Wednesday, 22 January 2014

The rarest Coriosolite coin type and the Jersey Museum theft

Coriosolite Group A billon stater
Ex. Hooker coll. Donated by Garth Wright to the
Nickle Arts Museum, University of Calgary
There might be less than a hundred of these in existence and it took me many years to find one. I had all of the other major types, but this one eluded me until Robert Kokotailo found it mis-described on a dealers list and bought it on my behalf. He actually found all of my Coriosolite coins while I was researching my book back in the eighties, although I bought some more many years later from other sources. In the acknowledgements of my book, I included "Robert Kokotailo of Calgary Coin Gallery for finding me all of my coins"

Yet, the largest, single site find of this type was not found in Brittany, but in England All Coriosolite coins are very rare as stray or site finds and only a single Group A has been recorded as a site or stray find in Jersey or France -- the latter from le Mans, Sarthe at that!. One was even found in northern Spain. The English site was the Hengistbury metalworks. From the numbers of dies, there really should be many more. We can only speculate on why the earliest Coriosolite coins strayed so far and yet are so rare in the usual places. The Hengistbury coins had undoubtedly come from one the recycling/founders hoards in Jersey. Yet apart from a massive hoard still not even separated, but apparently similar (in that it also contains other scrap metal) to the Jersey Le Catillon hoard and found nearby, the previous largest hoard from Le Marquanderie contained 9,254 Coriosolite staters and only 19 of them were Group A. My coin almost certainly came from the Le Catillon hoard and was one of two. Most of that hoard was released to the trade. At first it had created some confusion as everybody had imagined that it was a refugee hoard. As it also contained some British Durotriges silver coins, those coins were dated far too early. Later scholarship showed that it was a much later hoard. Colin Haselgrove placed it sometime in the 3rd quarter of the 1st cent BC (pers. comm), but I argued for 10-15 AD. I bought my first coin from that hoard in 1965 as a clump of corrosion, and also saw a larger clump of quite a number of them. I cleaned it myself, leaving a perfect surface that bore no signs of ever having been corroded at all. I won't say how as it is rather dangerous method for the person doing the cleaning -- without protective clothing and a gas mask! The timing is also very important and it would not work for a number of coins in a clump. Rybot had used ammonia on a small clump of the La Marquanderie coins at his home and later, the British Museum had advised the same for the rest of the hoard. Billon can be cleaned in ways that would be very harmful for coins made from either of its main alloying metals. Alloys are strange.

You can reconstruct, to a degree, the routes that had been taken in gathering the contents of these hoards. One scatter of coins never made it to a Jersey hoard. That was the multiple find just behind a makeshift and improperly made gate at the hillfort at Le Petit Celland, Manche. which also contained pottery of a type found at both Jersey and Hengistbury. The hillfort was not finished during the Gallic War, and the gate was a much later addition made by people who did not understand how to build it and it was easily destroyed by fire when the people camped behind it were attacked -- the coins were dropped and the remains of the gate was found on top of them.

There is a slim chance that my Group A coin was one of the La Marquanderie coins,  these had been stolen, some years ago from the Jersey Museum along with most of their Coriosolite coins. Nothing had been catalogued by the museum and the whereabouts of Major N. V. L. Rybot's notes on the coin types is unknown. He had supervised the find and had done the first study of them. I discovered some photographs of a section of the stolen coins, arranged in the order that Rybot had originally placed them. It was easy to tell that the coins had come from a gigantic hoard because of the very narrow range in their chronology. The photographs had mysteriously been discovered in a desk drawer at the British Museum. No one could say how they had got there. I reported the details to Interpol via the RCMP, but a Scotland Yard detective told me that after chasing all leads "the trail had gone cold". Very few of the coins of that hoard had been published, but as luck would have it, the coins in the British Museum photographs had been. The lighting in the published coins was from a different direction and the hoard was only photographed (officially) once. After examining the numbers that had shown up in the trade, it was clear that the stolen coins had not reached the market. They are still lost.

The culprit had been caught. He was a museum caretaker. Declining a reduced prison term if he disclosed what he had done with the coins, he served a number of years in prison but was eventually released. When I first discovered the pictures of the stolen coins, Douglas Corbel, of the Société Jersiaise, was bubbling with excitement. Apart from my wife, he was the first to know. I had received the photographs, from the Celtic Coin Index. on the Friday, and discovered their importance early Saturday morning when I phoned Douglas at his home in Jersey. Next, I phoned the RCMP in Calgary but they were closed (Calgary has its own police force!).

First thing Monday  morning, I was in a small interrogation room at the RCMP headquarters in Calgary. I had brought all of my documentation -- including copies of the original illustrations; copies of the photographs of the stolen coins; inked Mylar overlays proving the two sets of photos matched, and the story of the theft. "So, you say these are American coins?" the confused detective asked me. "No, Armorican coins" I replied. I was reminded of Arlo Guthrie's Alice's Restaurant:
...and the Judge wasn't going to look at the twenty seven eight-by-ten colour glossy pictures with the circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was to be used as evidence against us.
My original photo-collage for the Web version of my book
showing a selection of coins from my collection at the time.
So we have a couple of mysteries here: what happened to the Jersey Museum coins and what happened after the Group A coins were struck?
I have five different possible scenarios for the first that allows for all of the evidence known to me -- one being somewhat less unlikely than the rest -- and two different motives for the thief of about equal likelihood. I will probably never know for sure.

Group A is part of a continuum, and one of the same die engravers also cut dies for Group B but perhaps not the rest of Series X. The manufacturing processes seem to have been identical, too. Series Y is manufactured quite differently and the differences were discussed in Thompson, F. C., and Nasir, M. J., The manufacture of Celtic Coins from the La Marquanderie Hoard, Numismatic Chronicle, 7th series, Vol XII, 1972. In the paper, coins that I later classified as Series Y are said to have been struck hotter. This often results in small crazing cracks at the edges, a very weak obverse, but an exceptionally crisp reverse. The hammer die often picking up very tiny details of the die. The coin at the centre of my illustration is a good example. The obverse (anvil die) looks like George Bernard Shaw's description of Isadora Duncan when the two met: "She looked as if she had a face made out of sugar and someone had licked it". On that coin, you can even see the tool marks on the die in the inner slant of the pony's chest section (not on the photo, of course!). Today, I could do a better job of making such a picture actually look like the coins were piled on top of each other. The "two" coins just above the Group A are actually obverse and reverse of the same coin (Series Z -- Unelli). Most Coriosolite coins are not as pretty as all those, they are often very weakly struck or have corrosion damage. These were "cherry-picked" from my collection.

Part of Major Rybot's original MS which was the only documentary
evidence in the Jersey archives when I did my original research
on the hoard
The collection is long-sold -- back to Robert, of course. They have all been sold again, but you can visit the one that Garth generously donated at the museum. Oh, by the way, If you would like to see the first written account of the La Marqaunderie Hoard and read the text, it is all on my web site. Details of the hoards take up a chapter of my book and are further discussed in the concluding chapter.

By the way, I used for the Mylar overlays, the very same technique that Major Rybot had used for his remarkable die-reconstructions that appear in my book and in most of the literature. Almost no coins show the whole design. Wherever there is only part of the coin design visible in an illustration, you know that the coins from that die are quite rare. Rybot was an amateur par excellence. Soldier, artist and scholar, he received poor counsel on the evolution of coin designs. Had he done it all himself, I don't doubt that I would not have needed to write my own book! Unlike most, he had a fine attention for detail. I might do a piece on him one day.

Tomorrow,  Swash-S. (curious?)

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