Renfrew on the Sevso hoard

A detail from the hunting plate, which refers to locations in present-day Hungary
A detail from the hunting plate, which refers to locations in present-day Hungary

Lord Colin Renfrew has offered a comment on the Sevso hoard in the Art Newspaper. He revisits the multi-claimant scramble of a lawsuit which saw three nations attempting to wrest control of the hoard from the investment trust; and we learn perhaps why Hungary only purchased a portion of the silver:

Through his lawyer, Peter Mimpriss of Allen and Overy, Wilson was able to interest the Marquess of Northampton in the silver as a proposition for investment, and by 1987, the Marquess of Northampton 1987 Settlement Trust was the sole owner of what by then was a collection of 14 pieces of impressive Roman silverware. The plan for Sotheby’s to sell the silver by auction in Switzerland in 1990 was halted by the seizure of the treasure on a publicity tour to New York, when Lebanon, and then Hungary and Croatia, laid claim to it in the New York State Supreme Court. The court did not find in favour of either Hungary or Croatia, Lebanon having withdrawn its claim, and the treasure was returned to London to the custody of the Marquess of Northampton. 

It is important to note that the judge did not rule that the marquess was the legal owner, simply that neither Hungary nor Croatia had demonstrated good title. Not surprisingly, the Marquess of Northampton was disappointed by the sale fiasco of his investment, and (with a new lawyer) sued Mimpriss and Allen and Overy, winning a settlement—reportedly of £24m—in 2000. 

In November 2006, the 14 pieces of silver (and the copper container in which they were found) were placed on display at Bonhams auction house for an invited audience. Then the scene went quiet, until the announcement in late March by Victor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister, that seven pieces of the treasure had been successfully repatriated (at a cost of €15m) and put on public display.

The vendors, who are €15m better off, did not include the Marquess of Northampton; the silver was instead sold by a trust. Its beneficiaries are the two sons of the late Peter Wilson, who made the initial, ill-fated purchase in 1980. Ludovic de Walden, the current lawyer of the marquess, indicated last week that the marquess is still the owner of the remaining seven pieces. 

  1. Colin Renfrew, Shame still hangs over the Sevso hoard The Art Newspaper (2014), (last visited Apr 29, 2014).

More on Hungary and the Sevso Treasure

Last week it was revealed that Hungary has purchased seven works out of the “Sevso Hoard” a notorious collection of Roman-era silver whose beauty was matched only by the number of investors and nations of origin scrambling to decide on its disposition. At the time it seemed a bit curious that only a portion of the treasure was purchased. Now Margit Feher reports on Hungary’s Central Bank. It has some funds set aside buy Hungarian art with a 100m Euro fund. Rather than use diplomacy or the courts, it is the market itself which is the vehicle for returning works:

Hungary’s central bank said in January that it plans to spend 100 million euros ($136.8 million) by the end of 2018 on buying Hungarian works of art that have ended up in foreign hands during the country’s eventful history.

Visual art as well as literature plays a core role to define Hungarian identity. The cultivation of a sense of national togetherness is among the main goals of the current government, in which central bank Governor György Matolcsy, a close ally of the prime minister, served as economy minister between 2010 and March 2013.

“Hungarians have survived throughout the ages because they have been feeding on the 1,000-year-old cultural heritage of the Hungarian Kingdom, the statehood, only morsels of which have survived,” said Mária Prokopp, a professor of Medieval and Renaissance Art at the Eötvös Lóránd University in Budapest.

The goal of the central bank’s art program “is to repatriate the highest possible number of major works of art” to protect and treasure the nation’s cultural legacy, the National Bank of Hungary said. It didn’t say how it intended to finance the program that roughly equals three times its operating expenses in 2012.

  1. Margit Feher, Hungary Central Bank to Buy Art, Emerging Europe Real Time (2014).

A portion of the Sevso Treasure going back to Hungary

An image of the Sevso treasure from 1990 in anticipation of sale
An image of the Sevso treasure from 1990 in anticipation of sale

I’ve been alerted by Alex Herman of the Institute of Art & Law that the Sevso Treasure looks finally to be going back to Hungary after over 25 years of negotiations and suits. The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán announced today that Hungary had “reacquired” seven pieces of the Sevso Treasure for €15 million. The objects will be put on public display in Budapest from March 29th.

