A grisly souvenir of the French Revolution went up for auction in France last week: a working guillotine. Standing more than three metres tall, with a triangular blade inscribed “Armées de la République”, the piece was offered in a Nantes saleroom in a general sale – between a river scene that made €180 and an 18th-century pistol (€320). But the failed auction – the instrument was bought in for €40,000 – hid a curious back story.

The device was first sold at Drouot three years ago by auctioneers Delorme et Collin du Bocage. Bidding on it in person, according to Le Figaro, were pop star Lady Gaga, a Canadian journalist, a bidder from Nantes and a Russian. The guillotine did not reach its reserve but the Russian bought it after the sale for €223,056, intending it for a museum of the revolution in his native land. However, an export certificate was refused, so he put it on display in a jazz club just across the Seine from Notre Dame, where it was an attraction until recently.

Then it was sent for auction in Nantes (the city and surrounding region were the scene of a cruelly repressed insurgency during the French Revolution). However, it turned out that the guillotine did not date from the 18th century but was a 19th-century replica, and (happily) had probably never been used. And the sale was problematic for another reason – European rules forbid the export or import of instruments of torture or death, whatever their date.

While French law doesn’t actually prohibit the sale of such items, there was a precedent – in 2012 the French auctioneer Cornette de St Cyr voluntarily cancelled the sale of 350 instruments of torture put up for sale by the family of a French executioner, Fernand Meyssonnier, after protests from human rights organisations and the French minister of culture at the time, Frédéric Mitterrand. As for the “national razor”, as the guillotine is often dubbed, it has presumably now gone back to the unsuccessful vendor.

A piece from the Sevso hoard
A piece from the Sevso hoard

The Hungarian government has bought, and is putting on display in its parliament from today, seven pieces of Roman silver dating from the fourth or fifth centuries AD. They are part of the Sevso hoard, one of the most magnificent, controversial and problematic archaeological finds ever.

Announcing the purchase, for which Hungary reportedly paid €15m, prime minister Viktor Orbán said: “This is Hungary’s family silver.” In saying this, he affirmed his country’s right to the “cursed” Sevso pieces, which have also been claimed by other countries.

This is the latest chapter in a long-running saga that certainly involves skulduggery and probably even murder. The Sevso treasure was supposedly found near Lake Balaton in Hungary in the 1970s by a Hungarian soldier who was later found hanged in an apparent suicide; two other unexplained deaths followed.

In 1980 some of the massive inscribed silver platters and vessels started appearing on the London art market and 14 pieces were bought for about $11m between 1982 and 1987 by a consortium headed by the Marquess of Northampton, and including the late Peter Wilson, chairman of Sotheby’s. However, an attempted $50m sale in 1990 at Sotheby’s New York was aborted after Croatia, Hungary and Lebanon claimed the treasure.

The disputes meant the hoard had become virtually unsaleable; it disappeared into a vault in the Channel Islands, in a trust, and only reappeared in 2006, when it was put on private display at Bonhams for just one day. While the show was non-commercial, it certainly looked as if the water was being tested for a possible resale and a value of £100m was bandied about.

The specialist art crime investigator Richard Ellis, of the Art Management Group, told the Financial Times that he had been working with the lawyers for Peter Wilson’s heirs. He said the seven pieces that have just sold came from the Wilson share of the hoard; the present deal was triggered after previous negotiations with a private Hungarian national were abandoned.

“Only Hungary can acquire the treasure,” said Ellis. “The only evidence of its location comes from that country.”

A tantalising question is whether more pieces will go up for sale. Were there any other pieces? Unusually, the known Sevso treasure features no spoons or coins. “I am convinced there are more out there,” says Ellis. If any others appear, Hungary is waiting: its central bank has said it plans to spend €100m on repatriating Hungarian works of art, by the end of 2018.

‘Passage of Time’ (2012), by Richard Serra
‘Passage of Time’ (2012), by Richard Serra, at Qatar’s Al Riwaq centre

Richard Serra is celebrated in Qatar this coming week with shows at Katara village and the Al Riwaq centre (April 10-July 6). The works on display span the sculptor’s 50-year career, and include “One Ton Prop (House of Cards)” (1969), on loan from the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Along with these two shows, a site-specific sculpture in a remote desert location is being unveiled on Tuesday. This installation has been kept hush-hush: indeed, when I got wind of it about it two years ago and enquired, the Serra studio and his gallery Gagosian hotly denied any such project was planned. The “major desert sculpture” is placed in the Ras Brouq nature reserve, approximately 60km to the west of Doha, in a location chosen by Serra. The region is known for its unspoilt beauty, strange limestone formations and even an abandoned film village.

Amy Cappellazzo, who was chairman of Christie’s postwar and contemporary art department until this February, is starting Art Agency Partners with the respected art adviser Allan Schwartzman. Among his major clients are the Dallas collector Howard Rachofsky and Bernardo Paz, whose art park Inhotim in the Brazilian countryside is a must-visit for art collectors. “Amy has been a great colleague and collaborator, and we have complementary skills, experiences, and expertise,” Schwartzman told me. “The international art market has grown larger and more complex, we decided that we could better serve the interests of a wider range of collectors by working together.”

Georgina Adam is art market editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper

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