The Sevso story gets murkier and murkier. For the archaeologist and, indeed, for the general public the scandal of clandestine and presumably illegal excavation is, above all, the loss of information. We learn about the human past when artefacts like the late Roman silver vessels of the Sevso Treasure are found from the context of their discovery. We need to know exactly how a find was made, in what context, and with what other materials. And above all we need to know where it was found—a workshop, a rich burial, a Roman villa?
This document to Guernroy Ltd reveals the antiquities trade at its most ugly and shameful. It suggests what many have long suspected: that the 14 splendid silver vessels which are currently in the possession of the Marquess of Northampton are only a part of a larger hoard, which was split up by dealers more concerned with gain than historical information following its discovery. The tragedy of Sevso is not only that the treasure was removed from its country of origin and the circumstances of its discovery lost, but that this important find may have been split up.
The second document, to the aptly-named Mr Risk in the Lebanon, would be comic if the Sevso story were not such a tragedy to archaeology. The trustees are revealed as paying $500,000 for “legal export licences” for those 14 silver vessels, licences which would document that they had been exported from the Lebanon. But export licences are usually issued prior to the export taking place! On what evidence would these “legal export licences” be issued? The public at large are entitled to ask those serving as trustees then what grounds they had for supposing that the 14 silver vessels had ever been in the Lebanon. The trail in this murky affair seems instead to lead back to Vienna. Members of the All-Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group heard last year in Westminster about the evidence which Hungarian archaeologists claim establishes the findspot as near Lake Balaton in Hungary. Hungary’s claim, which was dismissed by a New York court in 1993, raises many unanswered questions about the Sevso silver.
Is it not time that there was a public inquiry into the Sevso Affair? Lord Northampton in 1991 received an out-of-court settlement of an undisclosed sum, believe to be around £25m, from Peter Mimpriss, his former lawyer and his law firm Allen & Overy, for mishandling his affairs. The writ of summons alleged “fraud, deceit, negligence and fraudulent misrepresentation” among other claims. Presumably these troubling documents, now made public for the first time by The Art Newspaper, were already revealed in the papers submitted to the court at that time, but all the materials then submitted remain confidential under the terms of the settlement. The Early Day Motion set down by Tim Loughton, MP, calls for an expert and independent evaluation of all the evidence relating to the Sevso Treasure. I would go one step further and ask for the publication and public evaluation of that evidence. It is time now for some transparency in an effort to establish the treasure’s place of discovery.
Meanwhile, what of the “187 silvergilt spoons, 37 silvergilt drinking cups and five silver bowls” which the documents say were “guaranteed” by Halim Korban as “future purchases” by or on behalf of Lord Northampton? Are they part of the Sevso treasure? Lord Northampton says he did not buy them. So what did happen to them? These are matters of public concern within the UK because the 14 vessels which Lord Northampton holds are currently located in the UK. Indeed they formed the basis for that curious exhibition, held last year in Bond Street at Bonhams the auctioneers, to which the general public was not admitted, when they were seen for the first time by archaeologists in this country.
The Sevso Treasure is one of the important discoveries of the past 30 years and deserves to be exhibited in the national museum of its country of origin. These squalid documents go some way to explaining why that is not yet the case.