Auction of medieval `Middleham Jewel' captures 1.3 million

The discovery of a beautiful treasure that has lain buried in the earth for centuries captures the imagination, and may boost the sale of metal detectors. Who would not wish to find the most important English medieval jewel to come to light for half a century? And to have it sold at Sotheby's for 1.3 million? (That's $1.93 million, not including the premium.) Well, someone has. Gothis pendant

Ted Seaton, an experienced treasure hunter, made his discovery one day in September 1985. But not until he later cleaned the few items he had unearthed did he realize that he had struck gold. From under the grime of centuries appeared a gothic pendant now called the Middleham Jewel.

The jewel, which was auctioned this month, takes it name from ancient Middleham Castle in North Yorkshire, near the spot where it was discovered. The jewel is made of gold and set with a large sapphire, a gem that in the middle ages was believed to have a purifying influence on the soul. It's designed to be worn as a double-sided pendant, and the back of the jewel slides out to reveal a small cavity. Richard Camber, medieval specialist at Sotheby's, says the engraving is of the highest quality and burnished in a way that is unknown in any other jewel of the period.

But great mystery surrounds the jewel. What was its purpose? Scholars do not agree on this point. But Mr. Camber is almost certain that it is an ecclesiastical piece, used in communion. Who was the owner?

Speculation arises from its being found near an ancient pathway between two abbeys, Jervaulx and Coverham. On the other hand it was found only a few hundred yards from now ruined Middleham Castle, which has a fascinating pedigree. Until 1471 it was the home of the Neville family, after which King Edward IV granted it to his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III.

``Some scholar is going to have a field day with this,'' notes Sotheby's Camber, ``and will probably get his doctorate on the strength of it.''

Another mystery swirls around the find. Was the jewel lost? Or was it deliberately hidden? This question is far from academic, because it raises a point that is crucial to determining the legal ownership of this and all other buried treasure found in Britain. The determination is made by Britain's coroners courts, which, as representatives of the crown, are interested in matters of ``treasure trove.'' Its hard to lose a hoard

If it can be said that the treasure was hidden with intention to recover, then it is considered by law to be ``treasure trove,'' and the crown claims the lot. The items are then handed over to a museum and the finder is compensated. But if the item was lost, it belongs to the owner of the land on which it was found.

Single objects are usually deemed lost (since it's hard to lose a hoard). The Middleham Jewel falls into this category.

Mr. Seaton must share the prize with the landowner, the land's tenant farmer, and two colleagues, all of whom had a prior agreement to share the proceeds of any find in return for permission to search the land. But then, the price that the jewel fetched at auction was five times greater than the auctioner's estimate. So they are probably not regreting their decision to auction.

As of this writing, the jewel's buyer is remaining anonymous. But British law says the piece cannot be exported without a license. If not already bought by a British institution, every effort wil be made to match the auction price within the time allowed in order to keep the jewel in Britian. Related Irish case

News of the huge auction price is likely to give little pleasure to the government of the Republic of Ireland, which on Dec. 10 was ordered by the Dublin high court to pay an Irish businessman 5.5 million for an early Christian altar set that the businessman unearthed with the aid of a metal detector five years ago. Athough the Irish government is to appeal the decision, the sale of the Middleham Jewel makes the judge's award look more appropriate than the 9,000 award that the government has so far offered.

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