A GARDEN trough used for nothing more than displaying flowers in a Northumberland garden for the last 30 years has been discovered to be a rare Roman treasure.
The marble coffin dating back to the first or second century AD is now expected to fetch up to £100,000 when it goes to auction in Dorset on February 14.
The discovery came to light when the trough’s owner – whose identity has not been released – read about a similar sarcophagus being discovered in a Dorset garden last year.
The man, who lives close to Hadrian’s Wall, emailed pictures of his flower holder to the Henry Duke action house, prompting antiques specialist Guy Schwinge to fly north immediately to confirm for himself what he suspected.
Sure enough, the garden ornament turned out to be a rare piece of Roman Imperial Art.
The 6ft 9in, one-tonne marble coffin – probably used by an aristocratic Roman family – is intricately carved and almost identical to another kept in The Vatican. Mr Schwinge said: “It is quite exceptional for a piece of Roman Imperial Art of this importance to turn up unrecognised in a garden. We are delighted the publicity generated by our initial discovery has brought this to light.
“I think buyers will be particularly excited because it is almost identical to another Roman sarcophagus in the Galleria Lapidaria in the Vatican.”
Experts believe the 6ft 9in coffin, engraved with a central panel of The Three Graces, could be Hadrianic, for the reign of Emperor Hadrian from 117 to 138AD, known for its rapid architectural and sculptural development.
The Three Graces panel is flanked by rectangular strigilated panels and torch-bearing putti. Strigils were S-shaped bronze body scrapers used by athletes in the classical period.
Archaeologist and art expert Laurence Keen said: “The combination of the strigilated panels and the figural decoration indicates that it was intended for a wealthy individual.
“The simple hewn back probably suggests that it came from a private mausoleum, where the tomb was placed against a wall.”
The only clue to the coffin’s provenance is an attached copper plaque engraved “Brought from Rome in 1902”.
That has given experts a vital clue, as it was in that year that Henry Walters, the millionaire president of the Atlantic Coastline Railroad and the founder of the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, USA, paid $1m for the contents of the Palazzo Accoranboni in Rome, which included seven sarcophagi from a burial chamber associated with the Calpurnii Pisones family.
The current owners, who inherited the sarcophagus with the house they bought 30 years ago, never suspected its history and value, but now stand to make a healthy windfall.
The auctioneers have now identified that it was probably brought to Northumberland in 1969, when the previous owners moved from Beckfort, a country house near Ullswater in the Lake District.
Further research suggests it may have been bought in 1902 by the Common Shipping family, who were related to the previous owners.
“Our problem was how to transport the sarcophagus from Northumberland to Dorset,” a Henry Duke spokeswoman added.
“But with a forklift and a great deal of care we put it on a large lorry with a backloader and drove it steadily all the way to Dorchester.”