The Coenwulf Coin: A Significant Find from the Old Wic of London
There it would remain in secret repose, its sleep undisturbed for the next 1,200 years.
O, the stories it could tell! Still young when the Vikings invaded, it was an old-timer when William conquered. Kingdoms united, an empire waxed and waned, and still it slept by all rights what might have been the sleep of ages.
But that was not its fate. Happenstance jostled it awake at the dawn of a new millennium, and now, like so many Britons before it, it awaits a new beginning in America.
Or perhaps not.
On Aug. 3, British Culture Minister David Lammy temporarily blocked the export of what has been described as the most important Anglo-Saxon coin ever found. As old as the epic of Beowulf, it depicts Coenwulf, ruler of the dominant Midlands kingdom of Mercia from 796-821. The British Museum has until Feb. 2 to raise enough money to stop its rightful owner, Allan Davisson, from bringing it to Minnesota.
Davisson, a noted American specialist in British hammered coins, paid the highest price in history for a British coin when, on Oct. 6, 2004, the hammer fell at £230,000 with commission and tax, approximately $440,000 at the venerable Spink auction house in London.
The unique "gold penny" is actually a mancus, modeled after Arabic gold coins that began to circulate in Europe in the 8th Century and valued at 30 silver pennies. It is one of only eight gold coins known from the Anglo-Saxon "Age of Silver." It is the first one discovered in nearly a century, the only gold coin to show Coenwulf, and perhaps most importantly, it is the only coin of any kind whose legend shows it was made in the "wic" of London, a trading settlement just outside the old walled city.
A scant 4.33 grams of gold, between the diameter of a U.S. cent and nickel, it sheds valuable light on the economy of 9th-century London, the craftsmanship of coinage under a powerful king, and the role of gold in the Anglo-Saxon period.
"You take a unique coin with all the significance of this," Davisson told COINage, "and I am absolutely convinced it was the first $1 million British coin, and then some."
Why it fetched less than half that amount at auction is the story of a nation's efforts to hang onto its cultural treasures.
"At the height of British prosperity in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, British collectors and patrons not only commissioned outstanding works of art at home, but also scoured the world for treasures and formed great collections, both private and public," according to the 2003-04 report of Britain's Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art. "In the 20th century, with Britain's declining economic fortunes, the situation was to some extent reversed. ... British private collections had become the prey of American and German collectors, and it was apparent that many were being depleted and important works of art sold abroad at prices in excess of anything that U.K. public collections or private buyers could afford."
In 1939 the British government began to regulate the export of art, books, manuscripts and antiquities, and in the early 1950s it developed the formal criteria that are in place today, known as the "Waverley criteria" for their architect, the First Viscount Waverley. They are: (1) "Is (the object) so closely connected with our history and national life that its departure would be a misfortune?" (2) "Is it of outstanding aesthetic importance?" (3) "Is it of outstanding significance for the study of some particular branch of art, learning or history?"
An export license is needed for any cultural object that meets a certain monetary threshold. For instance, any unearthed archaeological item regardless of valuation, and any numismatic item valued over £30,400, needs a license.
If "expert advisers" and a government committee find that the object meets one or more of the Waverley criteria and the Culture minister agrees, the export license is put on hold, usually for two months, to determine whether there is a public or private party who can buy out the exporter at a reasonable price and keep the item on British soil. If so, the minister can grant an extension, usually four months, so the deal can be consummated.
That's what is happening with the Coenwulf coin. Davisson applied for the export license and the coin met all three Waverley criteria. On Oct. 3, 2005, the initial deferral period was extended four months "because of the serious intention shown by the British Museum of raising funds with a view to making an offer to purchase the coin," said Gemma Crisp, spokeswoman for the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, the responsible agency. If the money isn't raised by Feb. 2, the export license will be granted, she said. The government has no fallback option.
There is no comparable procedure in the United States. Except for reporting requirements on large cash transactions and the Treasury Department's confiscation of 1933 Saint-Gaudens $20 gold pieces, which it considers stolen government property, "the United States Mint does not regulate the import or export of any coins or monetary instruments," said Mint spokesman Michael White.
As for many coins of dubious progeny like the five 1913 Liberty nickels and non-legal tender patterns of the 1800s, "the United States Mint currently has no known record tending to prove that they were produced in the United States Mint or indicating whether they were legally issued. Accordingly, the Untied States Mint currently has no position concerning the private ownership of them," White said. "We don't have any kind of list of such pieces that are illegal to own." He declined to state whether the government will go after an experimental 1974 aluminum cent that showed up in private hands in mid-2005.
Rather than trying to keep coins in the United States, Congress is considering a bill that might actually keep certain coins out. HR 915 by Rep. Phil English, R-Pa., would authorize the president to bar the import of cultural and archaeological materials from Afghanistan. The intent is to thwart the plunder of the troubled Middle Eastern nation, but the American Numismatic Association fears that "if numismatic items are included in the legislation, it could become illegal to buy, sell or own ancient Greek coinage that was created and/or traded in what is now Afghanistan." The ANA opposes the bill, which sits in the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade.
