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Windfall Profits Still Alive and Well

For many reasons, England continues to be the epicenter for curious history. I recall learning about the term "windfall profits." I never thought much about it, other than knowing that it meant someone unexpectedly came into a lot of money. I'm told it stems from the days when the kings and queens of England had absolute power. They owned pretty much everything, including trees that happened to grow on private land.

Wood was a vital and valuable resource in scant supply compared to heavily forested regions, such as France, Germany and Spain. Ergo, the royals laid claim to all trees wherever they might be growing in England. If you had a stand of trees on your land, you couldn't profit from them at all — with one exception. Should a storm or similar natural occurrence take place and one of your trees were to fall, then it became your property and you could do what you wished with it. Hence, the term windfall profits.

Of course, those days are long gone, and now we have just the vestiges of that lore. But sometimes, the tangible relics of days gone by can be fascinating as well as very profitable.

Such a situation arose recently for Englander Dave Crisp — a longtime amateur treasure seeker roaming a remote field near the town of Frome in Sommerset, England. He's one of those guys you see quietly meandering around wearing earphones and swinging a metal detector in front of him.

As he wandered with his detector through the field, he heard a very faint "blip." He dug down a few inches. Nothing. He dug a little more. Nothing, but with a little dirt removed, the sound from the detector grew a bit louder. Finally, he dug down more than a foot and pulled out what appeared to be a black rock. No, it was a chard of pottery. When he reached in the hole again, he pulled out what appeared to be a very small coin. After brushing it off, he discovered it was a Roman bronze coin.

Early in the first few centuries, the Romans had inhabited what is now England. Even today, Roman coins turn up under old buildings in London. But this was in the middle of a field. When Crisp reached in again, he realized there were many more coins, and the piece of pottery was the top of a large ancient jar.

Recognizing he had discovered a hoard in the middle of nowhere, he stopped digging and contacted the local finds liaison officer, who in turn contacted archeologists. For two days, they carefully excavated the site to discover Crisp had uncovered a massive clay vessel filled with over 52,000 bronze and silver coins, which dated back to 253 A.D. Many were very rare examples that showcased the image of Carausius, Britain's "lost emperor."

In all, the hoard weighed 350 pounds. The vast size of the collection has convinced most researchers that these were not buried in haste to hide them from invading groups or soldiers. Rather, they speculate ancient inhabitants of the area pooled the many coins and buried the large urn in the earth as an agricultural "offering" to ensure good crops. The true reason will probably never be known.

What is known is that the total value of the coins comes in at close to $5 million. And, no, such finds no longer belong to the crown. The collection is expected to be purchased for the Museum of Somerset for public display. Under modern British law, once the coins are declared "treasure," Crisp and the owner of the land where they were found will split the proceeds.

I suppose it's proof that windfall profits do still exist in merry old England in one form or another.

To find out more about Peter Rexford and to read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.


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