The trouble with treasure

October 15, 1999

In 1990, Sotheby's in New York announced that it was to auction on behalf of the Marquess of Northampton a spectacular collection of silver, known as the Sevso treasure. The name derived from a Latin inscription on one of the large plates that read: "Let these, O Sevso, yours for many ages be, small vessels fit to serve your offspring wonderfully."

The rare and beautiful collection comprised 14 large items of 4th-century Roman silverware, including wine ewers and elaborately engraved plates.

The marquess had acquired them in Switzerland in the 1980s through the late Peter Wilson, chairman of Sotheby's, as an investment. It was, according to one expert who inspected the hoard, "the most remarkable group of objects I'd seen outside a museum".

To ensure that the collection, which had turned up unprovenanced and unrecorded, had not been stolen or illegally excavated, Sotheby's sent out detailed letters to several countries that had once formed part of the Roman Empire. Eventually, Lebanon, which, torn by civil war, had provided fake export licences for the pieces, Hungary and Croatia all claimed that the silver had been illegally excavated and smuggled out of their countries. One of the dishes bears an inscription with the geographical term for the Latin name of Lake Balaton in Hungary.

After a long dispute, a New York judge decided that none of the three countries could prove impeccable title and so no case was established for taking the collection from the marquess. The fate of the Sevso treasure has yet to be decided by Lord Northampton.

The long-term effect of the case would seem likely to make antiquities collectors wary of anything without a good 19th-century provenance, but not everyone is convinced this will be the result.

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