A total of more than 27,400 ancient coins and artifacts have been seized from a French metal detectorist. The collection of objects stolen from heritage sites in France is so enormous it makes him one of the greatest one-man looting operations in European history.
The story starts in September 2019 when a French national identified only as Patrice T declared to Belgian authorities that he’d discovered Roman coins while scanning an orchard he’d recently acquired in Gingelom, 40 miles east of Brussels. Flanders heritage agency archaeologist Marleen Martens expected him to present a handful of pieces. When he pulled two large plastic buckets filled to the brim with what turned out to be 14,154 ancient coins out of the trunk of his car, Martens’ spidey sense started tingling.
Initial examination of the contents of the buckets found a wide array coins dating as far back as the 1st century B.C. to the 3rd century A.D., a variety and significance that made the man’s orchard story highly implausible, to say the least. She inspected the supposed find site and found hard evidence that the story was a lie: the pit that supposedly held more than 14,000 Roman coins had been dug in a soil layer formed in the Middle Ages.
He had at least one glaring reason to conjure up a fairy tale discovery. Belgium’s cultural heritage laws allow landowners to keep any archaeological material unearthed on private property. Under French law, these types of finds are considered national patrimony and therefore property of the state.
Flanders heritage authorities reported their suspicions to the Regional Directorate of Cultural Affairs (DRAC) who relayed them to the investigation branch of French customs (DNRED). Under questioning, the Frenchman confessed that he had in fact illegally excavated the coins from archaeological sites in eastern France over the course of years, that he had acquired the orchard in Belgium to launder his loot.
After a year-long investigation, DNRED agents accompanied by DRAC archaeologists raided the man’s house and discovered an unexpectedly diverse and valuable group of artifacts including Bronze and Iron Age bangles and torques, Roman fibulae, Merovingian, high Medieval and Renaissance belt buckles, pieces of statues, more Roman coins plus Gallic coins that can only have been looted from certain known archaeological sites. This guy even got his grubby hands on a Roman dodecahedron, an extremely rare artifact (only 100 are known to exist) whose purpose remains an archaeological mystery to this day. A total of 13,246 artifacts were seized in the raid on his home and from several safety deposit boxes he rented in Lorraine.
The man is now awaiting trial in the French courts. He could be sentenced to hundreds of thousands of euros in customs fines as well as prison time.