Dr. Sol Taylor

Found a Hoard of Old Coins? Here's How to Proceed

By Dr. Sol Taylor
"Making Cents"
Saturday, February 7, 2009

here have been numerous reported (and no doubt unreported) finds of old coins in such places and under an old house, in the walls of an old house, in a chimney, and buried on private as well as public land. 
    How should lucky treasure hunters proceed when they discover a very valuable hoard of old coins?
    In an actual case some 80 years ago, two teenaged boys found a hoard of 3,500 gold coins under the basement floor in an abandoned house in Baltimore. In the end, the two boys received nothing for their discovery except grief, legal trouble, and harassment. In checking with two attorneys — my own children, in fact — they came up with this scenario of a similar case which may come to light.
    Let us assume two youngsters digging in the backyard of an abandoned house find a chest filled with Spanish silver and gold coins of the 18th century (they were the currency of the time in America).
    The recommended steps, according to legal minds, are as follows:
    1. Contact an attorney and place the hoard in his or her safekeeping.
    2. Make an inventory of the coins in the hoard — e.g, 455 gold doubloons, 2,220 silver 8 reales, 345 silver half reales, 2,121 quarter reales.
    3. Have a professional numismatist make a detailed, coin-by-coin appraisal of the fair market value of the hoard.
    4. Have the attorney search the public records for the ownership of the property –probably the state, county, city, bank or insurance company.
    5. Send a memorandum to the legal owner requesting that their attorney meet with the finders' attorney and discuss the disposition of the hoard, the allocation of proceeds between the landowner and the finders, and the appropriate method of disposition. There is no hard and fast rule of "finders keepers." When significant sums of money are involved, there is almost always some split agreed to by the parties. If the hoard was a part of a family estate with living relatives to lay claim, the finders may get a reward of, let us say, 10 to 20 percent, if the parties don't litigate. In finds where the value is relatively small, perhaps under $100, the rule of "finders keepers" might well apply. If property ownership passed well over 100 years earlier, then the rest of this process as outlined here could be applicable.
    6. Once an agreement is written and signed handling the items in #5, contact the top three numismatic auction firms for a bid on how they would handle the sale of the entire hoard.  Select the auction firm with the best offer — such as no commission to the sellers, quickest payoff, and up-front cash upon signing a listing agreement. The competition for large hoards and valuable collections among auction houses will benefit the finders.
    7. The hoard should remain in the safety of the attorney representing the finders until it is transferred to the auction house for inclusion in the sales catalogue and made available for bidders' inspection at auction. The finders' attorney should assure that the hoard is properly insured and the auction company is bonded for its full value. The attorney's fee could be negotiated as an hourly fee or as a percentage of the net  proceeds from the auction.
    8. If the finders are juveniles, their parents should be involved in the process outlined above.
    Major discoveries such as shipwrecks containing gold and silver (coins and bullion) have had to settle with the respective states near where the treasures were found –Florida being a classic case involving the treasure ship Atocha some 40 years ago. Treasure salvers and other treasure hunters came to a settlement with the state on how to parcel out the proceeds from the sale of the treasure.
    Land-based finds such as the famous Randall hoard of large cents involved a settlement with the private ownership of the find site.  Coins found in scattered areas by metal detectors usually do not require any of these steps, even if found on privately owned land — although technically, such treasure hunting is also trespassing. Metal detector finds on beaches in parks and on public lands do not require any special steps; the "finders keepers" rule applies. If the items found are part of a crime scene or prove to be stolen, the finds can be confiscated.
    It is not recommended that such major finds be offered directly for sale, piecemeal to coin dealers or at auction.  The finders need legal advice and protection in case ownership is disputed or litigated.
    So if you are wondering what to do with that old steel box with 4,000 gold coins you found while digging in an old corn field, just follow these eight easy steps and pray for a healthy outcome. Good luck.