€15m deal sets seal on more than three decades of dispute
After more than 30 years of legal wrangling, the Hungarian
government has acquired seven pieces from the Sevso treasure, a
spectacular but controversial hoard of 4th or 5th century
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán unveiled the treasure on
March 26 at a press conference in Budapest describing it as
"Hungary's family silver". The government paid €15m for its half of
a hoard which totals 14 known pieces and was once valued at more
The Sevso treasure takes its name from one of its massive
dishes, the Hunting Plate carrying the Latin inscription:Let
these, O Sevso, yours for many ages be, small vessels fit to serve
your offspring worthily. Perhaps the property of a Roman
general now lost to history, it is late Roman silver at its
The collection first appeared on the London art market in murky
circumstances in 1980, soon making its way into the hands of a
consortium including the retired chairman of Sotheby's, Peter
Wilson, the works of art dealer Rainer Zietz and later Spencer
Compton, Marquess of Northampton. Since that first appearance it
has had a troubled history.
A $10m deal with the Getty Museum in Malibu collapsed over
paperwork irregularities, while the attempt to sell for $50m at
Sotheby's New York in 1990 led a Manhattan judge to impound the
silver after allegations it had been illegally excavated and
smuggled out of its country of origin.
Three claimants believed the treasure had been looted from their
soil: Yugoslavia (who said the silver had been found on the
Serbian-Macedonian border by gypsies), Lebanon (who chose to pursue
the long-held claim that it had been found in the Bekaa Valley) and
the Hungarian government (who argued it came from the Kőszárhegy
After a six-week trial the State Supreme Court in New York found
no clear case for taking the collection away from Northampton, but
it was something of a pyrrhic victory. Cultural patrimony laws and
export regulations had clearly been violated and, his investment in
tatters, the Marquess sued his law firm Allen and Overy for damages
in relation to advice given during the purchase of the silver.
After settling out of court in 1999 for a reported £15m, in
September 2006 Northampton exhibited the treasure privately at
Bonhams in a move seen as a prelude to a sale by private treaty or
by auction at a future date.
The latest twist in the story sees the Hungarian government
acquire seven pieces of the silver (plus the copper cauldron in
which it was buried) from unnamed London owners - thought to
represent the British aristocrat and other stakeholders.
Among the pieces changing hands are the 16in (41cm) high
Dionysiac Ewer, gilded with the revels of Bacchus, and two of the
four vast plates, each up to 2ft 4in (71cm) across and 18lb in
weight, including that with the Sevso inscription. Two geometric
ewers, a covered casket and a basin complete the deal.
The treasure will be on show in the Hungarian parliament for the
next three months and will later join the national collection.
The case for Hungary as the original source of Sevso is
increasingly accepted: the Hunting Plate includes the word Pelso,
the Roman name for Lake Balaton. The Hungarian authorities believe
the hoard was discovered by a young soldier and antiquities
enthusiast, Jószef Sümegh, around 1975-76 near the town of
Polgárdi. Sümegh was found dead in 1980 - his death the subject of
an ongoing criminal investigation.
"Hungary has repossessed the Sevso Treasure," said Prime
Minister Orbán, who added he was satisfied with the price. "Getting
it back cost €15m, which is one third of the previously estimated
repossession expense. The Hungarian party had negotiated well."
It remains to be seen what will happen to the remaining pieces
from Sevso - those owned by Northampton and pieces hitherto unknown
to scholars. Unusually for a 'hoard', no spoons or medallic coins
are known to have accompanied the large tablewares, leading to
ongoing speculation that many other smaller pieces (perhaps more
than 200) remain at large in Swiss bank vaults.
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