8 Oct 2010

Roman helmet find sells for £2.3m

An anonymous bidder yesterday saw off competition from a museum to pay £2.3m for a Roman helmet found in a field. But Nick Martin learns the museum has not given up on its quest for the helmet yet.

The Roman helmet was unearthed in a Cumbrian field earlier this year and yesterday smashed its estimate at a Christie’s auction, reaching eight times the expected price.

While the blockbusting sale will have put a smile on the face of the unnamed finder of the object – a man in his 20s from the North East – it is a blow for a Carlisle museum which had been fundraising to buy the helmet and put it on public display.

Instead, an anonymous bidder bought the Crosby Garrett helmet – named after the village near which it was found – for £2,281,250 at Christie’s in London yesterday.

The future of the helmet – which experts have called an “exceptional” find – is now uncertain. The bidder may keep it in a private collection or even take the artefact out of the country – although the Government could step in to prevent this, giving other bidders time to match the price to keep the helmet in the United Kingdom.

However, Channel 4 News North of England Correspondent Nick Martin has learned that the museum has not given up yet.

“The museum is putting in one last ditch attempt that what was found in this Cumbrian field could in some way, shape or from find its way to the museum,” he said.

“They are writing a letter to the new owners, pleading for some sense of community or humanity, that they may be able to loan the helmet for a few months of the year.”

Harry Bain, editor and publisher of The Searcher magazine, told Channel 4 News: “I can pretty much guarantee the helmet won’t go out of the country. There will be an export ban. But if it was a domestic buyer, unfortunately we might not see it again.

“In most circumstances, significant finds like this end up in the British Museum or a local museum, and that’s right, they should be shown to the public in their proper location. And it brings a lot of tourism to the country.”

Dave Crisp, a metal detecting enthusiast who earlier this year found a hoard of bronze coins that was one of the largest ever discovered in the UK, told Channel 4 News that in the case of the helmet: “Anyone can bid for it. That’s the law – even if it is of historical interest like this. But maybe the Secretary of State will be able to intervene.”

Mr Crisp’s find of 52,000 Roman coins was covered by “treasure law”, meaning the British Government has the automatic right to an opportunity to buy it and compensate the finder and landowner, a process which is ongoing. But the Roman helmet find is not covered by this law, so can go to open auction.

The thrill of the chase
Dave Crisp, a metal detecting enthusiast who found one of the largest ever hoards of Roman coins in Somerset earlier this year, told Channel 4 News about the excitement of making a major find - but said there was more to metal detecting than treasure.

"Finding the hoard was marvellous. But with metal detecting the whole thing is you don't know what you are going to find, so it's the thrill of the chase. It's about holding the object in your hand, and say it is a Roman coin - that's worth almost nothing on its own - but it connects you to a Roman person who lost it, 17 or 18 hundred years ago. It could be a piece of tractor that fell off 20 years ago, or a Victorian penny, or a Roman coin.

"For youngsters it can help them learn history. It's not all about 1066, not all about dates, it's about touching things that were used by people 2,000 years ago. I found an axe head a few years ago on the ground that was 4,000 years old. Some poor Neolithic person probably lost that, and was devastated.

"When I found my hoard, the field hadn't produced anything, there were no clues, no Roman habitations - and then I found two hoards in three days. What else gives you that buzz?"

Great shame
Tullie House, a museum in Carlisle had raised £1.7m to try to buy it, but was beaten on the day by the anonymous bidder. The National Heritage Memorial Fund gave £1m, the Art Fund donated a sum, and a private donor matched pound-for-pound the £50,000 raised by members of the public.

Stephen Deuchar, director of the Art Fund, said: “It is a great shame that, so close to the mark and with such great public support, Tullie House has been unable to secure the Roman helmet.

“We now hope that the export system will be able to kick into action, allowing the museum another opportunity to acquire this remarkable work.”

Rare find
It is thought that the helmet is almost 2,000 years old, dating from the 1st or 2nd century AD. It would have been worn by Roman cavalry in a sporting event, rather than as protective armour, experts said, and the face would have had a silver-like polished surface that contrasted with the bronze of the hair and cap.

Only two other helmets of the same type have ever been found in the UK – the Ribchester Helmet, found in 1796, which is now held by the British Museum, and the Newstead Helmet, found in 1905 and now in the Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh.

Georgiana Aitken, head of antiquities at Christie’s, London, said: “When the helmet was first brought to Christie’s and I saw it first hand, I could scarcely believe my eyes.

“This is an exceptional object – an extraordinary and haunting face from the past.”

Tips for metal detectors
Dave Crisp, secretary of Trowbridge Metal Detecting Club, gave Channel 4 News his top tips for wannabe treasure hunters.

"There's always a surge when there is a big find. And I think that's great," he said.

"So be a responsible metal detector. Join a club, find someone to go out with, an experienced metal detecting friend. And learn about the hobby - the National Council for Metal Detecting is good."

Nick Martin filmed this report on his iPhone from the field where the helmet was discovered.