Mystery of gold ‘worth £350,000’ found in Saffron Walden piano remains unsolved

PUBLISHED: 15:37 20 April 2017 | UPDATED: 17:14 21 April 2017

The hoard Picture: PETER REAVILL/THE TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM

The hoard Picture: PETER REAVILL/THE TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM

The rightful owners of a hoard of gold coins found stashed inside an Essex piano may never be found.

Part of a hoard of century-old gold coins found hidden in an upright piano. Picture: PETER REAVILL/THE TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM Part of a hoard of century-old gold coins found hidden in an upright piano. Picture: PETER REAVILL/THE TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM

A coroner has today declared the find as treasure, meaning it will be passed on to the Crown.

The 913 coins, found neatly stacked in dusty hand-stitched packages and pouches, were discovered carefully secreted beneath the instrument’s keyboard base while it was being re-tuned.

Graham and Meg Hemmings, formerly of Saffron Walden, owned the piano for 33 years and used the instrument to teach their children music – and were entirely unaware of its secret stash of gold.

The couple, who moved to Shropshire two years ago, then donated the upright Broadwood and Sons-made piano to a nearby school, which had it tuned.

The piano containing the gold treasure. Picture: BRITISH MUSEUM/PA WIRE The piano containing the gold treasure. Picture: BRITISH MUSEUM/PA WIRE

It was tuning technician, 61-year-old Martin Backhouse, who found the “gob-smacking” stash, initially believing the carefully-wrapped cloth packets interfering with the play of the keys to be bags of “moth repellent”.

Describing the moment he found the treasure, he said: “As soon as I started lifting out the keys, I thought, ‘uh-uh, what’s this underneath the keyboard?’

“I lifted one and thought, that can’t be moth repellent, it’s too heavy.”

Slitting the stitching with his penknife, he looked inside before immediately fetching the headmaster. Staff then moved the 6kg hoard into the school’s safe and rang the coroner.

Graham and Meg Hemmings, previous owners of the piano. Picture: RICHARD VERNALLS/PA WIRE Graham and Meg Hemmings, previous owners of the piano. Picture: RICHARD VERNALLS/PA WIRE

He and the school could now potentially be in line for a windfall from the hoard’s sale.

Asked if it had occurred to him to keep the money he said: “No – I could have quite happily swapped them a brand-new piano for that one.

“But that would not have been right or proper.

“As it was gold, I thought that the school needs it just as much as I do.”

Shropshire coroner John Ellery said: “We simply do not know how they came to be concealed.”

He had earlier adjourned the inquest while an international media appeal and research was carried out to try to find the rightful heirs of the treasure.

British Museum experts found the coins ranged from 1847-1915, consisting of 633 full sovereigns and 280 half-sovereigns, with the majority dating from Queen Victoria’s reign.

The coins were found to be 91.7% pure gold.

INQUEST Piano 134427 INQUEST Piano 134427

Yet to be formally valued Peter Reavill, Shropshire finds liaison officer for the British Museum, said in 1926 the coins would have been worth £773 – well above the average £619 cost of a house at the time. The cash-equivalent value today, he said, is £350,000.

The coins are now being held at a secure location, while the piano will be returned to its home in a local school.

Mr and Mrs Hemmings said they felt no bitterness, praising church-going Mr Backhouse’s honesty in immediately reporting the find.

Mrs Hemmings, 65, said: “The sadness is, it’s not a complete story, they’ve looked and searched for the people and they unfortunately haven’t come forward.

A Gold Sovereign from the reign of Queen Victoria, dated 1847. It was the oldest coin in the hoard Picture: PETER REAVILL/THE TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM A Gold Sovereign from the reign of Queen Victoria, dated 1847. It was the oldest coin in the hoard Picture: PETER REAVILL/THE TRUSTEES OF THE BRITISH MUSEUM

“It’s an incomplete story – but it’s still an exciting story.”

The instrument was made in 1906, and sold to the Hemmings in 1983.

The hoard was probably “re-packaged” some time during the Great Depression era, because one of the packets contained an old Shredded Wheat advertising card.

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