He said he had “found” part of the treasure in his garden. Customs carried out one of the most important seizures of archaeological objects, that is to say a booty of 27,400 pieces of a “inestimable value”, amassed for years by a mysterious looter “from the Grand Est”AFP learned from customs on Tuesday.
An investigation, carried out for more than a year by a team of French customs officers, in cooperation with the Belgian authorities and the decentralized services of the Ministry of Culture (DRAC), allowed this record seizure, said the customs department.
The looter had concentrated on various referenced sites in eastern France where, equipped with metal detectors and a very solid scientific archaeological culture, he had used for years, amassing this unpublished collection for purposes personal and mercantile.
The affair begins in September 2019, when this French resident in Belgium declares having, while cleaning up his land, made the “fortuitous” discovery of 14,154 coins from the Roman era buried in his orchard. According to Belgian law on fortuitous discoveries, he could hope to become the legal owner. But the Belgian authorities then decided to appoint an expert.
“He opened the trunk of his car and showed me two huge filled plastic buckets. I had never seen so many parts,” explains to AFP Marleen Martens, archaeologist of the heritage agency of Flanders, Belgium. At first glance, it recognizes “Antoninans” dating from the 3rd century, recognizable by the crowned effigy of the emperor. These coins, rich in silver, were frequently buried for this reason by savers of this troubled period of the Roman Empire.
But Marleen Martens inspects the place of the discovery and determines that the “stratigraphy” (study of layers of earth, editor’s note) was not plausible. An expertise of the ground and the surroundings confirms his first doubts. “The context of this deposit couldn’t be Roman. It was just impossible.”, she explains.
The owner of the land is French, also based in Lorraine and he is known in the world of selling antiques. The French National Directorate of Intelligence and Customs Investigations (DNRED), in charge of the fight against trafficking in cultural goods, is seized. She quickly established that “the monetary treasury at the origin of their suspicions indeed comes from various looting in France”. From the first visit to the offender’s home, the French customs officers, who thought they would stick to 14,000 coins, discovered the extent of the collection: a total of 27,400 archaeological objects.
Among these looted objects are bracelets and torques dating from the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, a Roman dodecahedron of which there are only a hundred known copies, but also Roman fibulae, buckles Merovingian, medieval and Renaissance belts, elements of statues and Roman and Gallic coins.
The French archaeologists in charge of the census say they are distraught today. “These objects taken out of their context lose at the level of interpretation, we lose elements on the dating, their vocation, not to mention the problems of preservation”, explains Frédéric Séara, Regional Curator of Archeology at DRAC Alsace. “When I think back to this dodecahedron, not knowing its context is dramatic”, he says of this enigmatic 12-sided metal coin, of which there are only a few dozen copies in the world.
Archaeologists have been warning for many years about the frequency of looting in France and demanding stricter regulations on the sale and use of metal detectors, used by seasoned looters as well as by Sunday treasure hunters. “The extent of archaeological looting in France is dramatic, it does not happen only in Egypt”, considers Frédéric Séara.
At the end of this administrative investigation, the file should soon be sent to French justice. The Lorraine plunderer incurs, in addition to a colossal customs fine, a prison sentence.
This entry is “a clear message addressed to those who, for the profit and the selfish pleasure of a few, deprive us of our common heritage and erase entire sections of our history”, the Minister of the Economy Bruno Le Maire reacted in a press release, referring to “an invaluable treasure”.