Gold coin donated to Hackney Museum

A single gold coin from the ‘Hackney Hoard’ has been donated to Hackney Museum. The $20 ‘Double-Eagle’ will join the hundreds of other Hackney objects telling the diverse human story of the borough through the ages.

The complete hoard consist of 80 coins, minted in the United States between 1854 and 1913. They are all $20 coins known as ‘Double-Eagle’ and the find is totally unprecedented in the United Kingdom. The hoard was discovered in the back garden of a property in Hackney and reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme but in a unique twist to the story a likely descendent of the original owner of the coins has been found.

The coins are thought to have been buried during the 1940s, when Mr Martin Sulzbacher and his family lived in the Hackney property. It appears his fortune had been buried in his back garden for safe keeping by his family members whilst he was interned in 1940. A German Jew who had fled Nazi Germany, Mr Sulzbacher was interned as an ‘enemy alien refugee’ on the Isle of Man. In the meantime, his house in London was bombed and his family killed, and on his release Mr Sulzbacher was unable to locate the coins despite a detailed search and subsequently moved to Australia However, the current case represents a second deposit of Martin Sulzbacher’s wealth. In 1952 as work commenced on a new building on the site of Mr Sulzbacher’s house, another hoard of 82 $20 American gold coins dating to 1890 was discovered in a glass jar on the same site. The hoard was awarded to Mr Martin Sulzbacher by the coroner at the time.

Mr Max Sulzbacher, his son said ‘I am surprised but delighted by the recent discovery, which has come to light almost 70 years after the coins were buried. I am very grateful to the finders for reporting the coins to the Portable Antiquities Scheme and the Museum of London, and to the member of the public who alerted the coroner to the 1950s discovery’.

Hackney Council Cabinet Member for Community Services, Cllr Jonathan McShane said: “This is an incredible story spanning over 70 years. Hackney has such a colourful history and this personal account gives an insight into how war affected families who had settled in the borough. Mr. Sulzbacher’s generous donation means the council can display it in Hackney Museum and keep the story alive for generations to come.”

On 18 April 2011 the Coroner for Inner North London resumed an inquest in relation to a hoard of American gold dollars found in Hackney in 2007. The Coroner decided that Mr. Sulzbacher has a superior claim to the coins meaning that they will not qualify as Treasure according to the terms of the Treasure Act 1996, on the grounds that in order for objects to be classed as such, their owner or his or her heirs or successors must be unknown. Mr. Martin Sulzbacher passed away in 1981 but the coroner’s office, the British Museum and the Museum of London have worked together to track down his son, Mr. Max Sulzbacher who lives abroad.

Max Sulzbacher has generously agreed that the hoard can remain on public display at the British Museum (Room 41) for a further week, giving visitors a further opportunity to see the coins. He also agreed to give an ex-gratia payment to the finders in recognition of their contribution to the discovery. It is anticipated that the remainder of the coins will be sold.

This represents the first time since the Treasure Act came into force in 1997 that an original owner or direct descendent has lain successful claim to an item that would otherwise have been ‘Treasure’ and the property of the Crown.

Dr Roger Bland, head of the department of Portable Antiquities and Treasure at the British Museum, said ‘The case of the Hackney gold coins is one of the most unique and compelling stories that we have been involved with. There is an incredibly human element to this story that is absent from many archaeological finds and we are pleased to see the coins reunited with their original owners after so many years. The finders are to be congratulated for acting responsibly and helping to add further vital information to the corpus of material about the Second World War, Jewish immigration, and the history of Hackney borough.’

Archaeologists from the British Museum and University College London have investigated the site to ensure that no further deposits remained.