Tuesday, 14 August 2007

A Hoard of Byzantine Silver "from Bulgaria"?

The last time I was in the Benaki Museum in Athens I had a look at set of three pieces of Byzantine silver from a "hoard" - the find-spot was not provided. (A Podcast of my audio notes reacting to the display and label is now available [with an unrelated background].) There was an appeal to buy the silver plates (for a reported 2.2 million Euros) and put them on display in Greece. (The purchase was reported to be from a London-based dealer.)

Where was the "hoard" found?

Recent reports in Kathimerini ("Artefacts in Greece ‘legally’", August 1, 2007; see also "Greek prosecutors investigate Bulgarian claim to Byzantine-era silver plates", International Herald Tribune, July 31, 2007) suggest that Greece has rejected a request from Bulgaria "for the return of nine silver medieval plates which Sofia says were illegally excavated and smuggled out of the country". It is claimed that the hoard was found in Bulgaria during the 1990s. The official press statement from the Bulgarian delegation to Europe suggested that the find was made in 1999 ("Bulgaria struggles to prevent the sale of an ancient silver dish", November 13, 2006).
"The plates, on display in Greece’s Benaki Museum, the Museum of Byzantine Culture and the Byzantine and Christian Museum of Athens, date back to the 13th and 14th centuries and are decorated with gold."
An official from the Hellenic Ministry of Culture is quoted as saying, "Greece will have a full documentation dossier proving they were legally purchased, when the case goes to court".

But the matter in unlikely to stop there. The Sofia press has responded ("Greece probes Bulgaria's claim to Byzantine-era silver plates", Sofiaecho.com, August 2, 2007). It is noted:
"Earlier this month, Bulgarian prosecutor Kamen Mihov said he had “categorical proof” the artefacts were illegally excavated at a Bulgarian site. Bulgarian prosecutors sent documents to Greece claiming the plates were excavated in late 2000 and 2001 at a site near the town of Pazardzhik in central Bulgaria."
Details of the case emerged in May. It appears that an agricultural worker, Naiden Blagnev, had purchased a metal detector in late 2000 and came across the hoard (Matthew Brunwasser, "Looter describes 'beginner's luck'", International Herald Tribune, May 22, 2007).

It appears that Blagnev had seen a picture of one of silver plates - "The Stanford Place Dish" - which had been offered for auction at Christie's in London (Matthew Brunwasser, "Bulgarian relics spark an international scuffle", International Herald Tribune, May 22, 2007). In spite of attempts to stop the sale ("Bulgaria demands suspension of London auction of allegedly looted medieval silver dish", International Herald Tribune, November 7, 2006; "Christie's to sell unique plate regardless of Bulgaria's protests", Sofiaecho.com, November 8, 2006; Dimana Trankova, "The plate of discord", Vagabond), the dish was left unsold and is said to have been returned to the vendor ("Disputed Bulgarian Dish Fails at London Auction", Artinfo, November 9, 2006). A Bulgarian official claimed, "another nine dishes, on display in three Greek museums since October 2003, were part of the same set".

What is this group of apparently related material?

The auction entry for "The Stanford Place Dish" places it stylistically with 13 other silver dishes: the 9 in the three Greek collections, 3 in Paris, and 1 in a private collection in London.

a. The 3 pieces in Paris are said to have been found in 1903 in Tatar Pazarcik, Bulgaria (and purchased there by the French Consul).
b. The 9 pieces in the three Greek collections are said, "by family tradition" to have been "acquired by a Mr. A. Barry after their accidental discovery in Tatar Pazarick. Mr. Barry, an Englishman from the Midlands, was working in Smyrna exporting currants until 1922. As a result of the conflict between Greece and Turkey in the same year, Barry moved to Patras, Greece, and in 1937 sold them to his Greek business partner for £ 15, 000. With the outset of the Second World War, the business partner moved to London and it is also very likely that, at that stage, Barry returned to the Midlands. Upon the former's death, the ten dishes were bequeathed to his son who eventually sold nine to the Greek museums in October 2003". (See also A. Ballian and A. Drandaki, "A middle Byzantine silver treasure", Benaki Museum Journal, March 2003, pp. 47-92.)
c. The London dish is said to have been discovered with "the dishes in Greece ... [which were] discovered together at an unspecified date in the early 20th century also near Tatar Pazarcik, in Bulgaria".

The auction entry for "The Stanford Place Dish" (archived here) provided the history ("provenance") as:
"By tradition acquired by an 'elderly gentleman collector' in the Midlands in the early 1950s"; "Sold to the UK trade in the mid 1980s"; "Purchased by the Trustees of the Stanford Place collection through a London dealer in 1997 or 1998".
This is expanded in the discussion:
"The Stanford Place dish entered the collection sometime in 1998 from the London trade. The dealer from whom it was purchased had acquired it from a middle man who had, himself, acquired the dish some years earlier from a dealer in the Midlands. The latter informed the middle-man that the dish had previously belonged to an 'elderly gentleman collector' from the Midlands since the early 1950s and that he believed it had a Strawberry Hill provenance.

Recent research by archivists seems to show that the dish never came from Strawberry Hill. However, what is possible is that the original hoard from Tatar Pazarick included all of the Paris dishes, the Greek dishes, the London dish and the present lot. Barry may have owned all eleven of the Greek, London and Stanford Place dishes and sold all but the present lot to his business partner. He then returned to the Midlands with the Stanford Place dish. It is therefore possible that the 'elderly gentleman collector' said to have owned the Stanford Place dish was, in fact, Barry himself, or someone to whom he had sold it in the Midlands."
The IHT has revealed the individual behind "The Trustees of the Stanford Place Collection" is Sir Claude Hankes (Hankes-Drielsma) who is perhaps best known for his ethical position over the Oil-for-Food Programme in Iraq (see: "UN orders Iraq corruption inquiry", with interview, April 22, 2004, from the BBC). (For the context of the collection: "The Stanford Place Collection of Antiquities", April 26, 2006). Among his listed interests are "Chairman of the Support Group of the Greek and Roman Department at the British Museum; Patron of the British Museum, ... and the Ashmolean Museum; and a member of the Getty Villa Council, Los Angeles".

It now appears that "The Stanford Place Dish" should not be linked to the 9 pieces of silver plate in the Greek collections. An invoice for "The Stanford Place Dish" has been produced by Hankes' lawyer, Ludovic de Walden. (De Walden acted for the Marquess of Northampton over "The Sevso Treasure"; see his contribution, with Harvey Kurzwell and Leo V. Gagion, "The trial of the Sevso Treasure: What a nation will do in the name of its heritage", in Kate FitzGibbon, Who Owns the Past? Cultural Policy, Cultural Property, and the Law [2005]). The IHT reports De Walden produced an invoice, dated July 7, 1998, "showing that Hankes had bought a 12th-century silver dish for £200,000 from Sam Fogg, a well-known London dealer".

"The Stanford Place Dish" thus seems to have a "paper-trail" predating 2000 when Blagnev is reported to have found his hoard of silver in Bulgaria.

Where now?

Where does this leave the 9 pieces of silver plate in the Greek collections? What is the secure documentary evidence? Who is the London-based dealer?

We watch how the Bulgarian request to Greece will develop.

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