The 'Hackney hoard' of $20 double eagle coins, expected to sell for a total of around £80,000 on November 29-30, first hit the headlines in 2007 when a resident and his friends uncovered them while digging out a pond in his front garden. The 80 glistening coins, wrapped in greaseproof paper and packed tightly inside a glass preserving jar, were the subject of a "treasure" inquiry and, most unusually, one of the sons of the original owner was traced.
This meant that the treasure was returned to him rather than becoming, technically, Crown property.
The Treasure Act 1996 was intended to deal mainly with older coin hoards, often dating back to Roman or Celtic times. It is believed this is the first time since the Act came into force that an original owner or descendant has been found.
One specimen has been presented to the Hackney Museum, where it is to be displayed together with the jar and wrappings in which the hoard was found. A further two coins are being retained and the remaining 77 coins are being offered for sale. Ten examples will be sold individually, each with an estimate of around £1000, and the remaining 67 coins as a single lot, estimated at £60,000-80,000.
The story is straight from a Boy's Own adventure, with tragic circumstances turning to amazing good fortune.
In his own words, Max Sulzbacher, son of the original owner, explained that his family was one of some 60,000 Jews who had fled to England to escape persecution after Hitler and the Nazis first came to power in 1933. His father Martin, a banker living in Frankfurt, mother, three young siblings and their half-Jewish maid moved into a double-fronted house in Bethune Road, Hackney in January 1939. Martin's brother, with his wife and their two children, had already emigrated to London in 1934 and took up British nationality five years later. In November 1938, their sister's husband was sent to Dachau, never to be heard of again.
"My father was therefore responsible for bringing his sister as well as her three children to London. He was also able to bring over his aged parents - my grandparents. When war broke out, my brother and I were evacuated with our school to Bedfordshire," Max Sulzbacher said.
"My father and mother, together with my small brother and sister, were interned as 'enemy aliens'. My father was first sent to a camp in Devon, then the Arandora Star on the way to Canada. However, this ship was torpedoed by a U-boat off the coast of Ireland and many people were drowned. My father was a strong swimmer and, after some hours in the water, was rescued by a Canadian destroyer. After being landed in Scotland, he was sent a few days later to Australia on the HMT Dunera. My mother and two siblings were sent to the Isle of Man and, later that year, my brother and I joined my mother from Bedfordshire. My grandparents were not interned as they were too old, nor was my widowed aunt. My uncle and aunt were, of course, British citizens."
Until then the gold coins had been deposited in a bank in the City of London, but fearing that England would be invaded, "... my uncle thought it wise to transfer the gold coins from the safe and bury them in two jars in our garden. It was common knowledge that the Nazis would go to the banks and break open the safes and empty the contents.
"When the Blitz started in September 1940, my uncle drove out of London to Chesham to rent a flat where he and the five members of the family were going the next day. Unfortunately that same night a bomb dropped on our house killing them all."
Martin Sulzbacher returned from Australia in 1942 on release from internment, and the family rented a house in Golders Green. "One of the first things my father did was to go to the safe in the City of London to retrieve the gold coins. To his utter astonishment the safe was empty. Subsequently he met a friend of the family who told him of a conversation with his late brother that the coins were buried in the garden of the ruined house. My father then engaged a labourer with a metal detector to search the garden but without success."
One of the jars was found as the site was being cleared in 1952. A coroner's inquest confirmed it was Mr Sulzbacher's property but he was required to sell the coins through the government broker at the official gold price, receiving just over £1000.
The second jar was unearthed 55 years later, lying about two feet beneath the garden of a new property on the site. "He [the finder] joked at first he thought of taking the next plane to Rio, but in the end he handed the jar of gold coins to the London Museum who tried to find its origin." After a number of blind alleys, the breakthrough came when a member of staff remembered the publicity around the find and subsequent recovery of the first jar of coins in 1952.
"Of course my father had died long ago in 1981. Then they Googled up the name Sulzbacher which revealed that a Max Sulzbacher was a correspondent of the Association of Jewish Refugees who then traced me in Jerusalem.
"From the proceeds of the auction we will give a sum to the finders and to the person who made the connection from the previous find. Then we will renovate the graves of our relatives who were killed in the Blitz. We will then have a service of dedication of the graves on the 71st anniversary of the tragedy. The balance will be split between myself and my three siblings."
In a statement at the time of the inquest, Dr Roger Bland, head of the Department of Portable Antiquities and Treasure at the British Museum, said: "The case of the Hackney gold coins is one of the most unique and compelling stories that we have been involved with. There is an incredibly human element to this story that is absent from many archaeological finds and we are pleased to see the coins reunited with their original owners after so many years. The finders are to be congratulated for acting responsibly and helping to add further vital information to the corpus of material about the Second World War, Jewish immigration, and the history of Hackney Borough."
The $20 gold coins, also known as double eagles, were the largest regular issue gold coins made by the United States. Each coin contains slightly less than one troy ounce of gold (.9675 oz.). The 80 coins in the find date from the 1850s to 1913 and are typical of pieces which would have been current up to, and to a lesser extent following, the First World War.