New twist in Sevso silver saga

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Hungary buys seven pieces from controversial Roman hoard

By Javier Pes and Julia Michalska. Web only
Published online: 28 March 2014

The silver goes on show in Budapest

The Hungarian government has bought seven pieces of silver from the controversial Sevso hoard of Roman artefacts dating from the fourth to the fifth century. Hungary has long claimed the treasure was found in its territory and illegally exported—as has Lebanon and Croatia.

Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian Prime Minister, unveiled the treasure on Wednesday (26 March) at a press conference in parliament in Budapest. He declared: “[It] has always belonged to Hungary. This is Hungary’s family silver.” Hungarian media reports that the government paid €15m to unnamed sellers for the pieces. The treasure will go on show in parliament for the next three months and are destined for the national collection.

This is the latest twist in the complex and at times murky Sevso story. In 1990 Sotheby’s announced that it would be auctioning a magnificent hoard of Roman silver in New York, “believed to have been discovered in Lebanon in the 1970s”. The treasure was named after the original owner of one of the plates, which is inscribed “Let these, O Sevso, yours for many ages be, small vessels fit to serve your offspring worthily.”

Hungary maintains that the treasure was found near Lake Balaton in western Hungary in the 1970s. A young soldier is alleged to have been involved in its secret discovery. He was found dead in 1980. His father and others believed he was murdered. Suicide was the official verdict at the time.

There were 14 pieces on offer in New York, which had been acquired by the Marquess of Northampton in good faith. (The late Sotheby’s director Peter Wilson also had a financial interest in the hoard among others.) The sale was stopped when Lebanon, Croatia and later Hungary contested its ownership. In 1993, a US court ruled that no state can make a claim on the treasure. Due to the contested provenance the pieces have since been difficult to sell.

The artefacts unveiled in Budapest include a pitcher, platter and bowl. A representative for the Marquess of Northampton says it would be “factually incorrect” to describe his client as the vendor of the Sevso pieces to Hungary. When asked if these had been sold by a trust, foundation or organisation set up to administer the silver on his client’s behalf, he says that there are other stakeholders in the hoard besides the British aristocrat, who retains the “best pieces”.

In 2007 we revealed that the hoard could be much larger than 14 pieces and the complete set could include 187 silvergilt spoons, 37 silvergilt drinking cups, and five silver bowls that were available for sale along with known pieces of Sevso silver in the 1980s. This would be consistent with other hoards found across the Roman world.

In 1993 Anna Somers Cocks, the founding editor of The Art Newspaper wrote: “The sad fact is that the origins of those wonderful objects are probably lost for ever; they may never speak to us of the people who owned them so many centuries ago. That page of the world’s history has been torn up and we are all the losers, not just the nation (whichever that might be) within whose frontiers the treasure was secretly discovered.”

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