The controversial Sevso Treasure, which has been in storage for 16 years, is to be shown in a “private exhibition” at Bonhams in London on 17 October. Although not officially announced by the auction house, The Art Newspaper can reveal that invitations have been sent to scholars, curators, dealers and collectors. The Bonhams show is expected to be greeted with astonishment in the antiquities world, since the Hungarian government claims that the Roman silver came from the Lake Balaton area and was illegally exported.
The Bonhams invitation describes the Sevso hoard as “the finest surviving collection of ancient silver known to exist.” It adds that the auction house is “proud to have the privilege of having been chosen by the owner of the silver to arrange a select private viewing of these magnificent objects which are of an artistic and cultural value almost impossible to estimate.” Since the 1980s the treasure has been owned by the Marquess of Northampton.
Bonhams gave The Art Newspaper a categorical assurance last month that it has no plans to sell the treasure, either at auction or in a private sale. Yet, in what appears to be a sales pitch, the invitation for the very private view says that “the treasure, although suitable for exhibition in the world’s greatest museums, has an immediate appeal, beauty and human interest which would not make it out of place in a magnificent private residence such as the treasure must have graced seventeen centuries ago”.
Bonhams suggests that earlier legal obstacles have been resolved: “How it [the hoard] passed intact through the ages is unknown. The silver first appeared in modern times in the last half of the twentieth century when it became the subject of an epic and at times colourful battle for ownership between its present owner and several foreign governments who either abandoned their claims or saw them firmly dismissed by the New York courts.”
The Sevso story begins in 1990 when Sotheby’s announced that it would be auctioning a magnificent hoard of Roman silver of the fourth and fifth centuries AD, “believed to have been discovered in Lebanon in the 1970s”. The treasure was named after the original owner of one of the plates, which is inscribed “Let these, O Sevso, yours for many ages be, small vessels fit to serve your offspring worthily.”
Sotheby’s announcement led to claims by Hungary, Lebanon and Yugoslavia/Croatia, and the auction never took place. The Marquess of Northampton then sued his former London legal advisors, Allen & Overy, and he was awarded a substantial sum. Despite the New York hearings, Hungary has continued to claim ownership, although claims from Lebanon and Croatia do not seem to have been actively pursued. Following the New York case, the treasure was sent to the UK, and since the late 1990s it has been kept in storage in London.
Lawyers acting for Hungary are expected to send strong legal letters to both the Marquess of Northampton and Bonhams, to warn them of serious legal consequences.
Sotheby’s 1990 estimate for the silver was £40m ($75.2m), but if the present legal difficulties are resolved, it could be worth twice that sum.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Bonhams to show Sevso silver'