A MEDIEVAL silver seal found in a North Yorkshire field is at the centre of an ownership dispute after being declared treasure by a coroner.
The seal, which shows the murder of former Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket in 1170, was found near Catterick and is regarded as being of national importance.
It is in excellent condition and is valued at several thousand pounds by the British Museum, which wants to buy it.
The oval-framed seal shows Becket kneeling at an altar with his back to three knights, one of whom is wielding a sword over his head. It carries the Latin inscription Opem Nobis O Toma Porige – "Extend succour to us, O Thomas".
Metal detector user Carl Richardson, of Coxhoe, County Durham, claims sole ownership of the seal, and was not at the treasure trove inquest in Harrogate conducted by the Coroner for the Western District of North Yorkshire, Geoff Fell.
Another user, Richard Hunter, of Peterlee, who reported the discovery to the Portable Antiquities Scheme at Newcastle Museum, said he was with Mr Richardson when the seal was found and said they had a verbal agreement to share finds made together.
In a statement Mr Richardson said: "I can categorically state that Mr Hunter was not with me when I made the find. At that time I had not met him."
Mr Richardson claimed to have found the seal on land owned by John Wray, of Catterick.
"Two or three weeks after this find I was approached by Mr Hunter." Mr Richardson said they agreed to go detecting together and found a few coins. He then showed Mr Hunter the seal at his home.
But Mr Hunter said they found the seal later, on October 16 and the following day they showed it to Jim Halliday, of Malton, described as a "champion" of the Department for Culture's Portable Antiquities Scheme, which encourages metal detector users to report their finds.
Mr Hunter showed the Coroner a photograph of the seal, which he said Mr Halliday had taken after making an impression of the find in Blue Tack. He told Mr Fell they had a gentleman's agreement. "Whatever we found we would go halves with the farmer so we would split the other half. I believed that by law the farmer got half anyway."
They were in the same field when the discovery was made, he said, and added that Mr Richardson was reluctant to reveal the location, initially telling Mr Halliday it was in Thirsk.
"He did not want anybody to know where it was found. I got the impression that he did not want to share with the farmer and I believe now that he did not want to share with me either."
The seal will now be valued by a panel appointed by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The coroner said he would forward the evidence from the inquest to the British Museum and would ask them not to release the seal until its ownership had been established, but warned that this could involve an expensive legal process.