On 18 April 2011 the Coroner for Inner North London resumed 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 Womens 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 Sulzbachers 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 Sulzbachers savings. In 1952 as work commenced on a new building on the site of Mr Sulzbachers 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 coroners 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.