The obverse legend, "COENVVLF REX M," translates as "Coenwulf, King of the Mercians." Settled by Angles (probably from what is now Schleswig in Germany) around AD 600, soon after the Romans left, Mercia stretched from the Thames on the south to the Humber on the north, and from the Welsh marshes on the west to the Wash on the east. Mercia was Christianized in the 7th Century; in the 8th Century, under kings Aethelbald (716-57) and Offa (757-96), it conquered East Anglia and Kent to become the dominant power within the "heptarchy" of the seven kingdoms of central England. Many scholars believe the original "Beowulf" poet lived in Mercia at this time.
Coenwulf's reign began in December 796 upon the death of Offa's son, Ecgfrith, who ruled just five months leading to suspicion that Coenwulf, merely a distant relative, killed him to usurp the throne. In the confusion, Kent rebelled. Coenwulf, with backing from the Church, invaded Kent in 798, deposed the king and installed his own brother, Cuthred, as king (798-807).
Coenwulf's death in 821 marked the end of Mercian supremacy. Its Saxon rival, Wessex, gained dominance.
Although Anglo-Saxons used gold coins when they first arrived on the island, nearly all English coinage was silver from the late 600s to the mid-1200s. "From the entire period of almost 600 years," Blackburn writes, "only eight indigenous English gold coins survive, of which this one of Coenwulf is the latest and most spectacular discovery." Six of the other seven are in the British Museum; the seventh is in the Cantonal Museum at Lausanne, Switzerland, near where it was found in 1909.
"Documentary evidence shows that gold was used for special purposes" during this silver period, Blackburn writes. "Gold is mentioned in Anglo-Saxon charters as being used for the purchase of land, and in wills of high status, notably royal wills, for legacies to the social elite and customary heriot (tribute) payments." For instance, in their wills, King Alfred (871-99) left 1,700 gold mancuses and King Eadred (951-55) ordered payment of 5,000 mancuses to various noblemen and clergy. However, no gold mancuses of Alfred or Eadred have been found, suggesting that their last wishes weren't carried out.
Blackburn notes that Coenwulf may have intended for gold to circulate, based on certain peculiar characteristics of the Coenwulf mancus itself. For one thing, its weight is correct for a true valuation at 30 pennies. It is three times heavier than a silver penny of the period, when the typical gold-to-silver ratio was 10:1. Also, there is no circle around Coenwulf's portrait, as is always found on contemporary silver pennies, indicating that care was taken to prevent people from gilding pennies and passing them off as mancuses.
Blackburn found the reverse legend most intriguing. The inscription, "DE VICO LVNDONIAE," translates as "From the wic of London."
Since the coin was made at the wic and not inside London's walls, it implies that the 'mint' of London the only one in Mercia wasn't a central building but rather a series of private workshops and moneyers scattered throughout the wic. "If so," Blackburn writes, "the same may have been true of other official offices and functions."
In 886, Alfred moved the settlement inside the refortified Roman walls to escape repeated Viking raids, Blackburn writes.
He concludes, "The coin is of fundamental importance for the study of numismatics, monetary history, royal government and the history of London. It is important that the mancus remains in the United Kingdom, accessible for further study."
So why didn't the British Museum buy the coin? After all, it sent its buyer to the sale.
"The British Museum dropped out early in the bidding," Davisson said, "and it was between another American and me." The other American was Larry Stack of the New York auction house, Stack's. He has "a major collection of Anglo-Saxon coins," Davisson said.
"I was frankly surprised that the British Museum didn't step up to the plate and buy it," Davisson said. "I bought it for well under what I think it would have ever sold for, had there not been uncertainty about the export license. ... We all knew that getting an export license was going to be kind of a tricky matter to start with."
Sources close to the situation speculate that the British Museum may have dropped out to hold down the price, knowing it could take advantage of the export restrictions to acquire the coin on more favorable terms later. Also, if the museum bought it at auction, it would have to use its limited acquisitions budget. When it uses the export deferral system, it can tap into two sources of grant funding: Britain's Heritage Lottery Fund and National Heritage Memorial Fund, both geared toward saving cultural relics.
The Coenwulf coin is so important that the reviewing committee "starred" it, a status reserved for items of the highest significance. From July 2003 to April 2004 there were 8,089 export license applications covering 16,494 cultural items, and only one was starred the records of G King and Son, Britain's leading conservators of medieval stained glass. A buyer was found and it stayed in Britain.
"Since the committee was set up in 1952, many important works of art have been retained in the U.K. as a result of its intervention," the reviewing committee said in its 2003-04 report. Among them were Titian's "The Death of Actaeon" and the Foundation Charter of Westminster Abbey.
