Monday, July 20th, 2015
On October 10th of last year, licensed metal detectorist Florian Bautsch struck gold on the outskirts of Lüneburg in the northern German state of Lower Saxony. Nazi gold. Scanning an area with hillocks that archaeologists suspected might be ancient burial mounds, Bautsch first found a single gold coin and then nine more in the hollow under a pine tree. He recorded the find location by GPS and notified the relevant authorities at the Lüneburg Museum .
Thanks to Bautsch’s conscientiousness, archaeologists were able to do something they rarely get the chance to do: excavate a portable treasure in its proper context. The two-week excavation unearthed another 207 gold coins buried under that three, bringing the total up to 217. The oldest coin dates to 1831, the newest to 1910, and none of them were minted in Germany. The majority — 128 coins — are Belgian. Another 74 coins were minted in France, 12 in Italy and the last three in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Despite their diverse origins, all of the coins have the same diameter (21 millimeters) and weigh the same (6.45 grams). The total coin weight is 1.4 kilos (3 lbs). These are not circulation coins. They were minted in large batches to be purchased by individuals and banks for investment purposes.
Archaeologists also found two aluminium seals bearing the swastika, the imperial eagle and stamped “Reichsbank Berlin 244.” They also found remnants of tar paper and some individual fibers. These elements are what’s left of two coin bags, lined with tar paper and sealed by the Berlin Reichsbank during World War II. Those type of seals were used starting in 1940 and the chemical composition of the tar paper identifies it as a type produced before 1950. It is the greatest treasure from this period ever found in northern Germany. Had the finder just dug it all out himself and taken the gold, nobody would have been the wiser and the key evidence identifying it as Nazi gold, as fragile as it is important, would have been lost forever.
The working theory right now is that the gold coins, likely looted by Nazis from occupied territories before being grouped by exact size and weight, bagged and sealed, were stolen in the waning days of the Second World War. If so, it was almost certainly an inside job, a theft by a bank employee looking for some financial security in the most insecure of times.
As the coins were buried relatively recently under shady circumstances, at first authorities gave any potential legitimate owners the opportunity to claim the treasure. It was a long shot (although it has been known to happen) and indeed, nobody stepped forward to claim ownership. Then, because the find bears the marks of a previous government bank, state authorities contacted the German Ministry of Finance but they weren’t interested in claiming the coins either. Finally the orphaned gold was adopted by Lower Saxony which of course had wanted it all along.
England’s Treasure Act has a mechanism that gives finders and landowners a reward in the amount of the discovery’s market value as assessed by a valuation committee. German monument protection laws (they differ from state to state) have no such mechanism, so while the estimated value of the coins is €45,000 ($49,000), Florian Bautsch will receive a €2,500 ($2,710) reward from the state of Lower Saxony. He’s a proper history nerd, bless his heart, so the money isn’t what matters to him. The archaeological significance of the find is reward enough.
The gold coins went on temporary display at the Lüneburg Museum yesterday. Curators are now discussing how best to integrate the hoard into the museum’s permanent display in the future.