A “ONCE-in-a-century” discovery of Renaissance silver has been bought by the French State for 1.4m euros – less than a week before it was due to go on sale at Sotheby’s in Paris.
The 31-piece trove was unearthed on November 11, 2006 in
Pouilly-sur-Meuse, a tiny village in Lorraine (north-east France)
by a middle-aged man digging in his garden to create a well to
drain off flood water from the nearby River Meuse.
When he first stumbled across the silver he thought the gleaming
items were "tins of cat food"… but soon realised something tastier
The disparate ensemble - cups, beakers, salts, spoons and a ewer
- spanned the period 1480-1570, with pieces made in Paris
(1480-1530) and three cities of eastern France: Châlons (1520-50),
Rheims (c.1550) and Strasbourg (1560-67).
Under French law, "treasure" is defined as "a hidden or buried
object discovered by chance, to which no person can claim due
title" and belongs to whoever discovers it, providing he/she is the
owner of the land where the discovery is made; if they're not,
ownership of the treasure is shared 50-50 with the land-owner.
If the treasure is not discovered "by chance" - say, if a metal
detector is used - it belongs exclusively to the owner of the
After making his momentous discovery, the Pouilly gardener
alerted his village mayor who, in turn, contacted the local museum
in Bar-le-Duc. Lorraine's Director of Cultural Affairs was called
in, then the Louvre, resulting in the Musées de France (national
museums agency) offering 2m euros to acquire the ensemble. But when
they proved unable to raise either this sum, or a revised offer of
1.4m euros, the exasperated digger approached Sotheby's, and a sale
was slated for November 9.
The trove was described by Thierry de Lachaise, head of silver
at Sotheby's France, as "in remarkable condition despite spending
400 years in the ground". Lachaise believes it was buried around
1590, when Pouilly, halfway between Protestant Sedan and Catholic
Verdun, was caught in the cross-fire during the Wars of
"Discoveries like this rarely occur more than once a century,"
added Lachaise. In fact, only three other treasure troves of
comparable importance have ever been found in France. The most
notable, discovered at Gaillon in the Seine Valley in 1851,
consisted of 14th century silver from Paris, Rouen, Amiens and
Montpellier - now split between the V&A, the Hermitage, the
Louvre and the Musée de Cluny in Paris.
The Pouilly Treasure includes three lots of outstanding
importance: a parcel-gilt silver-covered ewer with a Paris maker's
mark dating from before 1507, making it the oldest hallmarked Paris
ewer known; a pair of parcel-gilt silver stacking beakers and
cover, bearing the Strasbourg hallmark of Dietrich Brey
(c.1527-98); and a set of 12 parcel-gilt silver spoons with the
Châlons hallmark (c.1520), of note because cutlery sets "by the
dozen" - a number inspired by the Last Supper - were not previously
thought to have been made in France before 1680.
None of the items are engraved with coats-of-arms, but three
feature an NB monogram, doubtless referring to the name inscribed
on the base of the ewer (N BESCHOFER).
Meanwhile, on April 29, 2009, the ensemble was classified as a
French National Treasure - giving the State a further 30 months to
make an offer for it, with an export ban in force during that
Sotheby's planned to offer the silver in ten lots, to be
auctioned first individually, then re-offered as an ensemble. As
six of the ten came with "estimates on request", it is hard to say
just how high Sotheby's expectations were but, despite the
provisional export ban, they reported "lots of foreign interest",
notably from Belgium, Holland and the UK.
Then, on November 3, just six days before the sale, it was
announced that the State, after finding extra funding through (so
far anonymous) corporate sponsorship, had managed to stump up the
1.4m euros for which the vendor was willing to sell.
"As a Sotheby's expert, I'm a bit disappointed we didn't auction
it," admitted Lachaise. "But, as a Frenchman, I'm delighted this
exceptional ensemble will remain intact and be on show to the
After examination and restoration by the Musées de France, it
will go on permanent display at the Musée Lorrain in Nancy, one of
the largest museums in eastern France, in 2011.
By Simon Hewitt