The Sevso treasure was shown in a “private display” at Bonhams last month, allowing most specialists the first opportunity to see the fourth and fifth century Roman silver since its discovery more than 25 years ago.
Security was tight, but visitors were able to view the magnificent plates (among the largest surviving Roman pieces), ewers and other items without the barrier of glass cases. Altogether several hundred invited academics, curators, collectors and dealers attended on 17 October or on the fortnight of the view. Although Hungary has a legal claim on the 14 pieces of silver, its response to the show proved to be relatively mute.
A 120-page catalogue was published by Bonhams (£50). No author is given, but it was prepared by its antiquities specialist Joanna van der Lande. She argues that the treasure is from a single hoard, despite the varying ages of the pieces, and that its excellent state of conservation may well be the result of it being hidden in antiquity in a limestone cave.
Last month Bonhams gave us a categorical assurance that it had no plans to sell the treasure, either at auction or in a private sale (October 2006, pp. 1,2). By the time of the display, however, it was obvious that offers would be welcome.
Bonhams chairman Robert Brooks told us at the opening: “The Marquis of Northampton has made it clear that it is his intention to sell the treasure. I’ve not been asked to sell it at this stage, but my instructions could change.” Lord Northampton’s lawyer, Ludovic de Walden, pointed out that his client needs the money to set up an endowment to maintain Castle Ashby, the family seat.
The hurdle is that Hungary claims the silver, arguing that it was illegally excavated and exported before its appearance in the early 1980s.
At the opening, Mr Brooks commented: “Whatever the solution, it cannot be right that the treasure is locked away in perpetuity. Something needs to happen. I am most happy that Sevso and the issues are being talked about.” The silver had previously only been displayed for one day, when it was put on show at Sotheby’s in New York in 1990, valued at up to $100m, before legal action closed it down.
In the end, Hungary’s reaction to the Bonhams display was low-key, in the form of a letter to Mr Brooks. Budapest’s Ministry of Education and Culture stated that the treasures are “the property of the Hungarian state, therefore we...shall take every possible legal steps”. However, no detailed formal claim was submitted and Hungarian officials were reticent in fielding press inquiries.
Mr de Walden responded that it is “inappropriate for the Hungarian Government to make continuing baseless claims of title in circumstances where its case was dismissed after a full trial and after three levels of appeal, all of which failed”. This occurred in New York in the early 1990s. Claims by Lebanon and Yugoslavia/Croatia were also initiated, but these failed, and have not been pursued.
Hungary, however, has continued to argue that the Sevso treasure comes from its territory, pointing out that one similar piece was found there in 1873 and that the word “Pelso”, the Roman name for Lake Balaton, is engraved on one of the Sevso pieces.
The involvement of Bonhams has caused considerable surprise, since its head of antiquities, Joanna van der Lande, was a member of the UK government’s Advisory Panel on Illicit Trade. In its report, in 2000, the Sevso silver is stated to have been “illegally excavated and/or exported”, and the hoard is described as “perhaps the most outstanding example of an unprovenanced find to have appeared in London in recent years”.
The display, and sales opportunity, also appears to contravene the code of conduct of the British Art Market Federation, of which Bonhams is a member. Their principles state that “members undertake not to purchase, sell or offer any item of property that they know has been stolen, illegally exported, or illegally excavated”. Although there is no uncontested evidence of where the Sevso hoard was found, there is no modern state in lands once forming the Roman Empire that would have allowed the export of the treasure in the 1970s.
Most members of the Advisory Panel on Illicit Trade oppose a Sevso sale, and Professor Norman Palmer, who was the panel chairman (until it was wound up in 2004), is subsequently advising the Hungarian government on its claim.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Bonhams U-turn on Sevso silver'