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Lead Image: thePipeLine

From Julius Caesar’s memoirs to Boadicea outside Parliament [it’s Boudicca ed] the chariot is the emblem of pre Roman Britain, with the British warrior chieftains imagined as charging up and down the field of battle resplendent in woad tattoos and not much else, while being driven on the BC equivalent of an armoured personnel carrier designed by Ferrari. Now Hansons, the auction house owned by Charlie Hanson, best known for his cheekie chappy appearances as an expert and wielding the gavel on the BBC’s daytime antiques show Bargain Hunt, is in the archaeological news because it is selling, in controversial circumstances, a rare pre Roman Iron Age harness mount from one of those chariots, which is reported as being found in Buckinghamshire. While rare, and possibly unique, the mount is not treasure under the current rules which means the finder is free to dispose of it in any way they see fit. Hence Hansons are able to list the mount for sale as Lot 1 in its 25 February sale of Coins, Banknotes & Antiquities. With what is described by one expert as a “come and get me” starting price of £3600, the auctioneers estimated sale price is £6000 to £8000 and some archaeologists are concerned that this very important item might end up leaving the country without ever being fully studied by academic experts.

Recently archaeologists monitoring auction websites for metal detector finds noticed with concern that an apparently significant object was listed for sale by Derbyshire based auction house Hansons, without a catalogue number issued by the Portable Antiquities Scheme. That is the scheme for the voluntary reporting of archaeological finds which is operated by the British Museum.

Best practice for metal detectorists requires the reporting of finds, especially of potentially significant finds such as the harness mount in the auction, to the local Finds Liaison Officer. Finds suspected to be “Treasure” under the Treasure Act 1996 must be reported to the local coroner, but that does not apply in this case as the object is reported as being found on its own and it contains no precious metals.

The lack of a PAS number suggested that the object had gone directly to the auction house, Hansons, from the finder and/or landowner and could mean that a significant artefact might be sold and even exported from the UK, without ever appearing on the radar of academic subject experts.

This is important because everyone agrees that this is a significant object.

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The Harness Fitting found in Buckinghamshire by Mr Ray Pusey
[Courtesy of Portable Antiquities Scheme Creative Commons

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Described as being of Polden Hills style, named for the site in Somerset where this style of decoration was first identified in the 1800’s, an expert in pre-Roman metalwork consulted by the PipeLine (who asked to remain anonymous for professional reasons) suggested that the object is
nationally unique, save the bottom plate which is only paralleled by the antiquarian hoard find which now resides in the British Museum (British Museum accession No. 1889,0706.78). Dating to the mid-first century AD, the mount falls within the period when Britain was famous for the quality of the champlevé red enamel work used by metal workers using this style.

Normally seen in the South West, Wales, East Anglia and occasionally in the north, the location where this piece was found is not only interesting as being outside that range, but it’s rare form and somewhat unusual execution mean it is doubly important to the researchers and therefore the find is nationally important.

Meanwhile, adding to the sense that the sale of the mount was being teed up, the March 2021 edition of metal detecting magazine The Searcher published an article about the same harness mount revealing that the finder was metal detectorist Ray Pusey.

The article appeared under the under the byline of Adam Staples.

And this is where things become curious.

As well as being a well known metal detectorist, with at least one hoard valued provisionally into seven figures under his belt, Mr Staples is a member of the staff team at commercial auctioneers Hansons and in his article he uses identical wording to that which appears in the auction catalogue for the 25 February [2021] auction of Coins, Banknotes & Antiquities, where the mount appears as Lot 1.

In other words Mr Staples wrote the either the catalogue entry, or the article [it is unclear which came first] and seems to have then cut and pasted his own work to create the counterpart. Although in the article for The Searcher, Mr Staples did at least take the trouble to add a preamble and a colour piece describing how Mr Pusey claimed he had found the object.

Funny that…

An extract from the Hansons auction catalogue compared with,

Adam Staples article in the March 2021 edition of The Searcher
[Hansons and The Searcher: Fair use for the purpose of reporting]

Typical of such reports, while lacking archaeological detail, the account in The Searcher indulged in a little product placement, namechecking the metal detector and software package Mr Pusey said he had used.

