Police are investigating the suspected theft of thousands of pounds of historical artefacts left with a museum for safekeeping which dismayed metal detectorists who found them as well as archaeologists.
The important archaeological finds, that include a hoard of Roman treasure, were passed over to museum officials by the finders as required by law.
The objects were meant to have been kept in a locked and secure unit inside the council-run building, before being sent to the British Museum for assessment and valuation.
But an email sent to the unlucky finders has confirmed their disappearance in circumstances that warrant a police investigation.
Police are investigating the suspected theft of thousands of pounds of historical artefacts left with a museum for safekeeping which dismayed metal detectorists who found them as well as archaeologists (pictured: a hoard of Roman silver coins, similar to the ones missing)
The treasures that have vanished include a hoard of 28 Roman silver coins and a silver ingot, unearthed earlier this year by two metal detectorists in Rutland.
They are said to be deeply upset and ‘spitting tacks’ at the news that their hoard, on its own potentially worth thousands of pounds, has apparently disappeared.
The email from the cultural services department at Lancashire County Council to the angry finders revealed the matter only came to light when the British Museum asked for one of the finds to be transferred from the museum in Preston to London.
But when museum staff checked their secure store the object requested was missing.
A quick audit, carried out with the British Museum, established as many as 12 sets of artefacts and their casework files were gone.
Further audits by the council have found other artefacts to be missing and the police were called in to investigate in October.
The council email blames the disappearance of the objects on the actions of an individual or individuals unknown.
The police investigation is ongoing and the metal detectorists and archaeologists caught up in the mystery fear they may never get their valuable finds back and that important historical artefacts may have also been lost to the nation for good.
The treasures that have vanished include a hoard of 28 Roman silver coins and a silver ingot, unearthed earlier this year by two metal detectorists in Rutland (pictured: Roman silver coins that look similar to the treasures reported missing)
Andy Brockman, a writer specialising in investigating heritage crime, who revealed the council email on the PipeLine heritage news website, said: ‘If the missing objects are not recovered the loss is both to the national heritage which belongs to everyone, and specifically to the finders and landowners, who, by law, would split any reward for declaring the treasure 50/50.’
The suspicious disappearance could also have worrying consequences for the legitimacy of the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme and the Government’s process for administering treasure finds fairly.
The PAS scheme was set up in 2003 on the back of concerns that the rise in metal detecting led to an unknown number of important archaeological finds never being seen by archaeologists and historians.
The scheme allows metal detectorists to report their finds voluntarily to a local Finds Liaison Officer, who are usually hosted by local council museums.
Artefacts defined by Law as ‘treasure’ are held with them to decide if they are of national importance, in which case museums and public bodies are given the chance to buy them.
In many cases the treasures are disclaimed and returned to the consignor under what is effectively a ‘finders keepers’ rule.
Mr Brockman believes there is a risk detectorists may now not bother logging their finds with the PAS if they think there is a chance they could be stolen.
He said: ‘There is concern among both metal detectorists and archaeologists over this investigation.
‘The important archaeological finds have not only apparently disappeared from a secure store, within a locked office, in a building to which the public have no routine access
That the artefacts were missing only came to light when the British Museum asked for one of the finds to be transferred from the museum in Preston to London, as an email from the cultural services department at Lancashire County Council to the angry finders revealed (file image)
‘But there also seems to have been no system for stock taking in place at either the Lancashire museum service, or the Portable Antiquities Scheme, enabling staff to monitor regularly whether the artefacts which had been signed in were still held in store.
‘These concerns go to the heart of trust in the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which is the only national body which acts as a point of contact between members of the public making a find, and archaeologists.
‘It also has a critical role providing neutral experts as part of the legally binding Treasure process.’
A spokesperson for Lancashire Police said: ‘We are investigating after some artefacts were reported missing from the Lancashire County Museum Service collection.
‘We were first notified about the missing items in October.
‘Anyone concerned about missing items should direct questions to the LCMS [Lancashire Council Museum Service].’
A spokesperson for Lancashire County Council said: ‘We first contacted the police in the summer to look into the disappearance of a number of finds held at secure premises by the council as part of the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme.
‘We are in the process of contacting all ‘finders’ who have been affected to update them further on the situation.
‘In line with the Treasure Act Process, ‘finders’ will be compensated if their item is amongst those which are missing.
‘As the investigation is ongoing it would not be appropriate to comment any further at this stage.’