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French customs seizes 27,000 looted archaeological artefacts

The “priceless” pieces were found at a Frenchman’s Belgian home and the “collector” in question now faces huge fines and a prison sentence

More than 27,000 pieces of looted archaeological artefacts of “exceptional quality” have been discovered at the home of an illegal French collector, in one of the biggest ever finds of its kind in the country.

French customs confirmed on Wednesday December 16 that it had seized more than 27,000 pieces of objects classified as “cultural goods”, hidden at the property of a collector from Lorraine.

The pieces are “priceless” and of “exceptional quality”, the ministry for culture said.

They include bracelets and torches from the Bronze Age and the Iron Age; a rare Gallo-Roman mosaic; thousands of coins from the Roman Gaul era; and belt buckles from the Merovingian era, the medieval age, and the Renaissance.

All of the pieces appear to have been illegally dug up from sites across the east of France.


A Belgian-French investigation

The case dates back to October 18, 2019. 

A Frenchman who had recently bought a piece of land in Belgium told authorities that he had found a treasure trove of Gallo-Roman coins when digging on his new land.

Upon visiting, authorities in Belgium were amazed to see that the man had “two huge buckets of coins”, containing more than 14,000 metal pieces - including some from the third century, which had a clear image of the Emperor engraved.

Marleen Martens, archaeologist at the Flanders heritage agency, told newspaper Le Monde: “I have never seen such a huge amount of money coins in my life.”

The discovery made the authorities suspicious given that in Belgium objects found on a person’s land are deemed to belong to its owner. This is not the case in France.

In France, the law instead says: “Archaeological goods are presumed to belong to the state as soon as they are discovered as part of an archaeological operation, and, in case of a major discovery, from the moment their conservation is judged to be of scientific interest.”

The Belgian authorities therefore suspected that the Frenchman may have moved to Belgium deliberately, in order to keep the coins for himself. 

They mounted a survey of the man’s land, and very quickly discovered that there was no possible way that the coins in question could have been there undiscovered since the Roman era. The authorities then tipped off French customs, who visited the man’s home.

It was then that they found several thousand pieces of unknown archaeological objects, which could only have been obtained from illegal digs at archaeological sites elsewhere.

Collector caught

The “collector” was caught and now runs the risk of a prison sentence and fines of hundreds of thousands of euros, said the French authorities. It is thought he was trying to sell many of the objects in Belgium.

Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire said: “This is a clear message to those who, for the selfish profit and pleasure of a few, deprive the rest of us of our common heritage and erase entire sections of our history.”

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