Certainly the article at the very least mirrored the Hansons catalogue and, given the ease of locating the object on the auction website, effectively forms an advertorial for an object valued well into the thousands, for which it is also in the interests of the finder and the auctioneer, to drive up interest among potential bidders. 

However, neither The Searcher article, nor the catalogue acknowledges the shared text.

Neither does The Searcher declare Mr Staples affiliation with and pecuniary interest in, Hanson’s as his employer.

While not illegal [while being lazy, you can’t plagiarise yourself unless you are plagiarising work without permission which you created, but which is owned by somebody else such as your employer] and admitting the rules for publications around identifying advertising content can be complex, there do seem to be ethical issues around,

1. The Searcher not identifying the author of its article as an employee of a company with a financial interest in the value of the object under discussion at auction, and

2. The Searcher not acknowledging that the text of the article and possibly some of the images seem to appear also in the Hansons catalogue.

With those issues in mind thePipeLine asked the publisher/editor of The Searcher a number of questions about Mr Staples article including,

Was the Searcher aware of Mr Staples connection with Hanson’s when it accepted the article?

Did Hanson’s or the Searcher, pay in cash or kind [ie in placing advertising] to see the brooch become the cover story of the March 2021 edition?

Did The Searcher commission Mr Staples directly, was he commissioned as a staff member of Hanson’s handling research of the artefact for the forthcoming auction, or did he use his status as a member of the team at Hanson’s to pitch the article to The Searcher?

We also questioned The Searcher over the magazines failure of the article to mention the Portable Antiquities Scheme or the Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting, asking,

“Does The Searcher consider that this failure to mention the PAS and the Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting, sets a good example to metal detectorists, especially when the artefact concerned is clearly so important?”

Up to the time of publication The Searcher has not responded to our questions.

The owner of the auction house which is selling the mount, Mr Charles Hanson, is certainly open about wishing to sell the kind of metal detector finds seen monthly in The Searcher and other metal detecting magazines.

Quoted on the company website Mr Hanson states [our italics],

“I am proud to have gathered together a formidable team of experts who are well known in the world of coins, antiquities and metal detecting finds.

They are all passionate about their field of expertise and looking forward to bringing new finds to market.

However, the selling of metal detector finds is an increasingly sensitive issue with suggestions that some detectorists, far from seeing metal detecting as a hobby to be enjoyed and a chance to recover and record some history, is in fact, an opportunity to make money, sometimes a lot of money, with significant treasure hoards, like the famous Staffordshire Hoard, resulting in rewards to the finder and landowner running into the millions.

To critics of the alleged commercialisation of the hobby the risk is that the opportunity for large rewards for very little outlay, a reasonable metal detector can be had for a few hundred pounds, will lead to an increase in both commercial rallies which have been accused of hoovering up artefacts and perhaps even more seriously, in theft through the illegal use of metal detectors on private land and even scheduled archaeological sites.

Seen against that background there are legitimate questions to be asked about the journey the harness mount made from the soil of Buckinghamshire to the catalogue of a Hansons auction.

thePipeLine asked Hansons a series of questions about the find and the auctioneer’s relationship, if any, with The Searcher.

The questions included,

“Lot 1: A Celtic Harness Brooch appears to have been accepted for sale and placed in the auction catalogue of your 25 February Historica sale by Hansons before it was recorded by the British Museum, Portable Antiquities Scheme…Can you confirm this is the case and if it was, given the frequent allegations that illicit metal detecting finds are laundered through auctions sales, do you agree that Hansons puts itself at reputational and legal risk by accepting metal detecting finds without an accompanying PAS number, which demonstrate best practice for detectorists and would at least offer some independent indication of legal status?” 

We also asked if PAS numbers will be required before any future sales of artefacts from metal detectorists?

