NEW YORK, JUNE 29 -- The origin of 1,400-year-old silver artifacts worth an estimated $70 million and possible fraud by Sotheby's auction house are being investigated by London police, it was revealed today.
The antiquities now in New York are the subject of an international ownership dispute pitting a British nobleman and Sotheby's against Yugoslavia and Lebanon.
The British investigation was revealed today when Raymond Harding, an attorney representing Yugoslavia, gave a Manhattan judge a copy of a report from Scotland Yard.
"Criminal offenses may have taken place in London in relation to dealings on the 14 pieces of silver now in New York which have become known as the Sevso Treasure," the report said.
Possible crimes under investigation include conspiracy to defraud because forged export papers were prepared to make the pieces salable, according to the report.
Sotheby's issued a statement in New York saying, "We strongly reject any allegations of misconduct and believe that we have acted with the utmost integrity."
British police say the collection is part of a larger find of at least 30 pieces. They cited photographic evidence and witnesses who say they have seen other pieces.
The collection consists of 14 silver pieces -- four plates, five ewers (water pitchers), an amphora (a tall, slender, narrow-necked jar with two handles), two situlas (buckets), a basin and a lady's toilet case. There is also a copper alloy caldron in which the 14 pieces were contained.
According to Sotheby's, the treasure trove was found in Lebanon in the 1970s and dates from the Roman occupation of the Middle East.
"The custom of purchasing false Lebanese export documents for antiquities is well-known in the antique world," the Scotland Yard report said. "There is no evidence that the Sevso Treasure ever went anywhere near Lebanon."
The report says evidence points to Yugoslavia as the country of origin. Dealers and others report that the treasure previously was offered for sale without documentation, but with a statement that it was found in Yugoslavia, Scotland Yard said.
The word "Sevso," of Germanic origin, is believed to have been the name of a military commander, possibly a barbarian mercenary in the service of the Roman emperor.
The Marquess of Northampton Settlement, a British trust established under the laws of the Channel Island of Guernsey, claims to be the true owner.
Spencer Douglas David Compton, the seventh Marquess of Northampton, asked Sotheby's AG of Switzerland to sell the treasure. The auction house initially put a value of $70 million on the collection.
Sotheby's sent the treasure on an international tour to stimulate interest in a planned auction sale.
When it arrived at Sotheby's in New York, Lebanese officials charged in state Supreme Court that the collection was taken illegally from their country. They asked the court to block its sale and declare Lebanon the owner.
Yugoslavia followed suit with similar legal actions.
In May, state Judge Carol Huff barred Sotheby's from selling the treasure or moving it out of New York. She said Sotheby's has not produced any export licenses in court.
Lawyers for Sotheby's appealed Huff's decision, saying the case should be heard in Switzerland. Swiss laws regarding sale of works of art of disputed ownership are more lenient than those in the United States.
Sotheby's commissioned scientific analysis of the treasure, and has refused to let English police see the results, but police will get the analysis reports by court order if necessary, the Scotland Yard report said.