A Million Pound Necklace

A Million Pound Necklace

In 1983, the British Museum acquired for 195,000 Pounds (SF 600, 000) one of the five parts to a Roman gold necklace that was, I will argue, discovered in Libya in 1967, part of a hoard that included over 390 solidi. The dates of the coins suggest that it was probably hidden in 388 CE, the year of Maximus’ rebellion. The necklace is now separated and held by four museums, the British Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Fine Arts, the Dumbarton Arts Collection andMusée du Louvre. Detailed descriptions of the individual elements are publicly available but I summarise it as consisting of five medallions of Constantine/ Constantius, double solidi of 324-325, each surrounded by twelve small medallions of mythological figures, the whole connected by an elaborate filigree necklace. The total weight of the necklace is estimated at 500 grams and its length at 200 cms. No satisfactory account has been given of the mythological medallions and I would suggest that, given the poor quality of the workmanship that has been noted, that these were, effectively, meaningless, job-lot items to create a gee-gaw to impress a foreign potentate; it was only the imperial solidi that were significant.

Four of the five medallions were sold at Christies in 1970, together with a number of gold coins, all by the same consignor. The coins it has since emerged were part of a larger hoard, amounting to a minimum of 380 coins that date from the last years of Valentinian II and were probably hidden together with the necklace at the time of Maximus’ revolt. No details of provenance are given but the Christies specialist who handled the sale commented that there were rumours of a Libyan origin. The Cleveland Museum acquired their medallion later in 1994 and their curator has reported to me that there was a suggestion of an Algerian origin, a mysterious gentleman named Brahimi claiming it as a family heirloom discovered there in the 1950s. Such a claim is now treated with the utmost scepticism, in particular as the BM purchase provides strong evidence of a Libyan connection. Christies have confirmed to me that the BM did not bid in 1970 when the four medallions were sold for prices in the range 10,650 Pounds to 13,000 because of their dissatisfaction with provenance. All the coins were purchased by a single buyer, probably in attempt to provide a spurious provenance for the hoard; they continue to appear occasionally on the market.

‘ The high price paid in 1983 and the reputation of the vendor suggest that the purchase price included a substantial reward that was intended for officials in the Gaddhafi regime. It should be noted that 1983 saw the murder of Wpc. Fletcher in front of the Libyan Embassy in St. James’s Square, Terry Waite’s abortive efforts to procure the release of two British executives taken hostage by Libya and the claim by Mrs. Thatcher, then Prime Minister, that she never paid ransom money. An artificial price for an antique was long ago suggested by Ian Fleming in a story he wrote for the Sothebys Christmas Annual.