"Unfortunately and perhaps almost inevitably," the report states, "some have got away." Among them are the spoils of other nations, such as Rubens' "David Sacrificing before the Ark," Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" and Da Vinci's Leicester Codex (written in Italy in 1506-10 and acquired in 1717 by Thomas Coke, Earl of Leicester. Today Bill Gates owns it.)
In half a century of regulation, the system has ensnared remarkably few numismatic items. "In 1996-97, some forged Roman coins from the first century AD were referred to the committee and found to meet the third Waverley criterion," said Crisp. Also meeting the third criterion in May 2004 was a "mystery" Iron Age coin that predated Roman conquest, and in September 2005, seven pieces of hacksilver, slivers cut from coins and jewelry and used as currency in the Viking Age, were flagged (but not starred). They were valued at only £1,000.
"As nearly as I can tell, nobody has (had this trouble exporting coins from Britain)," said Davisson. "I think this is a new one for Spink and everybody else."
Spink spokeswoman Emily Johnston declined to comment, citing confidentiality. Also hush-hush has been the identity of the man who discovered the coin and the landowner who consigned it for sale although both are known.
The finder was Alan Jane, a 60-ish resident of County Bedfordshire who had taken his metal detector several times to a marshy field known as Biggleswade Common, about 15 miles east of his home in Kempston. According to the regional newspaper The Comet, he'd found a few Roman coins and a spear in the past. In June 2001, his detector registered a solid hit.
He said he was advised to take it to Spink and "then it was sent to the British Museum" for authentication. Reportedly it took him two years to determine who owned the 300-acre Biggleswade Common. The owners turned out to be the local fen reeves, where a "fen" is a division of marshland and "reeves" are stewards who administer land on behalf of a lord. An American analogy might be the common area of a condominium complex that's administered by a homeowners association.
Normally the lord would be the owner, but there is no record of a Lord of Biggleswade Manor after the 1920s, according to the weekly tabloid, Bedford on Sunday. But the title hasn't lapsed. "This is not theoretical," a Manorial Society spokesman told the tabloid. "There is someone walking around out there who is the Lord of Biggleswade."
He'd have prospered from the sale. The £230,000 hammer price was reportedly split 80-20, respectively, between the reeves and Jane. "I've done fairly well out of it but I did all the work and I think I've been taken advantage of," Jane told the tabloid.
"I've had the pleasure of owning it temporarily, and all any of us do is own these things temporarily. It's just been a little shorter timeframe than usual."
He bought it with the intent of selling it, "just not right away." One way or the other, the coin is sold. He won't realize the $1 million-plus he believes the coin is worth, but he'll come out ahead for his trouble. Davisson balked when the government offered the hammer price; the government balked when Davisson quoted the price he'd been willing to pay at auction. To settle, Davisson lined up a private buyer in the United States at $650,000 and the government accepted.
"The applicant (Davisson) had a potential buyer and the valuation provided on the application form reflected the price ($650,000) at which he had agreed to sell it to that person," Crisp said. "The committee recommended that the fair-market price ... should be at this value and the Secretary of State (Lammy) accepted this recommendation."
"I'm one of these people who believes that ... if the government wants it, they have to pay the market price," Davisson said. "I think that's fair. I also think it's a way they protect themselves from losing things. There are some countries that essentially confiscate any finds."
In 2003 the International Association of Professional Numismatists akin to the Professional Numismatists Guild in America formed a committee to fight laws in countries that seek to restrict or stop the free trade of ancient coins. But its chairman, Arturo Russo of Italy, believes the British government is "perfectly correct" in trying to keep the Coenwulf coin as long as Davisson is justly compensated.
"A coin of this great rarity and great importance rightly belongs in its country of origin," Russo said, "especially if it has only recently been found. However, it is essential that the current owner receives the full market value for this coin."
Fellow IAPN member Chris Rudd, a prominent Celtic coin dealer in Norfolk, England, agrees. "I believe that it belongs in the British Museum, not in a dealer's tray and not hidden away somewhere in a private collection," he told COINage. "It doesn't take a lot of common sense to discern the difference between an injustice done to the heritage of a nation and an unjust infringement of civil liberty. Sadly, there are supposedly civilized, democratic states who believe that collectors shouldn't collect ancient coins and that dealers shouldn't deal in them, and who seek to deny these basic human freedoms. Thank God, Britain isn't one of them."
Davisson concurs with everyone's assessment of the coin's importance and says it belongs in a museum. He also thinks countries that try to keep numismatic items out of private hands altogether are misguided.
"I think that a lot of us who are dealers have as great an appreciation as anybody of the significance of what we handle," he said. "Responsible collectors are just as good about preserving things for the long term as museums are."
He's resigned to the brevity of his association with the Coenwulf coin.
"I'd love to have brought it to the states and I would love to have owned it," he said. "I'd be delighted to have it be placed with this good collector, because I've known him for many years. But I certainly can understand that there's a greater good, and I'm just surprised it's taking them so long to get it."
©2006 MILLER MAGAZINES INC./LEON WORDEN. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
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