The 2,000-year-old Roman sports cavalry helmet which tourism planners in Carlisle had been hoping to save as the "Mona Lisa" of the Cumbria city has been sold to a private buyer at auction for ten times the original asking price.
© Christie's Images Ltd
Bidders from Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery watched their hopes of buying the Crosby Garrett Roman Helmet evaporate as it sold for £2.3 million within minutes at Christie's. Having expected it to sell for as little as £200,000, the museum withdrew from bidding as the asking price smashed the £1.7 million barrier.
The House launched an urgent appeal to keep the helmet in the area three weeks ago, but support from the British Museum, a £1 million offer from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and public donations – which raised more than £50,000 to match a double-your-money pledge from one local businessmen – proved futile.
"We are clearly disappointed that we have been unable to secure the Crosby Garrett Helmet for Cumbria," said Mike Mitchelson, the Leader of Carlisle City Council, who praised the "amazing" response and "overwhelming generosity" the campaign received.
"We would like to take this opportunity to thank all those who have supported and contributed to the appeal."
Officials called on the government to impose an export ban on the helmet, preventing it from leaving the country. Its new owner, who concluded the deal by telephone, has remained anonymous.
"It is a great shame that, so close to the mark and with such great public support, Tullie House has been unable to secure the Roman helmet," said Art Fund Director Stephen Deuchar.
"We now hope that the export system will be able to kick in to action, allowing the museum another opportunity to acquire this remarkable work."
The lucrative proceeds will be split between the metal detector who found the helmet in May, who has also maintained their anonymity, and the owner of the field at Crosby Garrett.
Amid worldwide media attention for the shock sale, The Sun speculated that the seller may have been a local man in his 20s.
The Toronto Sun observed that the sale of the bronze relic was "a scar of defeat" for Tullie House and "a symbol of gaping holes in British treasure law".
Comments on the Daily Mail website expressed their horror that the helmet had fallen out of public ownership, and curator Andrew Mackay told the newspaper the sale was "a real blow".
"People will be terribly disappointed – we had thousands of pounds coming in every day, and children literally emptying their piggy banks," he added. "We are now very, very anxious to talk to the buyer to see where we go next."
Dating from between the end of the 1st century AD to the middle of the 3rd century AD, the helmet would have formed the centrepiece of the new £1.5 million Roman Frontier: Stories Beyond Hadrian's Wall gallery at the House, which is due to open in summer 2011.
House manager Hilary Wade said it would have represented "the most important object in our archaeology collections and arguably the finest artefact held in public ownership in Cumbria."
It is one of only three of its kind discovered in Britain – the only other two complete with face-masks are the Ribchester Helmet, found in 1796 and held in the British Museum, and the Newstead Helmet, found in 1905 and currently at the Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh.