Sir, A decade ago the antiquities market in London was, in effect, unregulated — one former minister described it as a “thieves’ kitchen”.
Since then the UK has ratified the 1970 Unesco Convention on Illicit Antiquities, and Parliament has passed the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003, and one hoped that matters had significantly improved.
However, Bonhams the auctioneer has this week put on display at its galleries in Bond Street the Sevso Treasure, one of the most notorious assemblages of antiquities without known provenance to surface in recent years.
Had these 14 pieces of late Roman silver been dug up after 2003, to offer such antiquities for sale would possibly be an offence under the Act, at any rate if the present owner knew from what country they had been exported.
In the mid-1990s a court in New York awarded possession to the current owner, the Marquess of Northampton. However, this was because the claimants, the governments of Hungary, Lebanon and Croatia, whose land was part of the Roman Empire, had not made a sufficient case for the silver. Therefore, I believe that the matter of rightful ownership is still fully to be clarified. The Hungarian Government still claims the Sevso Silver and is pursuing the matter.
Presumably the British Government would find it difficult to grant an export licence for the Sevso Silver if there were any move to export it, yet for any museum in Britain to put it on view would offend the Museum Association’s code of ethics. 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.
Is it not now time that the marquess tried to determine from which country it was originally exported, apparently without legal export permit, and took steps to return it to its land of origin?
EMERITUS PROFESSOR LORD RENFREW OF KAIMSTHORN
McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research