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Lancashire Police are investigating a number of cases of artefacts reported missing while in the care of the Lancashire County Council museum service. It is understood that the items concerned, including a complete hoard of Roman coins which had been declared as Treasure under the Treasure Act 1996, had been taken into the care of the council museum service by Finds Liaison Officers [FLO’s] of the Portable Antiquities Scheme based at the Museum of Lancashire in Preston. The disappearance of the artefacts was first discovered when the Treasure Registry at the British Museum asked for material to be transferred to London for assessment which was then found to be missing. There have been no arrests and the mystery has been ascribed by a council officer to the actions of an individual or individuals unknown.
Correspondence seen by thePipeLine confirms that the latest investigation began in July 2022, after an apparently unrelated matter of alleged workplace theft.
However, the first suggestion of a problem with the secure storage of artefacts by the Portable Antiquities Scheme in Lancashire seems to have emerged just over a year ago.
An e-mail sent by the Conservation & Collections Manager of Lancashire council and seen by thePipeLine, records that in late October 2021 the Treasure Registry in London took the routine step of asking the county museum service for a specific item to be transferred into its custody as part of the system of assessment and reporting under the Treasure Act .
Finds declared to be Treasure under the Treasure Act are assessed and awarded a monetary value, which is then split 50:50 between the finder, often a metal detectorist, and the landowner.
However, on checking, the Lancashire museums service found that the item requested, which was supposed to have been held in secure storage, within a locked office, in a building to which the public supposedly had no access, was missing.
A subsequent comparison between records held by the Lancashire museum service and the Treasure Registry revealed that as many as twelve items, which the museum service believed to have been sent to London already, were, in actual fact, missing.
The audit also revealed that documentation relating to the missing artefacts had also disappeared.
Neither the Lancashire museum service, nor the Portable Antiquities Scheme’s Finds Liaison Officers, appear to have operated a system for checking regularly that material placed into secure storage was still present.
The council has told the artefact finders that initially it hoped that the case work had simply been misplaced. This was because the records and the artefacts were both missing. A possibility which remains, particularly as the initial issue appears to have arisen during the severe disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic when everyone in the museum and heritage sector was adjusting to the restrictions on normal working.
However, it is understood that Lancashire Police became involved after the chain of events arising from the apparent workplace theft of non-archaeological material in early July 2022.
On police advice the new case was initially treated as an internal matter.
Therefore Lancashire Council are understood to have initiated an internal investigation led by one of the council’s own senior fraud investigators.
An audit by specialist curators, not connected with the Portable Antiquities Scheme, was also undertaken. The investigation is understood to have involved several hundred person hours of work.
As a result further discrepancies were discovered between records entered and material held by the museum service, or forwarded to the Treasure team at the British Museum, although unlike the twelve previous reported losses, this time the council has not reported that records have gone missing as well as the objects they refer to.
Several sources indicate that a number of individuals finders have been contacted by the council to inform them that finds they submitted to the museum via the Portable Antiquities Scheme may be missing.
The findings of the council’s internal investigation were referred to Lancashire Police and a formal Police investigation was initiated in October , exactly a year after the alarm was first raised that something might be amiss.
Meanwhile, while it should not be taken as any admission of fault or liability, the council has agreed with the Treasure Registry that, while they will make records, Lancashire’s FLO’s and the Lancashire museum service, will not be taking physical custody of Treasure items until the investigation is complete.
The Conservation & Collections Manager of Cultural Services at Lancashire County Council has apologised to the finders and owners of the objects concerned and has offered to meet them and answer questions about the investigation, at least in so far as it is possible while a “live” police investigation is under way.
It is understood also that Lancashire County Council has also undertaken to compensate land owners and finders for any losses that may accrue if the objects are not located.
Meanwhile, on a wider canvas, while there is no evidence that any FLO or museum service officer has acted inappropriately, the mere fact of the investigation is sure to be an embarrassment to the Portable Antiquities Scheme. That is because it goes to the heart of trust in the voluntary reporting scheme for archaeological objects, especially as the missing Roman coin hoard appears to have been recovered by two metal detectorists who obeyed the law and reported their find in good faith.
A spokesperson for Lancashire Police told thePipeLine,
“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.
If anyone has any information or can help with our enquiries, call 101 or email email@example.com, quoting investigation number 04/116599/22.”
The spokesperson added,
“Anyone concerned about missing items should direct questions to the LCMS [Lancashire Council Museum Service].”
It is important to stress that no individual, or individuals, have been named in connection with the investigation.
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.“
The spokesperson concluded,
“As the investigation is ongoing it would not be appropriate to comment any further at this stage.”
The Portable Antiquities Scheme, which operates the network of Finds Liaison Officers, including those in Lancashire and the North West, has also been approached for comment.
This article was updated at 19.22 on 28 November 2022 to include the statement from Lancashire County Council.
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