This remarkable collection of Roman-era silver was perhaps discovered near Lake Balaton on the outskirts of a town named Polgárdi. The collection made it to the art markets in 1980 and the Marquess of Northampton purchased 14 of the pieces. These objects have gone on display irregularly, in efforts to gauge their marketability. In 1983 a portion of the objects was offered for sale to the Getty, but because of the concerns of Arthur Houghton over the export permits offered with the objects, the sale fell through.

The Unveiling of the treasures in Hungary on Wednesday
The Unveiling of the treasures in Hungary on Wednesday

One of the difficulties with using the courts to resolve the dispute over this Silver has been the fact that their origin remains uncertain. Though perhaps Roman in origin, Lebanon, Croatia, and Hungary have all made claims. There was a lengthy series of legal proceedings some years ago—after a 7 week trial in 1993 in the New York Supreme Court (the court of general jurisdiction in New York) a jury found that neither Croatia nor Hungary had established a valid claim over the treasure, and the Marquess of Northampton retained ownership.

These objects are what can be classified as “Orphan objects” in that they have been so removed from their context that their findspot and origins are difficult to determine. One thing the look out for as more details of this reacquisition emerge will the answer to the question of why Hungary only purchased 7 of the objects. Will Croatia buy the remainder? Will Lord Northampton have Hungary’s blessing that legal claims will not be brought against the other objects should they go up for sale? Will Hungary move to acquire the other objects?

  1. Republic of Croatia et al. v. Tr. of the Marquess of Northampton 1987 settlement, 203 A.D. 2d 167 (N.Y. App. Div. 1994).
  2. Anne Laure Bandle, Raphael Contel, Marc-André Renold, “Case Sevso Treasure – Republic of Lebanon et al. v. Marquess of Northampton,” Art-Law Centre – University of Geneva.

Owners of ‘orphaned’ objects find donations difficult now

A detail from one of the Sevso objects, the most
notorious collection of ‘orphaned’ objects

An interesting report in today’s N.Y. Times discusses the difficulty some collectors of antiquities are having when they decide to donate their collections to museums:

But his giving days are largely over, he said, pre-empted by guidelines that most museums now follow on what objects they can accept. “They just won’t take them — can’t take them,” Mr. Dewey said. Alan M. Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor, is in a similar bind. An antiquities collector, he is eager to sell an Egyptian sarcophagus he bought from Sotheby’s in the early 1990s. But he is stymied, he said, because auction houses are applying tighter policies to the items they accept for consignment. “I can’t get proof of when it came out of Egypt,” Mr. Dershowitz said.
The main omission from the report though, is that it only really gives the perspective from the point of view of collectors, without really giving much in the way of the consequences of buying these illicit objects.

There is a collection of reactions which give the perspective of the cultural heritage movement. But one big piece missing from the report involves the tax deductions received for these donations (and I’m pretty sure Neil Brodie and Patty Gerstenblith would have made this known to the authors of the piece).When an illicit object is donated, the donor receives a lucrative tax deduction, which can often exceed its real value. As a consequence the American taxpayer is then subsidizing the illicit antiquities trade, and helping to pay for the continued looting of sites.

I can appreciate the concerns of collectors who have acquired objects without informing themselves of the issues involved in the antiquities trade; who now find themselves surprised to have a very valuable piece of ancient art; and nobody is now willing to accept it as a donation. But this is a necessary consequence of the lack of information given by auction houses and dealers to these folks—especially the buyers who have money, but don’t know what they are actually buying. Some objects may be orphaned, but if the trade itself responds to this correction and pressure exerted on behalf of the owners of these ‘orphans’, then that might very well be worth the costs. Buyers won’t be buying objects if there is no further market for these objects, and the market itself rejects objects without provenance and information.

 Consider as well that many of these objects may not be real to begin with. Without information on an object’s history, we have lost the best most cost-effective means of knowing if an objects is in fact not a fake.

  1. Ralph Blumenthal & Tom Mashberg, Antiquity Market Grapples With Stricter Guidelines for Gifts, N.Y. Times, July 12, 2012.
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On Looting in Lebanon

 It should not really come as a surprise that Lebanon has experienced problems with looting given its rich ancient past, troubled recent past, and location at the crossroads of commerce in the Mediterranean.  It also has a connection with the Sevso Treasure—a forged Lebanese export permit meant that Lebanon intervened in the legal dispute with the Marquess of Northampton,  Croatia, and Hungary.  The Marquess’ Trust retained possession of course, and Lebanon withdrew from the action when the export permit was revealed to be a forgery.

