October 26, 2006
Bonhams is auctioning a collection of Roman treasures. Many experts are going to view them as they have only ever been publicly displayed once before. Few reputable dealers or institutions are willing to bid for them though due to questions over their provenance & unresolved claims that they are the property of Hungary.
New York Times
14 Roman Treasures, on View and Debated
By ALAN RIDING
Published: October 25, 2006
LONDON, Oct. 24 — For the last week, scores of scholars, museum curators and collectors have been discreetly filing into a well-guarded gallery of the Bonhams auction house here to admire 14 richly decorated silver objects that lay buried for 1,500 years in a forgotten corner of what was once the Roman Empire.
The excitement is palpable. Only once before — for one brief morning in 1990 in New York — has the so-called Sevso Treasure been displayed in public. Now the solid silver plates, ewers, basins and caskets, thought to be worth more than $187 million, are again living up to their reputation as one of the finest collections of ancient Roman silver ever found.
Dated from A.D. 350 to 450, the treasure takes its name from a dedication on a 22-pound hunting plate, which reads in Latin: “May these, O Sevso, yours for many ages be, small vessels fit to serve your offspring worthily.”
This work and others carry intricate designs and detailed reliefs of boar and bear hunting, feasting and mythological stories, as well as delicate geometric forms.
Yet all this beauty carries a blemish.
While the works are on display at Bonhams with a view to an eventual sale, they remain tainted by uncertainty over their provenance and by an outstanding claim by Hungary that they were illegally removed from its territory. At most, then, this private exhibition — viewing is by invitation or special request — is intended as a first step toward the treasure’s rehabilitation.
Certainly, its owner, the Marquess of Northampton, would dearly like to sell it. By his own admission, he acquired it in the early 1980’s with this in mind. But two previous attempts to sell it — in 1983 to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and in 1990 at an auction by Sotheby’s — failed. Meanwhile, the collection has been stored in a London vault.
“I do not want my wife or my son to inherit what has become a curse,” Lord Northampton, now 60, told The Sunday Times of London. “I doubt it will be sold overnight, but eventually I hope somebody or some institution will buy it, and it will go on permanent display so that people can enjoy and appreciate its exquisite beauty.”
Robert Brooks, the chairman of Bonhams, said he hoped this private exhibition, which ends on Friday, would at least provoke a debate. “In particular, there is the question of what happens to objects when their early provenance is unknown,” he said in an interview. “Do important objects get locked away forever, or are they exhibited and studied?”
But while scholars have jumped at the chance to view the Sevso Treasure, the debate has so far not favored Lord Northampton or Bonhams, not least because recent claims by Italy and Greece to antiquities acquired by some American museums have heightened awareness of the international traffic in Roman and Greek treasures.
In a letter to The Times of London, Lord Renfrew, the former director of the Cambridge-based McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, said it would be unethical for any British museum to display the collection. And he added: “It is an affront to public decency that a commercial dealer should do so — even if many archaeologists, such as myself, will take the opportunity of going to inspect it.”
Ludovic de Walden, Lord Northampton’s legal adviser, responded in the newspaper that it was also “offensive” of Lord Renfrew to imply that any criminal act might have been committed, either by Bonhams or by Lord Northampton.
But in an article in The Guardian this week, Lord Redesdale, secretary of an all-party parliamentary archaeology group, called for a full examination of the treasure’s origins. “While the treasure remains here with its status unresolved, it represents a standing challenge to the effectiveness of the measures in force in this country to combat the trade in illicit antiquities,” he wrote.
That said, nothing certain is known about the collection before 1980, when its first six pieces were reportedly sold by a Lebanese-born art dealer called Halim Korban to Peter Wilson, a former chairman of Sotheby’s. Two years later, Mr. Wilson and a London lawyer, Peter Mimpriss, persuaded Lord Northampton to invest in the venture, and four more works were acquired.
In 1983, these 10 were offered to the Getty museum, but the museum lost interest after Lebanese export licenses were proved to be falsified. That same year Mr. Wilson died, but through Mr. Mimpriss’s connections, Lord Northampton later bought four more pieces. The collection of 14, by then owned entirely by Lord Northampton, was exhibited in New York in 1990 in anticipation of a Sotheby’s auction planned for later that year in Switzerland.
The Lebanese government then obtained an injunction barring the treasure’s removal from New York, and lengthy legal proceedings followed. Lebanon dropped its claim to the collection, but Hungary and Croatia joined the case. Finally, in 1994, after several lower courts rejected the Hungarian and Croatian claims, the Appellate Division of New York’s State Supreme Court also ruled them to be “without merit,” and Lord Northampton was able to return the treasure to London.
Subsequently, he brought a law suit charging “fraud and conspiracy to defraud” against Mr. Mimpriss and his London law firm, Allen & Overy. The case was settled out of court, and while the terms were never divulged, British newspapers have reported that Lord Northampton won as much as $28 million in compensation.
With this private exhibition, Lord Northampton has intentionally thrust the Sevso silver back into the limelight. And one predictable result has been a renewed claim by Hungary. “According to Hungarian law,” Hungary’s Ministry of Education and Culture wrote in a letter to Bonhams, “the treasures are the property of the Hungarian state, therefore we maintain our claim of title to it and will take all possible legal measures pursuant to this.”
But so far Hungary has neither taken fresh legal action nor presented new facts to bolster the evidence rejected by New York’s Appellate Court. One element in its original claim is that the hunting plate refers to Pelso, as Lake Balaton is called in Latin. There, it insists, the treasure was found by a quarry laborer, Jozsef Sumegh, in the late 1970’s. Mr. de Walden said that scholars had testified that the Roman Empire had several places called Pelso.
The Hungarian claim has nonetheless been kept alive by the mysterious circumstances of Mr. Sumegh’s death in 1980: first described as suicide, it was later termed a murder somehow related to the Sevso Treasure. In The Guardian this week, Lord Redesdale went so far as to say that “there is now a considerable body of circumstantial evidence that the treasure was indeed found in Hungary.”
Meanwhile, Bonhams is preparing to return the treasure to its life behind bars this weekend.
“What is an affront to public decency,” said Mr. Brooks, the auction house’s chairman, “is the thought that these objects will never be seen by anyone, anywhere, at any time. The alternative is to give them to some country that has not proven its claim.”
“The fact is,” he went on, “no one has come up with a decisive answer as to where the treasure originated, where it was used and where it might have been hidden. All we know is that it was probably hidden, which is why it survives in unbelievable condition.”
- Sevso Hoard on display in London : November 12, 2006
- Who owns the ancient past : November 5, 2008
- Are some more of the artefacts looted by Giacomo Medici up for sale? : November 16, 2010
- Hungary to return looted artefacts to Greece : September 11, 2008
- Hungary offers to return looted artefacts to Greece : September 16, 2008
- Is Ebay becoming a haven for the trade in looted artefacts? : December 19, 2006
- Sarospatak library to be returned to Hungary : February 10, 2006
- UK appeal court re-instates Iran’s right to make claim on looted art : December 22, 2007