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France Seizes Lava Treasure Coins
By Richard Giedroyc, World Coin News
December 13, 2010

This article was originally printed in World Coin News.
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France recently seized an unannounced number of third century A.D. Roman gold coins as well as an ancient gold plate allegedly with a pedigree linking the material to the Lava Treasure, according to an Oct. 27 announcement.

The Lava Treasure, consisting primarily of ancient Roman gold coins, received its name because the find was discovered accidentally by fishermen diving in the Gulf of Lava. The gulf is off the west coast of Corsica in the Mediterranean Sea. Corsica belongs to France.

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The Lava Treasure was first encountered about 25 years ago when three Corsicans diving for sea urchins spotted gold in the shallow waters there. The rest of the story can likely be nicely summarized by the official French national police statement released Oct. 27 in which it says, “This submerged treasure, identified as a maritime cultural asset, belongs to the state.”

It is the words “cultural asset,” which could also be reworded as “cultural patrimony,” that is the key, especially when it involves coins rather than fine art or other objects.

As Ancient Coin Collectors Guild spokesman Wayne G. Sayles commented in the October 2010 issue of The Celator magazine, “[coins are] utilitarian objects that were created in the millions and are not in any way of significant cultural value to any state.”

Had this find been discovered off the coast of Great Britain, as an example, the find could have been declared as treasure trove and the finders could have at least received a reward for their efforts. Being that the find was on French territory there was to be no imbursement, and likely not even a “thank you.” As the police statement reads, the find “belongs to the state.”

Cyprus, France, Italy, Spain, Turkey, and a host of other countries have restrictive laws governing finds of this nature in which the find is automatically claimed by a government as that government’s cultural patrimony. The finders have no rights to the find and for practical purposes might as well have reburied the find where it was discovered.

In the case of the Lava Treasure the three divers did what would be expected under the circumstances – they sold the coins and gold plate illegally into the black market. Laws that give nothing to the finder encourage such illicit activities, with both archaeology and collectors suffering from their resulting behavior.

According to an Oct. 27 Reuters news report, “One of the original three Corsican friends, Felix Biancamaria, told [the] French daily [newspaper] Liberation in 2005 how the discovery of what he quickly suspected were Roman coins brought him and his fellow divers untold wealth and thrills until the party soured when local police caught wind of their exploits.

Rather than turn the treasure over to authorities as state property, the divers claimed they had inherited it and began selling it to dealers. However the flood of rare Roman coins on the market eventually raised questions among collectors.”

Biancamaria told Liberation, “People thought we were part of a gang of armed robbers.” He described how the three men dove for treasure by day, then spent their evenings a little too conspicuously in nightclubs.

In 1994 the three divers were among eight people sentenced to between six and 18 months in prison for illegally making money from the find. One of the divers, Marc Contoni, has since died in a shooting in 2004. The arrests in October involved five additional people, all in Paris.

“The recently seized coins, together with a prized golden plate, are estimated to have a value of between 1 million and 2 million euros ($1.38 million to $2.76 million), police said,” according to Reuters.

Agence France-Presse added that a buyer in Belgium was also involved. AFP reported, “After recent suspicions about a secret sale of another piece from the Lava Treasure, custom authorities along with the office that fights against the trafficking of cultural treasures and Corsican officials launched an investigation which partially ended on Oct. 21 with the transaction in Belgium. The final transaction never took place. Police, fearing they might lose their target, moved in and arrested the intermediary in the sale at the train station at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport.”

Once again the AFP report includes the ominous comment, “As a cultural treasure, the golden plate belongs to the state and should be turned over to the culture ministry in December.”

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