The final pieces of the Sevso Treasure have returned to Hungary
12 July 2017.
Three years after the repatriation of the first seven pieces of the Sevso Treasure, Hungary has recovered the remaining seven items of this priceless hoard of spectacular Roman-era silverware. The treasure will go on display in the Hungarian Parliament from this Saturday, after which it will be exhibited in locations across the country before joining the Hungarian National Museum's collection.
Hungary has always maintained its legal ownership of these unique artefacts, a position which the treasure's former custodians - the Marquess of Northampton 1987 Settlement and the Wilson family trust – did not dispute in their respective repatriation agreements. As these make clear, Hungary did not purchase the collection but merely compensated the Settlement and Foundation for acquisition, storage, research and other associated costs incurred by them over the years. Taken together, the €15m paid to the Wilson Family Foundation three years ago in respect of the first seven pieces and the €28m recently paid to the Lord Northampton Settlement Trust to recover the more valuable remaining seven amounts to less than half the treasure's reserve price at a planned auction at Sotheby's in the early 1990s.
The Sevso Treasure originates from the 4th century CE. It takes its name from the collection's best-known item, a large dish adorned with meticulous depictions of hunting scenes encircled with a latin inscription offering the set to its presumed original owner and his descendants: "Let these, O Sevso, yours for many ages be, small vessels fit to serve your offspring worthily." At the centre of the plate is the word Pelso, the Roman name of Hungary's Lake Balaton.
The hoard consists of fourteen silver vessels used for dining and ablution. These include two large, flat plates for serving food (known as the Hunting and Geometric Plates); two further plates thought to be used for decorative purposes as well as dining (the so-called Achilleus and Meleagros Plates); a deeper vessel and two matching ewers embellished with geometric patterns, presumably used for ablution; three further ewers featuring dionysian, animal and Greek mythological themes (the latter being known as the Hippolytus Ewer); two receptacles with similar decoration to the Hippolytus ewer; a container for storing perfume jars; and an amphora. The seven recently repatriated items are the Achilleus and Meleagros Plates, the ewer depicting animals, the amphora, the Hippolytus Ewer, and the two receptacles.
In both composition and the likely mode of its later concealment, the Sevso Treasure corresponds closely to other troves of silver from the late imperial period found in the territory of of the Roman Empire. Of the thirty-or-so known caches of Roman treasure dating from the late second to fifth centuries containing precious metal dining sets, the Sevso pieces are among the most remarkable in terms of both their artistic and material value. Containing 68.5 kgs of silver, the collection is worth more than any other surviving example of late imperial silver craftsmanship, of over 1800 discoveries made.
Discovered near the Hungarian village of Polgárdi in the 1970s, the Sevso Treasure resurfaced in 1990 when it was put up for auction by Sotheby's in New York. The day after the collection was put on display, however, the Lebanese government, followed shortly by those of Hungary and Yugoslavia, brought legal action asserting legal ownership over the items, claiming the Treasure had been discovered on their territory. Lebanon later retracted its claim, while those of Hungary and Yugoslavia's legal successor, Croatia, were rejected by the jury and dismissed on appeal in 1993 as neither could prove legal title at the time.
Over the subsequent 30 years, Hungary never abandoned its objective of repatriating this exceptional collection. Prior to the conclusion of the 2014 and 2017 agreements, successive Hungarian governments continued to pursue legal options in New York, and to negotiate with those in possession of the Treasure, without success. The recent, successful negotiations lasted several years, with the Hungarian state being represented by László Baán, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, under the supervision of János Lázár, Minister of the Prime Minister's Office. The final seven pieces of the Treasure were returned to Hungary in June with the help of the Counter Terrorism Centre.