Antiquities and Archaeology Comment United Kingdom

Shame still hangs over the Sevso hoard

The recent return of seven of the 14 pieces of Roman silver to Hungary from the UK is a positive development in the find’s sad history

Marcus Linell, a senior director of Sotheby’s, with some of the Sevso hoard before its aborted sale in 1990

It is a relief that the sorry story of the misappropriation of the great treasure of late Roman silverware known as the Sevso hoard now seems to be reaching an acceptable conclusion. A tangled tale of greed and irresponsibility by “collectors” in high places who might have known better, seeking a quick and easy profit and showing little respect for the world’s archaeological heritage, it ends where it presumably began, in Hungary.

For it is to Budapest that the key piece, the Hunting Plate, along with six other major pieces of silverware, has now been returned. The Hunting Plate is crucial, for it bears an inscription referring to its owner, Sevso (from whom the treasure takes its name), as well as a reference to Pelso, the Roman name for Lake Balaton in Hungary, near where the treasure was allegedly found. That now appears to have been the case, although the government of Croatia has not yet withdrawn its claim to ownership.

Mysterious discovery

The treasure seems to have been discovered—the circumstances remain murky—in the 1970s. That the late Peter Wilson, formerly the chairman of Sotheby’s, should have started acquiring pieces of the treasure in 1980 seems odd today, since it was not until 1981 that a Lebanese export permit (later found to be forged) was acquired for the first four pieces that were bought. A buyer with a more suspicious mind would have realised that the treasure must have been looted and must have been exported illegally from its country of origin.

Through his lawyer, Peter Mimpriss of Allen and Overy, Wilson was able to interest the Marquess of Northampton in the silver as a proposition for investment, and by 1987, the Marquess of Northampton 1987 Settlement Trust was the sole owner of what by then was a collection of 14 pieces of impressive Roman silverware. The plan for Sotheby’s to sell the silver by auction in Switzerland in 1990 was halted by the seizure of the treasure on a publicity tour to New York, when Lebanon, and then Hungary and Croatia, laid claim to it in the New York State Supreme Court. The court did not find in favour of either Hungary or Croatia, Lebanon having withdrawn its claim, and the treasure was returned to London to the custody of the Marquess of Northampton.

It is important to note that the judge did not rule that the marquess was the legal owner, simply that neither Hungary nor Croatia had demonstrated good title. Not surprisingly, the Marquess of Northampton was disappointed by the sale fiasco of his investment, and (with a new lawyer) sued Mimpriss and Allen and Overy, winning a settlement—reportedly of £24m—in 2000.

In November 2006, the 14 pieces of silver (and the copper container in which they were found) were placed on display at Bonhams auction house for an invited audience. Then the scene went quiet, until the announcement in late March by Victor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister, that seven pieces of the treasure had been successfully repatriated (at a cost of €15m) and put on public display.

The vendors, who are €15m better off, did not include the Marquess of Northampton; the silver was instead sold by a trust. Its beneficiaries are the two sons of the late Peter Wilson, who made the initial, ill-fated purchase in 1980. Ludovic de Walden, the current lawyer of the marquess, indicated last week that the marquess is still the owner of the remaining seven pieces.

Loss to archaeology

There are several conclusions to be drawn from this unhappy tale. The first is that much crucial archaeological information must have been

lost at the time of the discovery of the treasure. The circumstances of the find remain unclear, although later investigations in Hungary seem to have identified the place where the silver was found. The archaeological associations could have yielded crucial information, which is now lost forever, about the circumstances of burial.

Whether or not it is true, as has been claimed, that another 40 vessels and 187 spoons were also part of the hoard can probably never now be established.

The second rather shocking outcome is that the treasure, after all its unhappy history, has again been divided, with seven pieces in Budapest and seven apparently still in the possession (although, according to the New York judge, not necessarily the legal ownership) of the seventh Marquess of Northampton. Financial expediency wins again, as Europe’s cultural heritage is treated as a mere investment. It is sad that the integrity of this important assemblage of Roman silverware has again been broken.

Sullied reputations

There are other dismal features. The reputation of the late Peter Wilson, and indeed of Sotheby’s, does not come well out of this unseemly episode. The government of Hungary has had to pay €15m to repatriate what was presumably its own property in the first place. The law firm Allen and Overy was obliged, in 2000, to pay £24m to the marquess, in a settlement that certainly did not enhance its reputation (nor his own). And the unfortunate marquess is probably not in overall profit, after paying substantial legal fees to his succession of lawyers, and is still in possession of seven pieces of silver that are probably now unsaleable.

For Croatia has not yet protested about the recent export from England of the seven pieces to Hungary, undertaken with an export licence from the UK government. If Croatia were to relinquish its claim, Hungary might well be able to reassert its own claim as the sole remaining claimant to the pieces still in the possession of the marquess. Certainly it would now be difficult for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport to grant an export licence for these remaining seven pieces if their destination were anywhere other than Hungary.

Still, to look on the bright side, seven of the most important pieces of Roman silverware in the world are now on display in Budapest. There, the Latin motto on the Hunting Plate can still be read:

“Let these, O Sevso, yours for many ages be/Small vessels fit to serve your offspring worthily”.

And it is an ill wind that does nobody any good: the restoration of at least a part of Hungary’s cultural heritage in March did no damage at all to the standing of Prime Minister Orbán, who secured a second term in the election held on 6 April.

Colin Renfrew is a British archaeologist, academic and member of the House of Lords


A detail of the Hunting Plate
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