Proculus – The “Unwanted” Usurper by Julian Evan-Hart

Colin Popplewell on left and Mark Hildreth on the rightOn Wednesday 10th April 2013 I finally boarded a train to London in order to meet Colin and Mark -the detectorists who had recently found a very rare Roman coin up in Yorkshire. The reason for this venture was to attend the auction organised by Dix Noonan Webb that was to take place at the Washington Hotel in Mayfair in which this very coin was to be included. Of course this particular coin needs no announcement here as it is the well known and exceedingly rare Antoninianus issue of the Emperor Proculus that has drawn extensive media focus ever since its finding. Amazingly some six months have passed since the discovery in a windswept bleak and very cold Yorkshire field. So now here we all were in London’s West End.  Mark and Colin had earlier decided to visit the British Museum and I went along with them in the last few remaining hours before the auction was scheduled to take place. Whilst at the museum we joked that it was good to see some of “Britain’s Lesser Treasures” before the auction of their in credibly rare coin.  Returning to the hotel at last we were safely seated and the auction began. We sat through hundreds of Ancient Greek coin lots which always seem to be very popular with collectors these days. 

Colin and Mark`s lot was numbered 694 so we had quite some time to wait but it was most enjoyable seeing all these ancient coins. Then the Roman coin section started and there were some lovely examples to be seen including several rare Sestertii that fetched good prices. Then at last it was the time for the coin of Proculus to make its appearance. We sat there nervous, the lot was opened and absolutely nothing happened, there were no room bids and amazingly no Internet bids either. We sat biting lips and crossing fingers – and that was it – Proculus had attracted absolutely no interest at all and we were onto the next lot – a fine Denarius of Carausius that did rather well. Well to call this an anti climax to the whole affair would be a real understatement. What could have gone wrong here? No doubt at all this was the rarest of Roman coins offered for sale in decades, if not one of the rarest ever. No one knew what had caused the total lack of bidding, but we did discuss several possibilities. The world of coin collecting and its connected markets can be excessively complex and sometimes unpredictable in these instances. The associated process in this entire instance had been managed magnificently by DNW, so what had happened here? There must be someone out there who would deem this incredibly rare coin worthy of acquiring for their collection or indeed a museums national collection. Earlier we had been aware that the coin had certainly attracted attention from worldwide collectors of such.

So dissecting the strange situation we found ourselves in let us assess what might have been the issues with this unusual and unexpected outcome. As is often the case with the discovery of such rare issues there is a frightening and very daunting word that can arise and this is the word “fake”. This was no exception and this accusation did arise from certain quarters, albeit I must say exceedingly prematurely. It is always amazing how many self elected experts pop out of the woodwork so quickly. Self elected experts that surprisingly hadn’t even seen the coin at close quarters. Of course we all have to be acutely aware of reproduction and the illegal counterfeits in the world of antiquities and coins. But this coin had already been verified by experts both academically and subjected to various tests that confirm its authenticity and age so no problem should lie in this area of suspicion now. But maybe it still does, if you are going to secure such a coin at great expense then even the slightest stimulated doubt may deter you. So who knows perhaps the accusers who were so ready to lay this claim “damaged” the coins status, somewhat deterring the interested bidders?  With humour one can assess an ironic point – that if someone did purchase the coin they would have no problem with an Export License then would they? After all the coin is a fake… isn’t it? Then again, one also ponders how these so called experts claiming the coin to be a fake just sat back and allowed the auction to proceed. Surely would it not be the case that to auction something in this category would be illegal? What exactly are the fake claiming academics hoping to achieve here? Sitting back one’s mind starts to wander; perhaps there was something wrong with the Internet? But no there wasn’t… perhaps it’s just a plot between certain academic parties to torpedo the coin`s status and then for a museum to hopefully snap it up for a bargain price a short while later… again who knows.

There is one outstanding certainty though – Colin and Mark did everything correctly from the very start of this affair. From immediately notifying the landowner, to having the coin recorded by PAS. Now recording the coin with PAS was something they were not actually obliged to do but they did it because “we wanted everything done by the book”. Sadly on this point they were let down. PAS did not support them on this issue and this factor is possibly something all detectorists should now closely examine. Not the fact of recording finds which is superb and beneficial to everyone, but the level of support that PAS gave these two individuals. The find still remains unacceptable to PAS and remains unrecorded on their site. After all it is us who largely support their FLO careers. Yet PAS`s Roger Bland responded within days of the find with a highly controversial 15th Century based fake counterfeit opinion that was published in a daily newspaper… a bit hasty since he hadn’t actually seen the coin. Perhaps such academic “sour grape” flavoured claims of “fake”, would have been alleviated and totally non-existent had a “professional” archaeologist found this most important of coins… but once again there you go eh? One must ask why PAS then has not even recorded this find as a 15th Century fake. There are some who suspect that this and similar (almost knee-jerk) reactions were done with a view to subtly damaging the coins potential saleable status… it’s difficult to establish that one… it all rather sounds similar to an MI5 spy plot now don’t you think?!  Whatever the case, these premature early issued opinions didn’t seem to have any consideration for the coin itself or what its finders intended or had later decided would be its future. I personally think that one can detect the feint traces of odour from a rather large “academic based rat” involved somewhere here… but who knows? If this large rodent does exist then it was potentially assisted by a few detectorists having their say all over Internet, of course everyone is entitled to an opinion and that’s just the way things go.

When someone has success we live in a world where some will be thrilled to bits but some envious bitter and jealous, we all accept that, it’s life.  One wonders further that had Colin and Mark decided to donate the coin free of charge to a national museum whether certain quarters would have been so hasty to issue their opinions. If the overall intention was to stop its sale well then for a short period they have succeeded. However let’s be clear here – Colin and Mark had no option but to go to auction as with a coin of such value they are not in a financial position to buy out the land owner`s share. So what will happen now? Well undoubtedly proceedings will be undertaken to offer the coin for sale at a future date.  Talking with Chris Webb from the auction house company he seemed shocked at the outcome, but clarified the situation for everyone involved as to what was now going to happen.   Yes it was an anti-climax, but in reality it all just adds to the mystery and aura surrounding such a rarity. Personally I would like to thank Colin and Mark for their friendship and also to say you guys are real ambassadors for metal detecting irrespective of the phenomenal discovery you have made.

There were of course many positives extending from when the coin was first held in Colin`s muddy fingers to the present – Proculus, as an almost “Unknown Emperor”, has received attention and we all know more about him. Other positives are that I was privileged to finally meet these two gentlemen and their wives in the most pleasant of settings after a very long Facebook friendship – and we all got on brilliantly well. But out of the entire affair I think the undeniable positives of the whole event are best summed up by the actual finder, Colin Popplewell;
“Well Jules, that’s the way things go. It was never about the money anyway. The finding of the coin and all experiences since are in fact priceless. Metal detecting has allowed us to locate an extremely rare coin and enrich our country`s heritage and knowledge – these facts are also priceless. I’m sure someone – or a museum – will want the coin someday and derive pleasure from owning or showing it to people. After all, isn’t that what history and heritage is all about?”

Fair play to you both.

About Julian Evan-Hart
Julian is from Hertfordshire, England and has always been interested in fossils and antiquities. Julian has written a number of books on metal detecting, and is an avid user of Minelab products.

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