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A treasure find on paper and its legal bedlam

May 26, 2011 - On May 16, 2011, the administrative court of Osnabruck delivered the verdict on a medallion of Claudius Gothicus struck between 268 and 270. The lawsuit was about whether the Ministry for Science and Culture of Lower Saxony was allowed to continue seizing a coin by disposal for stoppage although the proceedings by the persecution had already been closed and no lawsuit for an illegitimacy of any kind had been filed. The decision again testifies that German law courts want to have evidence: the seizure was unjustified.

The situation
First things first: on March 12, 2010, the auction house Künker offered a gold medallion of eight aurei of the emperor Claudius II Gothicus for sale in auction 168 with the lot number 7.844. The piece, minted in Mediolanum and weighing 39.11 g, was graded very fine and came from an auction entitled “The New York Sale” conducted in January 2007 in New York. Sold for $ 40,000 back then, the current result read 54,000 Euros, plus buyer’s premium and VAT roughly 66,500 Euros.

When the piece was sold it had already been clear that its new owner wouldn’t be able to receive it straightaway because the district court of Osnabruck had enabled a seizure on March 9 at the request of the Republic of France for the surrender to the French authorities would be possible and there would be suspicion of malversation.

This is not an isolated case. Two other auction houses are involved. At Meister & Sonntag’s in Stuttgart, an aureus of Quintillus was seized on French request, at Rauch’s in Vienna an aureus of Claudius Gothicus. The French authority responsible for the protection of French cultural goods claims that all three pieces were part of the so-called Lava Treasure, a numismatic invention.

The so-called treasure
After all, nobody really knows if and when this treasure really existed. Roughly since 1957, an increasing number of gold coins of the four emperors Gallienus, Claudius Gothicus, Quintillus and Aurelianus appeared on the French market. Of course, similar pieces had been known before but they had never been on the market in such great a number. A collector shared with the numismatist Jean Lafaurie that his new pieces came from a find a coral fisherman had made near Corsica in the middle of the 19th century. Lafauri subsequently published an article on a “Treasure from a Roman ship, found in the Mediterranean Sea” (J. Lafaurie, Trésor d’un navire romain trouvé en Méditerranée, RN 1958, pp. 79-104).

When further pieces turned up in the course of the 1970s, which were identical in their typology and, in some cases, had even been made from the same dies, a second article was written about the 46 new pieces so that the “treasure” then amounted to 87 specimens. Lafauri and his co-author Huvelin referred to the statements of the French coin trade that the pieces came from a secret excavation on the bottom of the sea near Corsica. Nobody started to think that they might originate from another location than the first lot (H. Huvelin and J. Lafaurie, Trésor d’un navire romain trouvé en Méditerranée. Nouvelles découvertes, RN 1980, pp. 75-105.)

The pot was stirred, when in 1985/6 new gold coins from the time in question turned up. Two Corsicans were made out as finders who, together with the Parisian coin dealer Jean Vinchon, were sentenced in 1995 – 10 years later! – to imprisonment on probation and significant fines for embezzlement and handling stolen goods, respectively. The French law regards treasures discovered in the sea as state property. In 2004, one of the two divers thoroughly described his find in his book with the title “The Treasure of Lava – the Roman gold rush with the Corsican divers” (F. Biancamaria, Le Trésor de Lava – La fièvre de l’or romain chez les plongeurs corses, 2004) and illustrated it with underwater photos. Some years later, the French police again investigated him: he would have had further gold coins in his possession he had then put on the market.

Let us summarize: in the late 1960s, gold coins of the barrack emperors came onto the market which were said to originate from a treasure find from a Roman ship. In the 1970s, again gold coins from that period showed up of which rumors on the numismatic market said the same. For the pieces from 1985/6 it is proven now that they indeed have been found in the Gulf of Lava. But only a civil servant would infer from this that all aurei and medallions of the emperors Gallienus, Claudius Gothicus, Quintillianus and Aurelianus available on the market necessarily belong to this treasure – a civil servant with no idea of how long coins are collected in Europe. The scientist Sylviane Estiot, who recently dealt with the Treasure of Lava, concedes: “Neither the real size nor the exact catalogue will ever be known for sure…” («on ne connaitra jamais ni l’ampleur réelle ni le catalogue exact», from S. Estiot, Le trésor d’or romain de Lava, in Moselgold – Der römische Schatz von Machtum, 2008). Nevertheless, all of the 452 gold items and coins collected by her are treated as if they were part of a big treasure – an alleged one, as a matter of fact – the French government lays claim to.

The verdict
The administrative court of Osnabruck indeed did not follow the drift that a medallion of Claudius Gothicus necessarily belongs to the Treasure of Lava simply because the hoard had contained some medallions of Claudius Gothicus. Ulrich Künker, Managing Partner of Fritz Rudolf Künker GmbH, is pleased with that: “We are happy about the outcome of the trial and the according conformation of our action against the ministry. The positive outcome of the case is highly important for similar proceedings.” It is very significant in this regard that Ulrich Künker announces not to let the matter rest: “In the next step we will reserve the right to claim damages from the federal country of Lower Saxony.” Dr Diethardt von Preuschen, representative of the auction house in the lawsuit, said: “An auction house has his image damaged and is discriminated when it is denied unlawfully a precious commercial object like that ancient coin for months. That is an illegal encroachment on an exercised business enterprise.”

By the way, the judge advised the plaintiffs in oral form to watch their cultural property in time. If one is so anxious about its protection one ought to survey the auction catalogs regularly to stop a coin on its first appearance.
We can only agree with that. Protection of cultural property means taking care of it, not bringing unprovable charges against third parties.


by Ursula Kampmann

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