Friday, 26 September 2014

Greed, intrigue and murder: another day in the art market

Patricia Anderson, 'Greed, intrigue and murder: another day in the art market, Daily Review,  Sep 26, 2014
It’s a sordid story from start to unfinish. It involves one — possibly three –murders, a professional smuggling operation, a lord, a former chairman of Sotheby’s, three governments, soil sample analysis, robust detective work from Scotland Yard, and the obtuseness of the Manhattan District Court. So far there is only one positive development. Seven pieces of remarkable Roman silver were returned to Hungary earlier this year after its government parted with 15 million euros for something that clearly belonged to them in the first place. 
The report rehearses the version of the story that has a silver hoard being discovered in 1978 by József Sümegh in Polgardi (around 60 miles south of Budapest), and then being found dead.  In 1980 some of the pieces of the treasure, including vessels bearing inscriptions, surface on the market in Viennea. The  retired chairman of Sotheby’s, Peter Wilson buys some and in 1982 another investor, Lord Northampton (he of Sekhemka fame) acquired five more items from the same hoard. In total, 14 pieces were known. The investors could not sell the objects.
Their first port of call was the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, who rightly balked at the lack of provenance and the discrepancy in the export licenses from Lebanon. The Getty’s curator Arthur Houghton, could read Arabic and spotted the anomalies at once. The licenses were faked. In 1990 the consortium tried their luck with Sotheby’s in New York, still claiming the works were found in Lebanon.
The Lebanese government then laid claim to the silver, asking for its 'return', followed shortly by Yugoslavia and Hungary. Patrick Boylan published a story showing it had been illegally removed from the source country, and the Treasure was impounded in New York, and then a Manhattan court examined the issue of who could rightfully claim it. The verdict was that Lord Northampton had been "seriously misled over its discovery, export and potential sale to a major museum" and in 1994, the treasure was returned to him. For a while the treasure disappeared from view, they briefly appeared on show in Bonhams in London in October 2006. Then in March 2007, The Art Newspaper reported that a further “187 silvergilt spoons, 37 silvergilt drinking cups, and 5 silver bowls”, previously unknown, but part of the original hoard, were reputed to exist. At the beginning of this year, seven pieces of the treasure were sold to the Hungarian government by Peter Wilson's sons, "and Lord Northampton has been left holding a very valuable baby".

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