It seemed to be one of the most historic finds of Roman artefacts ever discovered on Flemish soil – around 14,000 Roman coins dating from the third century CE.
On closer inspection, however, the find turned out to be a con trick.
The coins, reported to the Flemish heritage agency, had reportedly been dug up by a French national on a piece of land he owned in Gingelom in Limburg province. Under Belgian law, since it was his land, anything found there was his property.
The agency carried out a routine investigation.
“Whenever a chance find like this comes in, we contact the person and take a look on the spot,” researcher Marleen Martens told the VRT.
“In the first place, we looked at the site and the pit where the coins were found, according to him. What was especially striking during the visit was that all of the coins, and not a handful, were in his car boot: two large buckets full.”
That, and the circumstances of a Frenchman making such a big find on land he had bought in another country, seemed just a little bit too coincidental, she said.
And sure enough, an examination of the ground where the find had allegedly been made soon revealed that the story was impossible. The soil, for one thing, goes back only to the Middle Ages, and certainly not to Roman times.
“We reported our suspicions to the French authorities,” Mertens said. “They questioned the man and he admitted he had bought the coins in France. The treasure comes from French soil and was illegally excavated there.”
Further investigation in France revealed that the man has an extensive history of dealing in illegally-excavated archaeological finds, including armbands and necklaces from the Ion and Bronze Ages, a Roman dodecahedron and brooches, and belt-buckles from the Merovingian time.
The coins themselves are not worth much, but the sheer number of them makes the find valuable. Researchers from the Royal Library examined the find and reported the coins make up a coherent collection, and are not just a heap of old coins thrown together.
Flemish heritage minister Matthias Diependaele (N-VA) now intends to hand over the coins personally to the French minister for Culture, Roselyne Bachelot-Narquin.
“I will be delighted to return the coins to the French culture minister next year. This will give French archaeologists and researchers the opportunity to reconstruct the remaining information about their past,” he said.
The case of the man who ‘found’ the treasure is now in the hands of the French judicial authorities.