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The Hackney Hoard
Coroner to rule on unique and historic
On 18 April 2011 the Coroner for Inner North London will resume an inquest in relation to a hoard of American gold dollars found in Hackney in 2007. The hoard consists of 80 coins which were minted in the United States between 1854 and 1913. They are all $20 denominations of the type known as ‘Double-Eagle’ and the find is totally unprecedented in the United Kingdom.
The hoard was discovered in the back garden of a property in Hackney and reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme but in a unique twist to the story a likely descendent of the original owner of the coins has been found.
The coins are thought to have been buried in 1940 when Mr Martin Sulzbacher and his family were resident in the Hackney property. A German Jew who had fled persecution in Nazi Germany, Mr Sulzbacher was interned as an ‘enemy alien refugee’ first in Seaton, Devon. He was then sent to Canada on the ill-fated “Arandora Star” but the ship was torpedoed on the way. Rescued after many hours in the water, he was then sent to Australia on the “Dunera”. At the end of 1941 he was sent to the Isle of Man and eventually released. His wife and four children were sent to the Women’s Internment Camp in the Isle of Man.
The remaining members of the Sulzbacher family continued to live in the Hackney house. The gold coins had originally been kept in a safe in the City of London but after 1940 Mr Sulzbacher’s brother took the precaution of transferring the coins from the city safe and burying them in the back garden. At the time the threat of invasion was at its height and the family feared the Germans would break open safe deposits as they had done in Amsterdam should the invasion be successful. His brother told a family friend what he had done and the friend had asked him to let him know the exact spot in the garden where the coins had been buried. He replied that since there were five family members who knew the spot there was no necessity to reveal the location of the coins. Unfortunately, on the 24th September 1940, the house received a direct hit in the Blitz and all the five members of the family were killed.
On his release Mr Sulzbacher went to the safe in the city and to his horror found that the safe was empty. The family friend then told him what had happened and so he arranged for the garden to be searched but without success, he was unable to locate the coins. However, the current case represents a second discovery of Martin Sulzbacher’s savings. In 1952 as work commenced on a new building on the site of Mr Sulzbacher’s house, a hoard of 82 $20 American gold coins dating to 1890 was discovered in a glass jar on the same site. The hoard was awarded to Mr Sulzbacher by the coroner at the time.
If the Coroner decides that Mr Sulzbacher has a superior claim to the current coin hoard they will not qualify as Treasure according to the terms of the Treasure Act 1996, on the grounds that in order for objects to be classed as such, their owner or his or her heirs or successors must be unknown. Mr Martin Sulzbacher passed away in 1981 but the coroner’s office, the British Museum and the Museum of London have worked together to track down his son, Mr Max Sulzbacher who lives abroad, as do his siblings.
Mr Sulzbacher said ‘I am surprised but delighted by the recent discovery, which has come to light almost 70 years after the coins were buried. I am very grateful to the finders for reporting the coins to the Portable Antiquities Scheme and the Museum of London, and to the member of the public who alerted the coroner to the 1950s discovery’.
Max Sulzbacher has generously agreed that the hoard can remain on public display at the British Museum (Room 41) for a further week, giving visitors a further opportunity to see the coins. He hopes to donate one coin to the local Hackney Museum and though not obliged to do so, he has agreed to give an ex-gratia payment to the finders in recognition of their contribution to the discovery. It is anticipated that the remainder of the coins will be sold.
This represents the first time since the Treasure Act came into force in 1997 that an original owner or direct descendent has lain successful claim to an item that would otherwise have been ‘Treasure’ and the property of the Crown.
Dr Roger Bland, head of the department of Portable Antiquities and Treasure at the British Museum, said ‘The case of the Hackney gold coins is one of the most unique and compelling stories that we have been involved with. There is an incredibly human element to this story that is absent from many archaeological finds and we are pleased to see the coins reunited with their original owners after so many years. The finders are to be congratulated for acting responsibly and helping to add further vital information to the corpus of material about the Second World War, Jewish immigration, and the history of Hackney borough.’
Archaeologists from the British Museum and University College London have investigated the site to ensure that no further deposits remained.
Treasure registrar, Ian Richardson holds one of the coins from the Hackney Hoard.
© Portable Antiquities Scheme.
Notes to Editors:
The original inquest into the find took place on 11 October 2010 at St Pancras Coroner’s Court. The purpose of the inquest was to determine whether the coins qualified as Treasure under the terms of the Treasure Act 1996. Because the coins are less than 300 years’ old, in order to qualify as Treasure they needed to meet the following criteria:
1. Be made of gold or silver
2. Be deliberately concealed by the owner with a view to later recovery
3. The owner, or his or her present heirs or successors, must be unknown
The coroner decided that the inquest would be concluded at a later date, in order to allow anyone with information regarding the original owner of the coins to come forward.
Subsequently, the coroner’s office was approached by a member of the public who directed their attention to an historic article in The Times newspaper, dated 13 March 1952. This article referenced a Treasure Trove inquest concerning an almost identical group of gold coins found at the same property in Hackney in 1952. In that case, the coroner found that the coins did not constitute Treasure Trove, and handed them to a claimant by the name of Martin Sulzbacher, an earlier resident of the property.
Further research conducted by the coroner’s office, the British Museum and the Museum of London has confirmed that Martin Sulzbacher, a German Jew, emigrated to London in the late 1930s and by 1940 owned and lived in the double fronted house in Hackney with his immediate and extended family.
In 1952, in advance of the construction of a new building on the site of Mr Sulzbacher’s former residence, workmen discovered a jar containing 82 American gold ‘double eagles’ dating from the 19th century. They were reported to the coroner, Mr W B Purchase, who, after hearing Mr Sulzbacher’s argument in support of his claim to the coins as part of his fortune, found the coins did not constitute Treasure Trove. Due to regulations in place at the time, Mr Sulzbacher was not allowed to keep the gold coins, but was given in exchange the current bullion rate by the Treasury in pounds sterling.
The current case of 80 gold double eagles almost certainly represents a separate discovery of Mr Sulzbacher’s wealth. Martin Sulzbacher passed away in Haringey in 1981, but his immediate relations have come forward to claim the coins as his descendents.
The coins were found wrapped in greaseproof paper inside a glass jar buried in the earth by the residents of the property as they performed routine landscaping in their back garden.