That is essentially worthless? That is the question facing the Marquess of Northampton, the supposed owner of the "Sevso Treasure". Although the Marquess bought the astonishing collection of Roman silver in the 1980s as an investment, it cannot be sold because there is no provenance for it. Hungary has claimed it rightfully belongs to them (as have Lebanon and Yugoslavia), but a US court ruled the silver legally belonged to the marquess. Now the collection is being displayed at a British auction house, fueling speculation that the marquess is trying to sell it.
One of the most beautiful and infamous treasure hoards of the 20th century, 14 pieces of Roman-era silver of staggering quality, will resurface today on display in London, to the consternation of leading archaeologists who regard it as archaeological loot.
Although Bonhams auction house, which will display the Sevso Hoard, insists no sale is planned, the Marquess of Northampton who bought the silver for an undisclosed sum in the 1980s recently said he "hopes" the silver will be sold, and that it has "cursed" his family. It now belongs to a trust he founded.
But the Hungarian government has written to Bonhams to protest at the exhibition and reiterate its claim that the silver was found on Hungarian soil and illegally exported from the country.
Lord Renfrew, retired professor of archaeology at Cambridge, an expert on illicit antiquities, said: "It looks very much as if it is being touted about again. Whether anyone can actually prove it, it is pretty sure that it was looted, and as such it ranks as tainted goods. This is very distasteful."
The Sevso Treasure, with a notional value of more than £100m, had probably already passed through the hands of several dealers before it came to London in the early 1980s, and was bought by the marquess on the advice of the late Peter Wilson, a former deputy chairman of the auction firm Sotheby's.
It is believed by many archaeologists to have been illicitly excavated in Hungary and smuggled out of the country in the late 1970s, and to have cost the life of at least one man. It was last seen in public in 1990, when a planned Sotheby's auction was abandoned after Hungary, Yugoslavia and Lebanon all claimed but failed to prove ownership through the US courts, which found that the marquess was the legal owner.
There is speculation that a quarry worker in Hungary unearthed the treasure then sold it on the black market. That man died in what was originally thought a suicide. The Hungarian government is now convinced he was murdered to hide the origin of the silver. (Sounds like a movie plot, doesn't it?)
Anyway, here's a photograph of the treasure. It is an amazing collection. Here's an article in the Atlantic about the "curse" of the Sevso silver. They hint darkly at three murders. This reads suspiciously like a remake of a classic to me. Maltese Falcon, anyone? Perhaps they should get Sam Spade on the case instead of Scotland Yard.