French customs seize 'priceless haul' of Roman coins and artefacts man claimed he 'found in garden'

Henry Samuel
·3 min read
A gold coin of Faustina (Emperess - 2nd century), part of 27.500 archeological items in Metz, eastern France, seized by customs officers - JEAN-CHRISTOPHE VERHAEGEN/AFP
A gold coin of Faustina (Emperess - 2nd century), part of 27.500 archeological items in Metz, eastern France, seized by customs officers - JEAN-CHRISTOPHE VERHAEGEN/AFP

French customs officials say they have seized a "priceless" haul of over 27,000 archaeological artefacts after investigating a man’s claims he had stumbled across half of them in his back garden during a clean-up.

In reality, the hoarder had secretly amassed his illicit treasure – ranging from Bronze bracelets to Iron Age torques and Roman coins – in secret searches throughout eastern France.

He had gathered the precious artefacts himself using metal detectors and, apparently, expert archaeological knowledge.

The seizure of the 27,400 objects, came after a year-long joint French-Belgian investigation involving customs authorities and the French culture ministry.

The individual, a French national residing in Belgium who has not been named and now faces a criminal investigation, had acted out of personal interest and for trading purposes, according to the French customs service.

Belgian authorities’ suspicions were initially aroused in 2019 when he told authorities he had found 14,154 Roman coins by chance while cleaning up an orchard he had recently bought. Under Belgian law, owners who make such chance finds are entitled to at least part of them. 

They sent an expert. “He opened the car boot and showed me two enormous plastic buckets filled to the brim. I had never seen so many coins,” Marleen Martens, archaeologist at the Flanders heritage agency in Belgium, told La Voix du Nord.

She said she instantly recognised some silver coins as from the era of Roman general Mark Antony, who was a key ally of Emperor Julius Caesar and played a pivotal role in the growth of the Roman Empire as it moved from republic to autocracy. 

However, upon inspection of the ground, she concluded it was “impossible” that this was a Roman site given the “context”.

A member of the DRAC (Lorraine Regional Directorate of Cultural Affairs) inspects a Roman dodecahedron or Gallo-Roman Dodecahedron - JEAN-CHRISTOPHE VERHAEGEN /AFP
A member of the DRAC (Lorraine Regional Directorate of Cultural Affairs) inspects a Roman dodecahedron or Gallo-Roman Dodecahedron - JEAN-CHRISTOPHE VERHAEGEN /AFP

She alerted French customs, which later confirmed that the coins had actually been collected during "the looting of various sites in France” – mainly in the eastern Grand Est region.

The case has now been handed to the judiciary, with the man risking a large fine and even a prison term.

This seizure is "a clear message to those who – for the profit and the selfish pleasure of a few – deprive us of our shared heritage and erase entire sections of our history", said French finance minister Bruno Le Maire in a statement.

He described the haul as a "priceless treasure".

The collection includes thousands of rare Roman coins, many of them rich in silver.

Also among the looted objects are bracelets and torques dating from the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, a rare Roman dodecahedron of which there are only around 100 known examples in the world, Roman brooches, statues and other objects from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.