A glimpse of the Sevso Treasure
On Tuesday I had what may well be a once in a life-time experience. I went to see probably the most exquisite of all surviving collections of Roman silver, the so-called “Sevso Treasure”. It had been brought out of hiding in its vault for a brief appearance on show in the galleries at Bonham’s Auction House in London. It wasn’t exactly a public viewing, but invitations had at least been issued to academics as well as the rich art crowd. The scruffy dons mixed with the elegant city-types and assorted toffs with the kind of friendliness that usually accompanies free-flowing champagne.
Stunning as it is, the Sevso Treaure is a very sad case. It’s the archaeological equivalent of a rejected asylum seeker, or (in the eyes of some) an illegal immigrant. It’s an antiquity with no passport.
The story is complicated. As the catalogue of this exhibition explains, more than twenty years ago these fourteen extraordinary pieces of late Roman silver (ranging from vast ewers to elaborately decorated plates – including one carrying the name “Sevso”) were bought by a consortium headed by the Marquess of Northampton. They had supposedly been discovered in Lebanon and came with a Lebanese export licence (which was later agreed to be a forgery). When the Marquess tried to sell the stuff in New York a decade later, three separate challenges to his legal ownership appeared: from Lebanon, Croatia and Hungary. Lebanon withdrew before the case came to the American courts – which then rejected the rival claims of Croatia and Hungary.
This left the Marquess in possession, but mud had stuck to the objects. Amongst other things, the forged export licence is enough to make it hard, if not impossible, for any mainstream public museum to put on display, let alone buy, the treasure (all museums now insist that their purchases are properly provenanced). And it is probably enough to put off most private buyers too. All kinds of theories circulate about where these extraordinary objects might have been found (or where they might have been made – not necessarily the same thing). But there is no incontrovertible evidence on any side.
The upshot is that these marvellous pieces of Roman craftsmanship are for the most part consigned to the limbo of a dark vault somewhere. Maybe the Bonham’s show is an attempt to test the water of public respectability (the archaeological equivalent of Camilla Parker-Bowles’s first public outings). But the most likely upshot is that they will go back into hiding for the foreseeable future – a victim of irresoluble legal and moral controversy.
I overheard one academic muttering on Tuesday that it would probably have been better if they had never been discovered. I see the point, but there must be some way round the impasse.