But it also has a rich material heritage.  An anonymous looter tells Rana Moussaoui that:

“I know that these are historical artifacts, but much of the time I don’t know their exact value,” Abu Nayef admitted to AFP in his garden in Baalbeck.

“Sometimes we even move from one piece of land to another through tunnels, if we think we can find new vestiges,” he added.  . . .

“I have a wife and six children to support, and I do so through this business,” he explained.

This problem plagues a number of nations, but Lebanon has had particular difficulty.  Looting became widespread during the civil war between 1975-1990.  Funding for heritage preservation and policing is lacking, and there are a number of important sites.  In what is an otherwise sound article, Moussaoui criticizes the National Museum in Beirut for “showcasing 2,000 archaeological relics” while “hundreds of thousands of other pieces are gathering dust in storage”.  That ratio could probably be found in just about any museum; what goes on display is only the tip of the iceberg.  It may not be fair to criticize Lebanon for what is a common situation all over the World.

Rana Moussaoui, Lebanon’s archaeological sites a pillager’s paradise, AFP Mar.25, 2010.

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Merryman on the Sevso Treasure (UPDATE)

John Henry Merryman has posted a thoughtful, provocative, and surely controversial working paper on SSRN, Thinking about the Sevso Treasure.

Abstract. The Sevso Treasure is an example of what are frequently called “unprovenanced antiquities.” Establishment archaeologists claim that by acquiring and showing them collectors and museums encourage looting, while collectors and museum officials contend that since the works have already been looted, they serve the public interest better if held by a museum or a collector (who may lend them to a museum). The demand for antiquities responds to a normal human interest in acquiring, enjoying and showing them. That demand could be met by a flow of provenanced objects in a licit international market, but retentive source nations, supported by establishment archaeologists, drastically constrict the supply, and an illicit market is the predictable result. Establishment archaeologists’ misguided campaign to have unprovenanced antiquities considered illicit unless proved licit unacceptably reverses the normal order of proof and creates a probatio diabolica. A museum interested in acquiring the Sevso Treasure should be encouraged to do so.

It’s extremely well-written as Prof. Merryman’s articles invariably are. However he sends a shot across the bow of the archaeological establishment, who will surely be quick to respond. The subject of the article is the Sevso treasure, and unprovenanced antiquities. The idea of classifying them as looted until proven otherwise is what Merryman calls a “probatio diabolica” or devil’s proof. He’s right in a sense, however many or all of these objects are more likely looted are they not? It’s a quick and lively read, but surely controversial.

He raises the critique first articulated Paul Bator in his seminal article, that much source regulation produces the opposite of its intended effect. He also argues source nations eliminate the possibility of a licit market in antiquities, using Greece as an example. These are important arguments, and cultural policy makers are still grappling with them. The response from the other side will no doubt be just as lively.

I have to express a bit of disappointment with the article, as it seems likely to further divide folks into the nationalist/internationalist camp, which would seemingly make meaningful discourse more difficult.

He does ask a meaningful question though, and its one without an easy answer: what to do with the treasure now? There has been a jury trial on the merits, and neither Hungary nor Croatia were able to establish ownership in a New York court. The Trust which now owns the treasure has very few options. Should it not be on display somewhere? The likely looting has already taken place. Punishment of the looters is impossible at this point. Is there not some value in displaying or studying the treasure somewhere?


David Gill has read the working paper now as well, and gives a thoughtful response over on his blog. He sees a potential contradiction:

But I find a mismatch in Merryman’s approach. If he argues for our shared culture, does it matter if North American institutions (such as the AIA) and legal courts are in the forefront of protecting world (“cosmopolitan”) heritage? Can North American import restrictions help to reduce the destruction of archaeological sites on, say, Cyprus?

I think this misses Merryman’s core argument. Right or wrong, Merryman follows Paul Bator’s reasoning that source nation regulation actually increases the illicit market. I imagine Merryman would counter that what he calls “retentive” source nation regulation exacerbates the problem, as the desire to collect and display antiquities is a given, and we need to find a licit market to ease demands on the regulation in source nations.

