May 28, 2008

Achaemenid Gold Cup Found Under Bed?


On June 5th, Duke's of Dorchester is set to auction this 2,500 year-old gold cup. It was rediscovered by its seller, John Webber, under a bed while he was in the process of moving. The cup was given to him by his "rag-and-bone" grandfather who had apparently acquired it in the 1930s. The cup may fetch between £100,000-500,000 at auction next week. A number of papers have jumped on the story, as its the kind of treasure-in-the-attic which makes the antiquities trade so interesting to many people. The Times Simon de Bruxelles notes:

Mr Webber, 70, has no idea how his grandfather came to acquire the cup or what it was doing in Taunton, Somerset, where he had his business before and during the Second World War. “My grandfather was originally a proper rag-and-bone man from Romany stock and lived in a caravan. He formed a scrap metal company in the 1930s and made enough to have his own house built.

“My father died in the war and afterwards my grandfather gave me some things shortly before he died. One of the things was the cup, which I remember playing with. I put it in a box and forgot about it. Then last year I moved house and took it out to have a look and I realised it wasn’t bronze or brass.”

Some find. I don't mean to put an unhappy face on what appears to be a heartwarming story, but is it possible that this cup may not have spent 60 years under a bed? Experts from the British Museum have examined the cup, and dated it at the 3rd or 4th century BCE, and dates from the Achaemenid Empire. I suppose they or the auction house would have looked into the truth of Webber's story, but given what we know about the antiquities trade and faked provenance this seems a bit suspicious, though that is mere speculation on my part. I have no real reason to doubt Webber's honesty. If nothing else I would like to know how the cup got from the former Achaemenid Empire to Somerset.

Tom Flynn has found this story interesting as well, and takes it as a heartening reminder of a kind of antique shop experience that seldom exists anymore. I'd argue it doesn't exist because of a better more responsible body of domestic and international regulation, which though badly flawed in many cases values professional and systematic excavation over this kind of chance "treasure" discovery which leaves us with many more questions than answers.

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