The astonishing Sevso Treasure, as pictured by Sotheby’s when it was put up for sale in 1990. It includes 14 silver objects.

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Bonhams are to stage a private exhibition of the Sevso Treasure, among the most valuable and controversial treasures surviving from the ancient world. The 14 pieces of late Roman plate have not been seen in public since 1990 when they were impounded at Sotheby's New York amid unproved allegations that they had been illegally excavated and exported from their country of origin.

After months of secret negotiations, Bonhams sent out invitations earlier this month to museum curators, academics and serious collectors to view the treasure - the property of Spencer Douglas David Compton, Marquess of Northampton - at Bonhams Bond Street on October 17. Selected press will also be invited to view the hoard, and leading academics in the field will give lectures, but the general public will not be given access to the display.

The private reception will also occasion the publication of a new full colour catalogue, produced by Joanna van der Lande, head of antiquities at Bonhams, with the help of regular ATG columnist Richard Falkiner.

It was Mr Falkiner who, on November 15, 1980, was invited to assess a recently excavated silver ewer that had appeared on the London market - the beginning of tale that includes a magnificent discovery in mysterious circumstances, a multi-million dollar deal, forged export papers, a rich British aristocrat and a plethora of legal claims and counterclaims.

The reappearance of Sevso after more than a decade reportedly locked in a bank vault in the Channel Islands adds a further chapter to the story. News of the exhibition will gratify those who hold that, while questions will ever remain regarding its archaeological context and provenance, such an important survival should be made available to a wider audience. It is also likely to upset those who feel that, at a time when the trade in ancient artefacts faces a fight on many fronts, this is an unwelcome spotlight for the antiquities trade.

Whichever side of the argument individuals come down on, one thing is sure: Bonhams' academic exhibition will be the talk of the town and beyond.

The Marquess of Northampton's motives may also extend beyond a public-spirited gesture to put on show his £100m hoard. Thirteen years ago, in the wake of a three-year investigation, a New York court decided he had proper title to the treasure. Exhibiting Sevso privately in London would seem to demonstrate his desire to test the temperature of the water within the European community and firm up his title should a public sale be considered sometime in the future.

By Roland Arkell


A magnificent discovery, a multi-million dollar deal, forged export papers, a rich British aristocrat and a plethora of legal claims and counterclaims. Sevso is the stuff of a Dan Brown novel.

It was back in 1980 when a remarkable silver ewer appeared on the London market on approval from two antiquities dealers from Vienna, Halim Korban, a Lebanese, and his partner the Greek and Roman coin dealer Anton Tkalec, a Yugoslav Serb. It was ATG columnist Richard Falkiner who identified the vessel as 4th or 5th century Roman.

Other pieces from what appeared to be a recently discovered hoard were slowly drip-fed to the market, each one acquired by a consortium that included the retired chairman of Sotheby's, Peter Wilson, the antiquities and works of art dealer Rainer Zietz and later Spencer Douglas David Compton, Marquess of Northampton.

The story was that the treasure had been found in the Tyre and Sidon regions of Lebanon, and documentation from the Lebanese Embassy in Switzerland was duly provided. It was this documentation that convinced Northampton and his partners to buy a total of 14 pieces, with the recently established Getty Museum in Malibu, California considered a probable future buyer.

The Sevso Treasure - so-called because one of the massive dishes carries the Latin inscription: Let these, O Sevso, yours for many ages be, small vessels fit to serve your offspring worthily - is late Roman silver at its swaggering best. Thought to be the property of a Roman general now lost to history, it includes four vast plates, up to 2ft 4in (71cm) across and 18lb in weight. The 16in (41cm) high Dionysiac Ewer is gilded with the revels of Bacchus while the ten-sided Animal Ewer is worked in niello with 120 hexagonal panels on the theme of wild animals and the hunt. Unusually for a 'hoard', no spoons or medallic coins are known to have accompanied the large tablewares, leading to ongoing speculation that other pieces remain at large in Swiss bank vaults.

At the time, a price in excess of $10m had been agreed in principle by the Getty, only for negotiations to break down when a deputy curator noticed inconsistencies in the Lebanese licences. They turned out to be forgeries.

So where had the Sevso silver come from? In 1990, when Sotheby's announced they would sell the "most important Late Antique silver ever to be offered publicly for sale" on behalf of the Marquess of Northampton, the catalogue said it had been discovered "in what was once the province of Phoenicia in the Eastern Roman Empire"- now Lebanon. However, when the decision was taken to move the treasure to litigious New York for a $50m sale in the autumn, the governments of close to 30 countries whose territory had once made up the Roman Empire were notified as a matter of due diligence.

The appeal resulted in three claimants who believed the treasure had been illegally excavated from their soil: Yugoslavia (who believed the silver had been found on the Serbian-Macedonian border by gypsies), Lebanon (who chose to pursue the claim that the treasure had been smuggled out of the Bekaa Valley) and the Hungarian government (who propagated the rumour that the treasure was found in 1978 by a quarry worker near Lake Balaton). The worker and two of his confidents were subsequently murdered, they said, and a critical piece of its cultural patrimony lost.

It was enough to persuade a Manhattan judge to impound the silver and conduct an investigation. At the same time New Scotland Yard opened a number of lines of enquiry in the belief that more of the treasure was still at large. However, with the archaeological context lost and scientific evidence proving inconclusive, establishing impeccable title turned out to be impossible. In November 1993, in the wake of a six-week trial, the State Supreme Court in New York rejected the claims of Lebanon, Hungary and Croatia and found no case for taking the collection away from Northampton.

It was, however, something of a pyrrhic victory. There was a general assumption that someone's cultural patrimony laws and export regulations had been violated and, locked in a Channel Islands bank vault, the treasure was now going to be hard to sell. His investment in tatters, the Marquess sued his law firm Allen and Overy for damages in relation to their advice given during the purchase of the silver. The case was settled out of court in 1999. That was the last we heard of Sevso until now…