In a field layered with ancient earth, a metal detectorist known as Patrice T. is scanning the terrain for historic finds. Unearthing a rare Roman artifact, he squirrels it away amongst his growing hoard of priceless relics. With more than 27,000 treasures in his collection, he’s on the brink of making his fortune. But soon, all that will change.
A keen amateur archaeologist, Patrice had spent years amassing an impressive cache of treasures from the distant past. Equipped with his trusty metal detector, he searched the countryside, turning up everything from historic coins to jewelry from the Bronze and Iron Age. But these finds were not destined for display in a university or museum.
Patrice, you see, was allegedly a looter, dredging up centuries of history for personal profit and gain. And in his home, he was hiding a spectacular array of illicit artifacts, some dating back thousands of years. Then he tried to add a huge stash of Roman coins to his collection – and his great scheme began to unravel.
In October 2019 Patrice reached out to the authorities to declare his most recent find. But he made an error of judgement that would ultimately cost him his entire hoard. Now he is facing an uncertain future – with his freedom itself on the line. According to experts, the relics were worth almost a million dollars, but the detectorist managed to lose the lot.
But how exactly did Patrice’s promising looting career come to such a disappointing end? According to reports, the French detectorist has been active since at least 1993. That year, the Flemish newspaper Het Nieuwsblad claims, he uncovered thousands of coins dating back to the third and fourth centuries.
The truth behind this discovery, though, remains unclear. If Patrice himself is to be believed, he found the 5,250 coins by the side of the road in Pierreville, a town in Normandy in northwestern France. But he claims that he did not actually dig to retrieve them. As well he might: according to French law, it is illegal to use a metal detector to hunt for artifacts.
So perhaps if they’d been paying close attention, the authorities might have spotted a hole in Patrice’s story back then. After all, how likely is it that the detectorist simply stumbled upon such a treasure discarded by the roadside? Yet it appears as if this somewhat dubious version of events was accepted as the truth.
And the mayor of Pierreville even handed the coins over to Patrice to keep – an early addition to a hoard that would continue to grow. Then, some years later, the detectorist made another discovery, according to the Flemish newspaper De Standaard. This time it was in the town of Boucq in northeastern France.
Although details are scarce, it seems as if Patrice tried to explain away this discovery, just as he had with the earlier one in Pierreville. In France, you see, the law is clear: metal detectors can only be used if the operator is conducting scientific research. So how exactly had this Frenchman stumbled across another substantial find?
According to De Standaard, Patrice’s excuses did not wash this time round. Yet he escaped with a slapped wrist – and was even allowed to take home half of the find. Another portion of the haul, it seems, was given to the Lorraine Museum in Nancy, some 20 miles east of Boucq.
Despite the dubious provenance of his finds, Patrice was beginning to build a reputation as a treasure hunter. In a 2015 interview with the French newspaper L’Est Républicain, for example, he bragged that he had already located 500 artifacts in the Lorraine region. But just four years later, his career would come crashing down.
By October 2019 Patrice was living across the border in Belgium, having purchased a plot of land in Gingelom, some 40 miles outside Brussels. According to Het Nieuwsblad, the detectorist claimed that he enjoyed hiking in the area and had decided to invest in the plot, which housed an apple orchard.
After placing a caravan on his new plot, Patrice added, he decided to do some work on the land. And it was during that process that his metal detector allegedly went haywire, revealing another stash of valuable coins. Following local regulations, he reached out to the Belgian Agency for Immovable Heritage to declare his find.
Thus five officials were dispatched to assess Patrice’s discovery. In a December 2020 interview with La Voix du Nord, a French newspaper, one of them, Marleen Martens, described the scene. She said, “[He] opened the car trunk and showed me two enormous plastic buckets filled to the brim. I had never seen so many coins.”
Patrice had unearthed a staggering 14,154 coins from the orchard and another site in Gingelom. Taking them away for further study, Martens and her colleagues determined that they were of Roman origin, probably minted some time during the third century. Speaking to De Standaard in December 2020, she talked readers through the artifacts’ fascinating story.
“The pieces broadly reflected the coinage of the third century,” Martens explained. “During that period a devaluation occurred and the alloys contained less and less silver. The person who buried these coins predominantly selected coins with a high silver content. We think they were buried in the ground by the end of the third century. That was probably because it was safer than keeping them at home.”
But something about the discovery wasn’t quite adding up. According to De Standaard, coins such as these are rare in Belgium, although they crop up more frequently in France. Perhaps, experts reasoned, Patrice had stumbled upon the location of a lost structure dating back to Roman times?
Hoping to get to the bottom of the mystery, the Agency reached out to the French authorities, who paid a visit to Patrice’s home. And there they discovered that the coins were just part of an epic collection. Spread between the detectorist’s own property and one belonging to his mother were another 13,246 artifacts.
Among this collection were pieces of jewelry dating from the Bronze Age, as well as some Iron Age necklaces and bracelets. Alongside them were coins and fragments of statues from Roman times, plus a number of buckles believed to be associated with the Merovingian period. Still more items, reports claim, can be traced back to the Renaissance and the Middle Ages.
Perhaps the most interesting find, though, was a Roman artifact known as a dodecahedron. Sculpted from copper with twelve sides, these mysterious objects were designed for an unknown purpose, possibly related to measuring or combat. And throughout history, only 100 of them have ever been discovered.
