In July 1908, a group of workmen in Brussels were pulling down an old tavern near a cathedral in the city centre during construction of the main railway line.
As they dug down, they discovered a large container placed in a
bricked-up vault beneath a water cistern. The container apparently
crumbled as soon as it was touched - hardly surprising considering
it had probably been sealed over 600 years before.
But what they found inside was truly astounding: an
extraordinary array of over 140,000 medieval coins, the largest
deliberately buried hoard of coins ever found, according to
Guinness World Records.
Known as the Brussels Hoard, it comprised roughly 64,000
continental coins but also 81,000 English, Scottish and Irish
silver pennies. With so many examples minted in England during the
reign of Henry III (1216-72), the hoard might well have originally
been some sort of Royal payment for trade or military purposes.
But whatever the reason for its existence, it seems the hoard
was deposited for safe-keeping back in 1267 during the unrest in
the Flemish capital when the city's craft guilds armed themselves
and rebelled against the authorities.
Following its rediscovery by the workmen, and an initial
examinination, the coins ended up being sold at auction in October
1909 in Brussels by the coin dealer Charles Dupriez. They were
divided into two lots - one for the continental coins and the other
for the British issues.
At the sale, the British coins were purchased by Albert Baldwin
of London dealers and auctioneers Baldwin's (the
great-grandfather of Edward Baldwin, the firm's current chairman).
It appears that Albert was able to buy them relatively cheaply as a
thick fog had descended over the English Channel the night before
the auction, which delayed other potential bidders. He paid
fr15,250 (plus a commission of 10%), then equivalent to about
£9000, to purchase the lot.
While a different bidder bought the continental coins and they
were later melted down, the survival of the British section of the
hoard has gone down in numismatic folklore.
Some of the coins were, in fact, stolen shortly before the
original Brussels sale took place. However, records show that
Albert Baldwin attended another sale in Belgium some months later
and purchased 2000 further coins from the hoard - perhaps the
recovered stolen pieces, although that has never been
Most of the coins from the hoard have remained in Baldwin's
stock ever since, although some were sold to collectors over the
years and some of the poorer pieces were melted down to help pay
the wages of staff during the 1920s.
Then, some 20 or so years later, when Albert Baldwin had his
house burgled, handfuls of these coins from the hoard were lost
along country footpaths in Orpington during a police chase. Indeed,
there may be lucky residents who could still find them in their
gardens one day.
Finally, in the 1950s an embargo was placed on further disposals
pending the proper academic study of what remained. With over half
the British portion of the hoard remaining intact, some 55,000
English coins were left awaiting the mammoth task of being analysed
and fully recorded.
Now, after surely one of the longest-running pieces of research
in numismatic history, the results have finally been published in a
volume entitled The Brussels Hoard of 1908 written by an
ex-Whitehall civil servant and historical coins devotee, Ron
Churchill, and retired banker and numismatist Bob Thomas.
Effectively a new reference work on Henry III coinage, the book
- which took over 12 years to complete - includes details of the
discovery of the hoard, its subsequent history and a detailed
analysis of the individual coins themselves.
Furthermore, Baldwin's are now selling a selection of 101 of the
rarest Henry III pennies from the hoard, with estimates ranging
from a few hundred pounds to over £1000.
They will be offered at an auction on September 27 during
Coinex week and will be sold alongside the second part of
the Bentley collection of gold sovereigns.
This initial auction is intended as a precursor to future sales,
where more rarities from the hoard will be offered, while Baldwin's
are planning to offer some of the 'rank and file' coins in a fixed
price list in early 2013. Further information will be released in
The Brussels Hoard of 1908. The Long Cross Coinage of Henry
III by R. Churchill and B. Thomas (Quarto, London 2012) can be
ordered from Baldwin's website at www.baldwin.co.uk