and will take proactive measures against those that disregard it" is nonsense. They in general do not. There have been other cases in the UK of Treasure finds and artefact hunting with metal detectors where laws have been broken much more flagrantly by metal detecting treasure hunters, none of whom ever see the inside of a courtroom, except to get a reward. This woman is not a metal detectorist, and apparently wanted to keep the coin for sentimental reasons, she reported it to the local museum where it was recorded. In this case though the law comes down on her like a tonne of bricks. Blogger "Lunaticg" suggests she is a victim of the British government wanting to get rid of metal detectorists, he presumably does not know the British government is in partnership with them. They would not prosecute one of their own, but a twenty three year old woman who got the coin from her mum is fair game. Prosecute her to show the rest what might happen if they are not good metal detectorists? Shame on the Brits. Shame, shame, shame.

Let us have a look at the law. Ms Harding was done under article 8 the 1996 Treasure Act. An inquest has yet to be held to establish whether the item is Treasure (and where and when it was found). So they got her under section 8(1) which states: "A person who finds an object which he believes or has reasonable grounds for believing is treasure must notify the coroner for the district in which the object was found before the end of the notice period", 8(2) states: "The notice period is fourteen days beginning with - (a) the day after the find; or (b) if later, the day on which the finder first believes or has reason to believe the object is treasure". Right, but what Kate Harding has had at home for fourteen years is a coin. It is a round piece of metal of fixed weight, impressed on both faces with (apparently) official coin dies. If she sold it, it would be to a numismatic dealer. It is as much a coin as the unique Offa dinar, now in the BM numismatic collection (CM 1913-12-13-1), the mancus of Coenwulf (CM 2006, 2-4,1). Piedforts are discussed in the numismatic literature, though there is disagreement as to what their function was, making any such pronouncements a subjective matter - and a subjective judgement cannot be used as evidence in a court of law (or can it now in England?).

Ms Harding had at home a coin, and Ms Harding is entitled to her belief that this is not Treasure, and therefore she is not bound to report it.

It is a single find of a coin like ten thousand metal detectorists in Britain have at home perfectly legally and are bought and sold by them quite openly and legally on the Internet and elsewhere. Many of them not taking what they have found to the local museum for recording. But Ms Harding has the misfortune that she is not a "metal detectorist" and she did visit the local museum with this coin. Thus it is that because of something she found on her own property, she has apparently had a series of threatening letters from the museum and PAS, a visit at the police station and several appearances in court. What moral can a "finder" draw from this?

Peter Reavill, readers may remember was the FLO involved when a metal detectorist who had no permission to be where he was came in with a hoard he had found. I think we have a right to know, did Mr Reavill then go to the police then to report illegal metal detecting? How many other illegal metal detectorists has Mr Reavill shopped?

Actually in Kate Harding's place, I would appeal this, on principle. Maybe the ACCG would like to start a fighting fund for her like they did their still-dormant Museum Fund.

Photo: tearful Kate outside court after hearing she will probably lose coin to the state (Daily Mail)

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