Altogether it’s believed that the artifacts, plus the Roman coins declared in October 2019, are worth around €772,685 – the equivalent of almost $1 million. In other words, Patrice had been sitting on a fortune in looted treasure. But unfortunately for him, he would never see a penny.
So what happened? The first clue came even before the French authorities had discovered the full extent of Patrice’s hoard. While investigating the two sites in Gingelom, researchers realized that the detectorist must have been lying about where he found the initial coins. Because, apparently, there was no way they could have come from his own land.
“During that site survey we concluded that it was impossible for the coins to have come from this site,” Martens told De Standaard in December 2020. “They were in an earth layer that was formed after the Middle Ages.” In other words, the dates were out by more than 1,000 years.
But it is possible that some Roman coins might have made their way into a layer of more recent soil. Still, as Martens pointed out, it is extremely implausible for 14,000 of them to have appeared in such a way. So if Patrice was lying about where he found the artifacts, where had they actually come from?
The solution to the riddle, experts believe, lies in the difference between French and Belgian regulations surrounding the practice of metal detecting. In Patrice’s homeland, there is concern that amateur archaeology can actually impede the process of historical discovery. And that by disturbing the soil, excavators can unwittingly destroy invaluable information for good. Fair enough.
As a result, metal detecting is illegal in France, unless it’s for scientific purposes. But that’s not all. According to De Standaard, the law also states that any significant finds are the property of the government. For someone like Patrice, who had accumulated a fortune in artifacts, such a policy must have been difficult to stomach.
But across the border in Belgium, things are different. Up until 2016 the country operated a policy in line with its southern neighbor, banning the use of metal detectors. Yet after pressure from enthusiasts and archaeologists, the government decided to try out a different approach. Now, amateur excavations are allowed – provided they meet certain conditions.
According to De Standaard, metal detectorists can only dig in the upper layer of earth, and in places where the soil has already been disturbed. Moreover, they must file a report for anything they discover. So when Patrice contacted the Belgian authorities to tell them about his find, he was doing the right thing. Or was he?
As it turns out, there is another difference between the Belgian and French laws. In places such as Gingelom, it seems, metal detectorists operating on their own property are entitled to keep whatever they find. So Patrice stood to make a fortune from the artifacts he claimed to have unearthed on his land.
But as the authorities investigated the find, Patrice’s story began to unravel. First came the revelation that the artifacts were too old to have been found in a soil layer dating from after the Middle Ages. Then the extent of the detectorist’s collection was revealed strewn across two homes in France. Oops!
So what was really going on? On December 16, 2020, the French authorities released a statement outlining their suspicions. Apparently, they had evidence to suggest that the Roman coins had not actually been unearthed at Gingelom after all. Instead they were dug up elsewhere – most likely in France.
Because having stumbled upon such a valuable treasure in his French homeland, Patrice would have found himself in a bind. After all, he couldn’t declare or try and sell the loot without admitting that he had been breaking the law. And so, the authorities suspect, he formulated a plan to exploit the differences between French and Belgian regulations.
Although the details are not yet clear, it’s believed that Patrice accumulated his collection by looting a number of different locations in France. Then he tried to claim that he had found them legally on his own land at Gingelom – presumably hoping that he’d be allowed to keep the lot. But unfortunately for him, the authorities caught on.
And Patrice is now looking at more than just a slapped wrist for his alleged crimes. In the statement, as translated by The Guardian in December 2020, the French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire praised the investigation. He said, “It enabled the seizure of an invaluable archaeological treasure.”
“The offender is liable to imprisonment and hundreds of thousands of euros in customs fees,” Le Maire continued. “This is a clear message to those who, for the benefit and selfish pleasure of a few, rob us of our common heritage and erase entire swathes of our history.” But although the authorities were not pleased with Patrice’s illicit activity, some commenters have begrudgingly acknowledged his skill.
In The Guardian, for example, Patrice is referred to as “one of the greatest archaeological looters in European history.” Currently he is awaiting the outcome of his criminal trial. But whatever happens, it’s unlikely that the ambitious treasure hunter will ever make a penny from his million-dollar haul.
And it’s not the first time that a detectorist has attempted to bend the rules when it comes to declaring historical finds. In June 2015, for example, two amateur treasure hunters unearthed a stash of artifacts in a field in Herefordshire, England. Among the items, reports claim, were jewelry made from gold, silver and crystal, as well as coins from the Anglo-Saxon era.
In England, like in Belgium, the law states that any discoveries need to be reported to the authorities. Then a Treasure Valuation Committee decides how any profits should be distributed between the landowner and the finder. But in this case, detectorist George Powell decided to keep his mouth shut.
Altogether, experts believe that the hoard could have been worth around £12 million – the equivalent of some $16.5 million. But rather than declare their find, Powell and his accomplices attempted to sell the artifacts on the black market. Then they handed just three measly coins to the owner of the land where they had made their discovery.
Eventually Powell was sentenced to ten years in jail. And the judge pointed out that he wasn’t just guilty of stealing from the landowner. He’d also attempted to cheat the public of their right to see the artifacts on display. Back in France, a similar ethos seems to have informed the case against Patrice. But how many more priceless treasures lie hidden in homes around the world thanks to detectorists operating outside the law? We may never know.