Observing that the March edition of the Searcher magazine quotes extensively from the auction catalogue without attribution, even though the article was written my a member of Hansons staff, Adam Staples, we asked also, why did Mr Staples not declare this affiliation and pecuniary interest in the story which he holds through his role with Hansons, or credit the auction catalogue, in his article?

Up to the time of publication Hansons have not responded to these, or any of the other, questions we raised about the sale.

However, in a late twist to the story, within days of the auction going ahead, the Hansons catalogues was suddenly revised to include a catalogue number from the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Noting that the PAS records that the find was made as long ago as October 2020, the PipeLine can only question why the recording of the find was left so close to the date of the auction?

It is reasonable to speculate that this is an attempt by Hansons and The Searcher to be seen above reproach and to abide by
the Good Practice guidelines on reporting finds to the relevant authorities, particularly as they themselves must have realised through their own research just how rare this item was and yet the find still had not been reported.

Another possible reason for this desire for absolute clarity regarding provenance may be the widespread suspicion that hoards of various periods, are being located illicitly and broken up to be laundered through various outlets from individual dealers and online platforms to commercial auction houses.

In November 2019 detectorists George Powell and Layton Davies along with coin dealer Simon Wicks were imprisoned for just such a crime relating to the, so called, Leominster Horde of Viking period objects. A fourth man, coin dealer Paul Wells, received a suspended sentence. Much of the horde, while known to have been recovered by the men, is still missing.

There is no suggestion that any form of malpractice has occurred in the case of the sale of the Lot 1 harness mount by Hansons. However, given the timing of the report to the PAS, a source suggested to thePipeLine that it is almost as if someone had a word and said, “You had better report this.”

Again, it must be stressed that, while many aspects of this story might be regrettable, especially the lack of transparency on the part of The Searcher regarding the relationship between Mr Staples and Hansons; Hansons own lack of transparency and accountability, which they might describe as commercial confidentiality and the failure to involve the Portable Antiquities Scheme from the beginning, bringing with it the risk that a nationally important artefact could have been sold into a private collection without full location data being published to give the find regional context; there is no evidence that anyone involved with the finding and processing for sale of the harness mount has done anything illegal.

But just because something is legal it does not mean that it is morally right.

You do not have to watch many episodes of Bargain Hunt to realise that the amateurs are almost always bested by the professionals and a professional organisation like Hansons would not be in the market for metal detecting finds if there was not a substantial opportunity to earn hefty commissions from the sale of objects like the harness mount.

Currently the auctioneers estimate for the object is £6000 to £8000 and some experts believe it could even fetch more. Especially if foreign collectors become involved in the bidding.

Ironically this valuation is far more than that for many artefacts which have been identified as Treasure and subjected to the full, legally enforceable, treasure process.

However, that window of opportunity for the auction houses and commercially minded metal detectorists, to earn big bucks from such non treasure finds may be about to narrow.

Our expert told us that if the proposed new Treasure rules had been in place at the time it was found, defining importance not by the age and material of a find, but on its archaeological and historic importance, the Hansons Lot No1 harness mount would certainly have been considered as a potential treasure case, with the strong possibility it could have been declared as such.

Even under the current scheme, if another piece of that same style was found in the same spot, the pair of objects would have been considered as a possible treasure case also.

Either case would render the Hansons auction illegal unless the find had gone through the treasure process and been returned to the finder.

This revised system would impose legally enforceable responsibilities on the finder to report similar finds, which, at the very least, would result in opportunities for researchers to research objects fully, with perhaps the public ultimately being able to enjoy seeing them displayed properly in a museum rather than as pixels in auctioneers catalogue before possibly disappearing into a private collection.

At the time of writing the harness mount is due to be sold in Hansons sale starting at 10.30 on 25 January [2021].

Meanwhile the Portable Antiquities Scheme has designated the Harness Mount as being of National Importance and thePipeLine understands that, if the mount is sold to a foreign buyer, it is likely there would be an objection to an export licence being granted, on the grounds of its cultural importance, allowing UK Museums to attempt to purchase the object.

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thePipeLine is an independent news publication that investigates the place that heritage, politics, and money meet.

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