Hungary takes control of half of Sevso silver

Budapest government strengthens claim for rest of long-disputed hoard after handing over €15m



The Hungarian government is hoping to obtain the rest of the Sevso treasure, a spectacular trove of Roman silver, after acquiring half the pieces. At the end of March, Prime Minister Victor Orbán unveiled seven masterpieces from the hoard, which has only been displayed in public for one day (at Sotheby’s New York in 1990). The remaining seven items are owned by UK-based Lord Northampton.

The silver, which dates from the fourth century AD, has been in limbo for nearly 35 years, having been hidden away after being claimed by Hungary, Croatia and Lebanon. The 14 pieces of a Roman banqueting set surfaced in 1980, with no authenticated provenance. Without the legal issues, their market value would now be around £100m.

Orbán described the treasure as having come “home”. It had not been bought, according to the Hungarians, although a “retention fee” of €15m was paid to the holders. Orbán said: “It has always been the property of the state of Hungary… we haven’t paid a purchase price, that’s the important thing. But we had to get our hands on it somehow.” The announcement was made just before Hungary’s parliamentary election and may have bolstered support for Orbán, whose government was re-elected.

Seven pieces have been acquired by Hungary: the Hunting (Sevso) Plate, the Geometric Plate, two Geometric Ewers, the Basin, the Casket and the Dionysiac Ewer. Hungary also got the copper cauldron in which the silver was discovered.

The Art Newspaper can reveal that the pieces sold to Hungary belonged to a trust, the beneficiaries of which are the two sons of Peter Wilson, a former chairman of Sotheby’s who died in 1984. They are Philip (who runs an art publishing imprint) and Thomas.

A statement from the government says that “consecutive Hungarian governments negotiated with the owners of the Sevso treasure several times, albeit unsuccessfully”. The hurdle was the “exorbitant” price asked—“tens of billions of forints” (to give an idea, 30bn forints is £80m).

Serious negotiations began a year ago, led by János Lázár, the state secretary in the prime minister’s office, and László Baán, the director of the Szepmuveszeti Muzeum in Budapest. The fee was bargained down, and the payment of €15m was secretly approved by the Hungarian cabinet in late February. A UK export licence was granted (the silver had been in the country for fewer than 50 years, so it was not eligible for deferral). The treasure was transported to Budapest on 21 March, guarded by counter-terrorism officers.

Murky history

The tangled tale of the Sevso silver begins in 1980, when the first pieces surfaced with a trio of dealers from Serbia, Lebanon and the UK. These were sold to Peter Wilson. He was later offered more, but lacked the capital and went into partnership with Lord Northampton. In 1984, some of the treasure was sent to the Getty Museum in California on approval, but without authenticated documentation. The Getty did not buy the pieces.

Lord Northampton then formed a Guernsey-registered body known as the Trustee of the Marquess of Northampton 1987 Settlement. This had two beneficiaries, described as “Abraham” (the Wilson interest) and “Xylander” (the Northampton interest).

Sotheby’s was instructed to sell the silver, and it was sent from London to New York for display in 1990. The auction house then stated that the treasure was “believed to have been discovered in Lebanon in the 1970s”. After one day on show, it was taken off view, since this had led to legal claims from the governments of Hungary, Yugoslavia (Croatia, after its breakaway in 1991) and Lebanon, which led to the cancellation of the proposed auction in Zurich. Lebanon later withdrew its claim, and a New York court ruled in 1993 that there was insufficient evidence to prove that the treasure had been excavated in Hungary or Croatia. The silver was then returned to London.

The legal controversy made it impossible to sell the silver, and Lord Northampton took action against his solicitors, Allen & Overy, arguing that they had advised him badly. An out-of-court settlement was reached in 1999, and he is believed to have been paid around £24m in compensation.

The next development came in 2006, when the Sevso treasure was put on display in a one-day exhibition at Bonhams in London. This exclusive event was by invitation only.

What has not been previously reported is that Wilson’s sons and Lord Northampton then fell out, and the hoard was divided in 2008. The Wilsons’ trust received seven items and the cauldron, with Lord Northampton retaining the remaining seven (which represent around 60% in financial terms). To add to the potential complications, it is not known whether Lord Northampton’s fifth (and now former) wife, Pamela Haworth, received a share in the treasure as part of last year’s £17m divorce settlement.

Having acquired the Wilson share, the Hungarian government is now keen on obtaining the more important Northampton silver. Orbán said: “We are working on that… it should be in our possession.” Lord Northampton’s lawyer, Ludovic de Walden, has always disputed Hungary’s claim as “baseless”.

It is now up to Lord Northampton whether he effectively sells the silver to Hungary or retains it. But it will be difficult for him to sell it elsewhere for its market value, since Hungary will argue that its acquisition of the Wilson share strengthens its claim. Were the Northampton silver to be sold elsewhere, the Hungarian government would explore every legal avenue available—and there could be complications in getting a UK export licence.

Suicide or murder?

The Hungarian government claims that the treasure was discovered in the mid-1970s, near Polgárdi, not far from Lake Balaton. The finder is said to have been Jozsef Sümegh, an amateur archaeologist. He was found hanged in a cellar in 1980, although it remains unclear if this was suicide or murder.

Among the evidence for the Hungarian origin of the silver is the large Hunting Plate, which has a dedication to the owner, Sevso, and the word “Pelso”, the Latin word used for Lake Balaton. However, others believe that Pelso could be the name of the dog depicted in the hunting scene. The Hungarians point to similarities between the Sevso silver and the Polgárdi Quadripod, which was discovered in the town in 1873 and is now in the Hungarian National Museum. Some experts believe that Roman items currently in Switzerland could also be part of the Sevso hoard, although this has not been confirmed.

The seven pieces of treasure now in Hungary are on show in the parliament building in Budapest. In July, they are expected to go on permanent display in the Hungarian National Museum. Philip Wilson told The Art Newspaper: “My father’s original intention was to keep the hoard together, but he would have been pleased that half the pieces have gone to a national museum.”

Ludovic de Walden confirms that Lord Northampton bought into the Sevso silver to “recoup and substantially enhance his investment”, and that it was always intended to be sold on. “That objective has not changed as far as Lord Northampton is concerned,” he says.