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Sevso silver

Questions arise surrounding legitimacy of items thought to be part of supposedly incomplete Sevso silver hoard

Documents seen by The Art Newspaper reveal that five bowls, 37 cups and 187 spoons were offered with the 14 pieces which make up the Roman treasure

London/Budapest

The Sevso treasure, the most spectacular hoard of Roman silver ever discovered, may be incomplete. Documents seen by The Art Newspaper reveal that “187 silvergilt spoons, 37 silvergilt drinking cups, and 5 silver bowls” were available for sale along with the 14 known pieces of Sevso silver in the 1980s. These additional objects have never been seen publicly and their existence has hitherto been unknown.

We have also confirmed that in 1988, five years after the Getty Museum turned down ten known objects from the Sevso hoard over concerns about the Lebanese export licences accompanying the silver, the museum was privately shown another silver plate by two US dealers. Known as the “Chi-rho” plate because of an engraving of the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek, it was described by the dealers as part of the Sevso hoard. The museum did not buy it.

These revelations come as the Marquess of Northampton has declared his intention to sell the 14 pieces of fourth and fifth-century AD silver he acquired in the 1980s which comprise the known Sevso hoard. These were shown privately at Bonhams in London last October after 16 years in storage.

The proposed sale has angered archaeologists since Hungary has long argued that the Sevso hoard was discovered in the Lake Balaton area and was illegally exported.

Lord Northampton’s previous attempt to sell the silver through Sotheby’s in 1990 resulted in the hoard being impounded in New York as Hungary, Yugoslavia and Lebanon filed suits arguing that the treasure had been discovered in their territory and illicitly exported. Lebanon dropped its claim before the case came to trial largely because the Lebanese export licences which accompanied the silver had been found to be fake. In November 1993, after years of litigation, the New York Supreme Court ruled that Hungary and Yugoslavia had failed to produce sufficient evidence and dismissed their claims. No legal challenge to the Marquess’s title has been made since.

The Marquess of Northampton later sued his former London legal advisors, Allen & Overy, for damages in relation to advice given during the purchase of the silver. The claim was settled by payment of an undisclosed sum believed to be around £25m.

But the question of where the silver had been discovered and under what circumstances remain unresolved, making the story of the Sevso hoard one of the longest running mysteries in the art world.

New evidence

The papers seen by The Art Newspaper include a document from Halim Korban, the Lebanese dealer who sold the Sevso hoard in installments to Rainer Zietz, a German-born London-based dealer and Peter Wilson, former chairman of Sotheby’s, on behalf of Anton Tcalek, a Yugoslav Serb based in Vienna.

The document is addressed to Guernroy Ltd, a division of the Royal Bank of Canada in Guernsey, which provided Lord Northampton with the funding to become a third partner in the Sevso investment and also funded his purchase of additional pieces of silver.

The undated document states: “We hereby guarantee the following for...future purchases:...Delivery of the remaining silver objects from the hoard (187 silvergilt spoons, 37 silvergilt drinking cups, and 5 silver bowls)... Guernroy Ltd shall have the first option to buy these objects from us in the future.” The document is in the name of Halim Korban and his company Hadrian Trading Co. Ltd.

A second document seen by The Art Newspaper, is a letter dated 6th April 1987 from the Guernsey-based Ferico Trust Ltd to “Ramiz Risk, Esq., P.O. Box 8, Brummana, Lebanon” which states: “Dear Mr Risk, as Trustees of the Marquess of Northampton 1987 Settlement, we authorise you to obtain legal export licences from the Lebanon for various pieces of silver which have been purchased for the Trust.” The letter continues: “We agree to forward you up to US$500,000 for these licences.” It then refers to the additional pieces of Sevso silver: “You have also agreed to obtain export licences for the remainder of the hoard which we understand to be various cups and spoons, at a price under half the cost of the first three licences.”

Richard Hobbs, a British Museum curator who has examined around 2,000 Roman hoards found across the Roman world, says: “It is not surprising to discover that there are allegedly additional pieces to the Sevso hoard. The 14 known pieces of silver consist of tableware for dining and vessels which would have been used for washing or storing ointments. The spoons, cups, and bowls would complete the set.”

Yet more Sevso silver?

In addition to the objects listed in these documents, other silver objects said to come from the Sevso hoard are on the market. We have confirmed that in 1988 the so-called “Chi-rho” plate was privately shown and offered to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles by two US dealers who described it as part of the Sevso hoard. The museum did not buy it.

The plate reportedly takes its name from an engraving of the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek letters at its centre. A Chi-rho symbol also appears on the Hunting Plate, one of the 14 known pieces of Sevso silver.

Northampton’s response

In a statement to The Art Newspaper, Ludovic De Walden of the London law firm Lane & Partners which represents Lord Northampton’s trust, said: “So far as the Trustee [Lord Northampton] is concerned, there is no direct evidence now or before of there being any pieces forming part of the Sevso hoard beyond the 14 pieces owned by the Trustee and the bronze cauldron which contained the 14 pieces. There have been rumours of additional pieces since Peter Wilson and Peter Mimpriss [of Allen & Overy] first invited Lord Northampton to participate in the acquisition of the treasure in late 1981. However, nothing beyond the 14 pieces has ever been produced as definitely forming part of the Sevso hoard and certainly nothing further has been purchased by the Trustee.”

“The only exception are the silver horse roundels which were bought before Lord Northampton had participated in the acquisition of the treasure but which Mr Korban subsequently confirmed were unconnected with the Sevso hoard. Although a silver patten dish was offered and shown by Mr Korban in March 1988, there was no direct evidence at all to show that it was part of the Sevso hoard and in any event it was not purchased.”

“The scheme for all the export licence issues was organised by Allen & Overy with their client Ramiz Rizk. In March 1987, Peter Mimpriss had advised that it may be possible and cheaper to obtain a type of ‘block licence’ in Lebanon to cover not only the export of the four pieces which the Trustee was acquiring but also the export of any other pieces which might exist and which the Trustee might buy if they existed and were offered. However, notwithstanding any undated pro forma invoice [the undated “Guarantee”] from Hadrian Trading to Guernroy which you have referred to (but not shown me), Mr Korban confirmed in June 1987 that the Sevso hoard consisted only of the 14 pieces and the cauldron. That remains the Trustee’s belief which is supported by scientific and scholastic evidence.”

Disclosure?

An Early Day Motion on the Sevso treasure has been tabled in Parliament by the Conservative MP Tim Loughton and signed by 48 MPs. This calls for “the Trustee of the Marquess of Northampton 1987 Settlement and the government of the Republic of Hungary to refer all available evidence on the origin, provenance and recent movement of the silver to an independent expert evaluation charged with identifying on the balance of probabilities the country of origin of the silver.” It also calls for the Sevso hoard not to be sold until this independent assessment has taken place.

Writing in this newspaper, Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, reiterates the call for an independent investigation and calls for the publication of any evidence disclosed to it.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The silver missing from the Sevso hoard?'