Last fall, Dr. Andrew Scott Reid, the coroner for Inner North London, opened a treasure inquest over the hoard of 80 gold American $20 coins known as Double Eagles found buried in a Hackney backyard. Since the find was less than 300 years old, the coroner gave any potential owners until this spring to come forward, in which case the coins would be returned to them. If no valid ownership claims appeared, then the find would become property of the Crown and the finders would get paid fair market value by whichever museum wanted to keep the hoard.
Because of the publicity given to the find when the inquest was opened and the coins went on display at the British Museum, a member of the public pointed the coroner’s office to an article in The Times dated March 13, 1952 which described a very similar find of American gold Double Eagles at the same property in Hackney. The coroner declared that those coins were not treasure because the owner was known, a Mr. Martin Sulzbacher, who had lived on that property over a decade earlier. As was the law at the time, Mr. Sulzbacher did not get his coins back, but he was reimbursed for their value.
Thanks to that huge tip, the coroner’s office, the British Museum and the Museum of London were able to do further research and discovered the amazing story behind these beautiful gold coins.
Martin Sulzbacher was a German Jew who fled Nazi persecution and emigrated to London in 1938. He sold all his belongings to get the hell out of Germany, but was able to smuggle out his collection of Double Eagles. He put them in a bank vault where they would be safe. By 1940 he owned and was living in the Hackney property with his wife and four children, his brother, two sisters and their parents.
When war broke out, Sulzbacher was interned as an enemy alien refugee. His wife and children were sent to the Women’s Internment Camp in the Isle of Man, while he was sent to Canada on the “Arandora Star” which was torpedoed on the way and sank. He was fished out of the water hours later only to be sent to an internment prison in Australia. A year later, at the end of 1941, he was sent to the Isle of Man where he joined his family and eventually they were all released.
Meanwhile, back in Hackney, Sulzbacher’s brother became concerned that the gold coins would not be safe where they were because there was a genuine possibility that Germany might invade England and raid bank vaults as they had in Amsterdam. He removed the coins and buried them in the back yard. He told a friend and neighbor that he had done that, and the neighbor suggested he tell him where exactly the coins were buried in case something happened. The brother pointed out that there were five family members living in the house who knew where to find the coins once the coast was clear, so he really didn’t feel it was necessary to share the location with the neighbor.
Then, on September 24th, 1940, the house took a direct hit from a German bomber during the Blitz and everyone inside was killed. When Martin Sulzbacher returned to London, he went to the bank and found to his horror that the coins were all gone. The neighbor then told him about his brother’s having buried the coins and Martin dug up the entire yard looking for them, but to no avail. It wasn’t until 1952 that a construction crew found part of the treasure and Sulzbacher was able to reclaim some of his lost buried coins.
Martin Sulzbacher went on to run a bookshop in Golders Green and died in 1981. His son Max, one of the four children who was interned on the Isle of Man, is still living as are his siblings. He is 81 now, a retired accountant who moved from England to Jerusalem three years ago, and as of yesterday, he is the official owner of 80 gold Double Eagles dating from between 1854 and 1913, because according to the terms of the 1996 Treasure Act, gold and silver objects younger than 300 years old do not belong to the Crown if the owner or his heirs are known. This is actually the first time since 1996 that a legitimate owner has made a successful claim to an item that would otherwise have been classified as Treasure and thus property of the Crown.
The estimated value of the coins is £80,000 ($150,000). Max will give one of them to the Hackney Museum for a permanent display and he will give a reward to the finders. The rest of the hoard he will sell at auction. The proceeds of the sale will be used to restore the graves of his family members who were killed in the Hackney house during the Blitz and buried in a cemetery in Enfield. He says the tombstones were poor quality to begin with due to wartime austerity, and they’ve all but crumbled over the decades. Now the surviving children will have the means to pay for new headstones and restore the plots of their grandparents, uncle and two aunts.