Are you sitting comfortably? Then, let us tell you a story.
It is the 5th century AD, and a wealthy Roman called Sevso is hosting a dinner party in his villa in what is now Eastern Europe, but was then part of the Roman Empire. His chefs have been working away all day and he has his best silverware out to impress his guests; it is a large set of beautifully carved vessels with mythological and animal scenes, and one especially nice platter has been inscribed for its owner with the (Latin) words “may these – Oh Sevso – yours for many ages be, small vessels fit to serve your offspring worthily.”
We now jump forward in time to the 1970s, when (allegedly) a young Hungarian quarry worker discovered Sevso’s treasure, which he dug up and kept in a cellar, selling a few pieces from time to time. At around the time that pieces of the treasure hoard began to appear in the London art and antiquities market, the young man was found hanged in the cellar. Suicide or murder has never been conclusively proven.
Enter, stage left, Spencer Compton, 7th Marquis of Northampton, an extremely wealthy British peer, then on his third marriage. Lord Northampton bought all 14 pieces of the Sevso treasure then on the market, for around £10 million, in 1980.
In 1990, Lord Northampton (by then about to embark on his 5th marriage) put the treasure up for sale in New York, whereupon he found himself almost immediately defending a lawsuit brought by the states of Hungary, Lebanon and Yugoslavia (later carried on by Croatia), all of whom claimed ownership of the treasure. The New York courts ruled that none of the countries claiming ownership of the treasure had satisfactorily proven that they owned it, and Lord Northampton was allowed to keep it.
It is understood that the treasure is now worth between £50-100 million, but it is essentially unsalable as issues as to the legality of its removal from its country of origin (Hungary is considered the most likely candidate) remain unresolved. No museum will buy it, and any private buyer risks another lawsuit, so Lord Northampton is left with a hugely valuable Roman treasure hoard which he cannot sell, and which remains locked in a vault somewhere.
Lord Northampton has recently been in the news for having settled his divorce case with his 5th wife, Pamela Haworth, at the door of the court before the start of a trial due to last 15 days, reputedly with legal costs already amounting to £2m. The press has reported the former couple agreed on a £17m settlement for Lady Northampton. As the vast majority of Lord Northampton’s wealth is inherited, he has retained it, but it is reported that he may be forced to sell one of his family’s most prized possessions, a portrait of Queen Mary I painted in 1554 and worth £6 million, to help pay for the divorce.
Of course, settling a case is far better than fighting it out in court, especially when the trial is set to last over two weeks; but from a purely legal viewpoint, if the case had gone to trial it would have been interesting to hear how the court dealt with the issue of the valuation and treatment of the Sevso treasure. Would they have discounted its value due to the controversy surrounding it? There are reported cases where assets have been discounted in value for various reasons (including unsaleability), but none that we are aware of which concern disputed Roman silverware. Antiques and antiquities are usually given a market value, but there is no legitimate market for Lord Northampton’s treasure. Conversely as it was bought for £10m and now is estimated at several times that, how much of that increase in value, which took place during the marriage, might have been argued to be a marital asset subject to division?
Would the court have excluded the Sevso treasure as a pre-acquired asset? As those of you who keep up with the case law will know, in some cases where there are sufficient assets to meet everyone’s needs, courts can exclude assets acquired prior to the marriage from the sharing exercise. Lord Northampton purchased the treasure ten years before his fifth marriage, and tried to sell it around the time he married Pamela, so in the context of the parties’ great wealth it is perhaps unlikely to have been treated as a marital asset at all. In any event, Lord Northampton will now get to keep it, although the press have not yet reported whether these beautiful silver goblets will be brought out to celebrate the settling of the case.
Although not something which concerns many people, or which we deal with everyday, the unsellable, extremely valuable treasure hoard does potentially throw up some interesting legal problems in the context of an asset split on divorce.
If you have any treasure hoards you would like to chat to us about, or would like to discuss any of the other issues raised in this blog, do give Adam, Sue, Gail or Simon a call on 01223 443333.