Sotheby's dismissed from pounds 40m silver wrangle

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SOTHEBY'S has been dismissed from the long-running New York court case concerning its client, the Marquess of Northampton, and his title to a pounds 40m hoard of Roman silver, writes Geraldine Norman.

After Croatia and Hungary had completed their arguments - that the silver had been illegally excavated on their respective territories, and should therefore be handed back - Sotheby's lawyer asked for his client to be dismissed from the case, while Lord Northampton's counsel requested the judge to make a 'directed verdict' in his favour, without reference to the jury. Judge Shainswit accepted the first request but not the second.

Lord Northampton's lawyer argued that Hungary's claim was inadequate since it rested on the silver having been seen in the home of the late Josef Sumegh, without suggesting how it got there; Croatia had presented two witnesses whose testimony was not good enough to submit as evidence, he maintained.

Croatia's counsel countered with the argument that 'this court in rendering a determination must not judge the credibility of the witnesses - that is for the jury to decide after they have heard the whole case. The jury has only heard one half of the story. They have not heard from the owner of the treasure'. Hungary's lawyer argued that its witnesses were fearful: 'Hungary has just been liberated from a Communist regime. You can't lose your fear of a totalitarian regime in six months.'

After withdrawing to deliberate, Judge Shainswit returned to announce that she wanted to hear testimony from Lord Northampton. though she reserved the right to a 'directed verdict', bypassing the jury, at a later date. The immaculate Marquess fascinated the court with his account of how he had been educated for his life as a 'landlord' and how he ran his stately homes. He described how the late Peter Wilson, a former chairman of Sotheby's, had contacted him about the silver and suggested they should share ownership.

Dr Anna Bennett, from the London University Conservation Institute, who had been hired by Sotheby's to restore the silver, gave evidence on the original condition of silver items that Croatia and Hungary's witnesses claimed to have seen; they had either neglected to mention that items were broken in several pieces, or described storage practices which the fragile pieces could not have withstood, she said. The case continues.