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Devon family makes a fortune from 13th-century gold coin discovered thanks to return to an old hobby
A metal detectorist who gave up his hobby when he started a family, only to return to it when his children were old enough to nag him into taking them out detecting with him, has been rewarded with one of the most extraordinary finds – a fine example of England’s oldest gold coin, which has sold for a record-breaking £648,000 at auction.
Michael Leigh-Mallory, 52, found the Henry III gold penny buried 10cm deep on farmland in the Devon village of Hemyock shortly after taking up his old hobby again. Not realising what it was, he posted a picture of the coin on social media, where it was spotted by the auctioneers Spink in London.
He will split the proceeds of the find with the landowner and plans to use his windfall to help fund the future education of his children, history-loving 13-year-old Emily, who has ambitions of studying archaeology at university, and Harry, 10.
On Monday, Leigh-Mallory made a pilgrimage to Henry III’s tomb in Westminster Abbey to pay his respects and offer thanks for his good fortune.
“It is quite surreal really,” he said. “I’m just a normal guy who lives in Devon with his family, so this really is a life-changing sum of money which will go towards their futures.
“Emily and Harry are very much a part of this story. I used to be a keen metal detectorist but once I had a family the detector ended up getting buried in a cupboard. One day my wife said to me: ‘You realise you promised you’d take the kids metal detecting.’ So, I said: ‘Right, kids, we’re going detecting.’ We found an Elizabethan coin, which they were so excited by. It really ignited my passion so I invested in a new detector.
“The day after it arrived I went out into this field. It was a bright, sunny day and within 15 minutes I found the coin. I knew it was gold but I had no idea how important it was.”
Leigh-Mallory, a retired ecologist from Cullompton, added: “Both of my kids are very passionate about history. Emily has joined a local archaeology society and may study it at university, so the money could go towards that.
“Had it not been for a promise I made to my children to go out searching, I do not believe this gold coin would ever have been found. The fine margin between discovery and loss makes this result all the more remarkable. I really owe it to them for having found the coin in the first place, as they were my inspiration to go out prospecting.”
Describing the moment he found the treasure, Leigh-Mallory said: “My trowel exposed the coin. The sun was shining over my shoulder and it glistened. My heart jumped; I thought: ‘This is gold.’ As I picked it up the sun glinted on the king and my heart seemed to stop.”
Leigh-Mallory said he would continue metal detecting, though did not expect to find anything as valuable again. “But it’s not about money. It’s about finding connections to our past.”
The penny found by Leigh-Mallory was struck in about 1257 by the king’s goldsmith, William of Gloucester, with precious metal imported from north Africa.
Featuring a portrait of the bearded and crowned Henry III on his throne, about 52,000 of the coins were minted. It became apparent they were financially unviable because the value of the coin was less than its weight in gold and almost all were melted down. Leigh-Mallory’s is only the eighth known example.
The coin he found is thought to have belonged to John de Hyden, a former lord of the manor. Six months before the coin was introduced, De Hyden paid 120 grams of gold to the king to avoid jury service and public office. He later served in a military campaign in Wales, for which he may have received some of the gold pennies.
Gregory Edmund, a senior numismatist at Spink, said: “Not only does this stand as the most valuable single coin find in British history, but also the most valuable medieval English coin ever sold at auction.”
It achieved a hammer price of £540,000, with extra fees taking the final figure to £648,000. Edmund said: “It was bought by an anonymous private collector in the United Kingdom who intends to place the coin on loan to a public institution or museum.
“The sale itself was very unusual because the buyer was there to bid in person. He loved that this fascinating story had unraveled from a chance discovery by a metal detector.”