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Proposed French law impacts coin finds

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By Richard Giedroyc

A seemingly innocuous law titled “Culture: Freedom to create, architecture and heritage” may sound innocent enough, but if you find coins in an archaeological context in France it could endanger your rights to that find.

Article L541-4 of the Heritage Act or Loi Patrimoine, should the legislation become law, would likely discourage anyone finding coins or other objects in the ground from reporting the find.

World coin collectors will want to check out the Chicago International Coin Fair, held April 15th to the 17th.

World coin collectors will want to check out the Chicago International Coin Fair, held April 15th to the 17th.

Article L541-4 awards “any movable archeological items” found by chance on any land purchased following the enactment of this law to the French government.

Article 20 of the proposed law was adopted following a first reading of it at the French National Assembly or Assemblée Nationale in October 2015. Since France has a two-chamber system the legislation is at the time this article is being written being discussed in the French Senate.

The intention of the legislation is to protect and monitor archeological discoveries. The way the proposed law is worded it is more likely it will discourage finders from declaring what they have encountered. Those opposing this legislation have pointed out Article 20 appears to breach the French Constitution’s principle of equality for all citizens.

According to a Jan. 21 article appearing in the online magazine, “Such a measure would definitely no longer encourage individuals who have made fortuitous discoveries to declare them. It would have a prejudicial effect on historical knowledge which is counterproductive to its purpose. Individuals finding archeological treasures would very likely be tempted to declare a discovery site different from the actual site. Archeological maps would then be incorrect, and such declarations would not allow for archeological work to be carried out at the site. It would thus be impossible to associate this discovery with a specific archeological context.”

While the proposed law has its supporters, the French Council of State or Conseil Constitutionnel has already given its opinion to the contrary. About six months earlier the council said it had serious reservations about any presumption that objects found “fortuitously” of any involvement of the French government should be considered to be owned by the public rather than by the finder.

A similar view was taken by the French Economic, Social, and Environmental Council in June 2015. The council questioned the adverse effects the legislation would have regarding the protection and promotion of archeological finds discovered by chance.
Despite these two adverse opinions France’s Minister of Culture and Communication Fleur Pellerin has continued to press for the legislation to become law.

While it is unlikely this legislation would impact coins currently in museums or in private collections, it would impact coins found in the future at archeological sites or coins found by chance, such as by using a metal detector. Since no reward system is in the legislation why would anyone report a chance find?

Great Britain is usually considered to be the model for the best way to treat important archaeological finds, including those involving coins. Under the British system as long as the find is properly revealed to authorities it is later determined if the find was lost by its original owner or if the find was buried on purpose, but never claimed by its original owner. In some instances the finder gets to keep the coins or other artifacts, while under other circumstances the finder receives money for the find. In either case the British laws encourage finders to announce finds. This then gives archaeologists the opportunity to study a find in its original context, something not possible if a finder disburses a find clandestinely.

This article was originally printed in World Coin News.
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More Collecting Resources
• Come on down to the Chicago International Coin Fair in Rosemont, Ill. on April 14 to 17, 2016 to see impressive world coins, meet new collectors and participate in Heritage Auction’s fantastic coin auction.
• The Standard Catalog of World Coins, 1801-1900, 8th Edition is your guide to images, prices and information on the century's coins.