I wrote a few days ago of the Ludlow woman forced to hand over a treasured memento left to her by her late Mother because a local museum had zealously pursued her and reported her to the local coroner, resulting in a fine, and the article being seized by the local Magistrates. Under The Treasure Act 1996 she had a duty to report this artefact if it was ‘not a coin’. The item was a Piedfort, which is described by both The Royal Mint and various on-line authorities, as a coin. There is an added complication in that the Treasure Act did not come into effect until 1996. 1996 is the year Ms Harding reports that her Mother found the coin, so a lot rests on whether she found it before or after the Act came into effect.
Ludlow has a long history of ancient artefacts surfacing. Ludlow Castle was the famous ‘tower’ in which the two princes, Edward and Richard, the sons of King Edward, were held in safety for most of their childhood. On Edward’s death they were transferred to the Tower of London and promptly murdered. It is an area steeped in history of the murderous years when the Welsh were held back by Offa’s Dyke, and control of the area was given to some of the Frenchmen such as Mortimer who arrived with William the Conqueror.
Little wonder then that Ludlow museum should be so proactive in the acquisition of ancient artefacts. However all is not what it seems, possibly in this case, certainly in many others. For Ludlow has also attracted its fair share of antique dealers, and other, who, how shall I put this? – were more than ready to supply the museum trade with suitable artefacts even though they had not actually found any…..necessity is the Mother of invention it is said.
Necessity certainly drove an old friend of mine. An avid student of history, he had found himself living in Italy with a large family to support, and had met a man who taught him how to make musical instruments, rather special musical instruments, in that they gave every indication that they had been made several hundred years beforehand…
Returning to England with many mouths in tow, he learned that antique flutes were not in such hot demand here as they had been by Far Eastern museums, and so he settled down with his research books to see what was required by the museum trade. He soon learned that metal artefacts are subjected to a metal test to prove their provenance, and that the results of those metal tests are published…..and look remarkably like a cooking recipe.
From there it was but one short step to acquiring a small furnace, and a set of scales. 3% net weight of copper of exactly such and such composition – no problem, Victorian bath taps proved to have exactly that composition and the surrounding area was fortuitously plentifully supplied with reclamation yards. 9% iron it says? The local farmyards were awash with pig iron.
First he had to make his artefact; more reference books arrived courtesy of Amazon, the lost wax method seemed preferable. Discussing this problem whilst having a tooth filled, he left the dentist with a large box of the stuff they use for modelling false teeth. Problem solved.
His first effort was a humble candlestick, as found in any 15th century home. It wasn’t very good, a little on the wobbly side, pock marked through inexperience at filling the mould, and rather ‘bright’ in colour. He took it to a local antique dealer who kindly explained to him that though it looked exactly like a humble 15th century candlestick, the real thing would have had a patina of age, green and red spots, which were caused by the Sulphur in the air.
Sulphur, you say? Isn’t that the stuff that cabbages and Brussels sprouts give off? The candlestick went into the airing cupboard along with a selection of rotting cabbages steeped in acid – and, unfortunately the family cat. A week later, the cat had lost its teeth, which took some explaining, but the candlestick had acquired a remarkable hue, another week buried in the garden, yet another buried in the pigeon effluent in his attic, and…
He took it to a major chain of auctioneers. He had, he said, just picked it up in the attic of his decrepit farmhouse, covered in pigeon droppings. Could they tell him what it was? The experts gathered round, summoned as if by magnet. Indeed they could! It was ‘a most exciting find’; it was actually much older than his house, almost certainly dating from the 14th century, as evidenced by its crude craftsmanship. The style was one they recognised instantly as being by a man we shall call Edmund DeCandlestickmaker – experts can tell this sort of thing. They would have to send it off for metal testing before they could sell it as 14th century, of course, but that would only take a few days, and they would be happy to pay for the test if this humble Welsh farmer would be kind enough to leave it with them. Yes, most exciting indeed.
The metal test came back, you’ll never guess! Yes, it seemed that the composition of this candlestick was precisely, most precisely, exactly the same as the test carried out on a 14th century candlestick discovered at ‘Somesuch Abbey’. It was only the second one in the country to be so verified! The experts were beside themselves, would this humble farmer let them put it up for auction? Naturally he would, and so began a career.
My friend was highly intelligent, and educated. He was not of a naturally larcenous mind, but the intellectual challenge intrigued him, beside, the regular cheques kept his family in food. When the market in candlesticks dropped off, although truth to tell, it did not drop off so much as he became embarrassed by the ‘coffee table’ books published on these and other humble items of the ancient craftsmen that contained more of his work than they did of the genuine item, he moved onto more ambitious items.
He had a great sense of humour, so would leave a trail of clues for the experts to uncover, an apparently Muslim inscription on an item would reveal traces of an earlier Christian inscription, crudely removed. Friends travelling to foreign parts would be instructed to bring back small samples of soil which he would analyse and dutifully label. Pre-war newspapers would be bought on E-Bay. The planning that went into presenting these pieces to the experts were meticulous.
One piece which was rejected by an auction house as being ‘a Victorian copy’ which did not sell as well as he had hoped, was later resold by another expert in a different auction house, for thousands. My friend sued the first auction house for misleading him, a humble farmer, as to its true value. He won; they paid him, virtually by return of post.
His final piece was bought by a major European Bank as ‘an investment’ – for three quarters of a million pounds. Sadly the cheque arrived just a bare three days after he had died, very suddenly and unexpectedly, which is why this tale can be told.
As I write this, I have in front of me the card he gave me when we first met, just his name and the slogan ‘plumbing artefacts to the museum trade’. He was a remarkable man, a man frustrated by the system and the mendacity and duplicity of the antique trade in ancient artefacts. Had he been alive today, he would almost certainly have been a prolific blogger, he wrote well, exceedingly well, but he died before blogging had been invented, so he punctured the arrogance of the ‘experts’ in his own way, and fed his family on the results.
No doubt the Ludlow Piedfort will be metal tested. No doubt the metal test will prove its provenance. I know it was dug up in a garden in Tenbury Wells.
I once knew a man who lived in Tenbury Wells area and who was in the ahbit of burying things in the garden….I wonder.