Essentially the two have a fundamental disagreement about how best to proceed: should we construct a licit market, or attempt to prevent individuals from purchasing antiquities. The former would seemingly require a shift in source nation laws, the latter would have to fundamentally alter the market, perhaps ending it entirely. Neither seem to be particularly likely.

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Traprain Law Silver

Last Tuesday evening, I enjoyed a presentation by British Museum archaeologist Dr. Kenneth Painter at Marischal Museum, here in Aberdeen. He provided an interesting and insightful theory on the origins of this Roman silver hoard, which dates from the 5th century AD. His theory was that this silver may have been used as currency to pay Roman mercenaries. Many of these pieces had been cut up, into what is referred to as hacksilver, in specific sizes and amounts. It was a very interesting and insightful presentation, though it was presented in a typical British way, in which the presenter basically reads their paper. I found the discussion much better when he departed from his paper, and engaged the audience during a question and answer session.

There are many Roman hoards of silver which have been discovered all over the UK, and indeed Europe in general. This particular hoard was discovered by excavations in 1919. The state of archeology was much different then than it is today, and not much of the context surrounding the silver was preserved and studied. However, one of Dr. Painter’s comments struck me as quite interesting. Many of these hoards are found in remote areas. This makes sense. The possessor’s of these objects wanted them to remain hidden, and so they buried their silver in the countryside. As a result, the archaeological context surrounding these hoards generally reveals relatively little.

The question then becomes, would much have been discovered if a scientific dig had been conducted wherever the controversial Sevso hoard had been discovered? We’ll never know the answer to that question in all likelihood. In fact, even though Dr. Painter does not have contextual information for the Traprain silver, he at least knows the find-spot, which allows for a surprising amount of speculation, especially when this hoard is compared with others in the UK and Northern Europe. The idea occurs to me though is should there be a sliding scale for antiquities? I’m not up to date on what exactly an archaeological dig can yield, but there must be shades. If a dig is conducted in a city, surely it will reveal more information than if it took place in the countryside? Perhaps then, a case cold be made that the trade in these kinds of antiquities should be liberalized. It seems like a plausible argument, though I’m not sure archaeologists would support it. In any event, the pictures of the Traprain Silver and the other hoards Dr. Painter displayed were fantastic, and the stories and theories about how the silver found its way to Traprain law were really great.

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Sevso Treasure on Private Display

For the last week, the infamous Sevso treasure has been on display in Bonham’s auction house in London. The New York Times devotes an article in its art section to the exhibition. The private exhibition marks only the second time the 14 silver objects have been displayed, and its not even open to the general public. Some estimates value the 14 sculptures at $187 million. The last display occurred in new York in 1990. The silver objects are roman in origin, and are believed to date from 350 – 450 A.D.

Despite their beauty, the antiquities are marred by controversy. This week’s display was certainly made in anticipation of an eventual sale. However, the location, archaeological context and provenance of the find remain unknown. We do know the Marquess of Northampton acquired the objects in the early 1980’s. In 1983, 10 of the objects were offered for sale to the Getty museum, however the sale fell through because the export licenses were falsified.

One of the difficulties with these items is that their origin remains a complete mystery. Though certainly Roman in origin, Lebanon, Croatia, and Hungary have all made claims on the objects. There was a lengthy series of legal proceedings. After a 7 week trial in 1993 in the New York Supreme Court (the court of general jurisdiction in New York) a jury found that neither Croatia nor Hungary had established a valid claim over the treasure, and the Marquess of Northampton retained ownership.

The exhibition and potential sale have caused quite a stir already. In the London Times, Lord Colin Renfrew, former director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research argued that the display of the works by any UK museum would be unethical, and “It is an affront to public decency that a commercial dealer should do so – even if many archaeologists such as myself, will take the opportunity of going to inspect it.” The problem of course, is we know the objects are Roman, but not which part of the former Roman empire they were discovered in. Hungary and Croatia both feel strongly about their claims, but they are unable to establish concrete ownership.

There has been an atmosphere of reform in recent years in the UK, with accession to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, the Ministerial Illicit Trade Advisory Panel, the Parliamentary Inquiry in 2001, and the new Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003. How the UK government will respond to the trade in these objects, which was undoubtedly the result of an illicit excavation should be interesting to watch unfold.

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