THE famous and controversial Warren Cup ... a Roman silver drinking vessel that depicts two sets of male lovers ... is actually a 20th Century forgery, according to a German expert whose claim is making headlines today.
The Warren Cup, found over a century ago by gay Boston millionaire Edward Perry "Ned" Warren (Saint of Antinous), is one of the most prized jewels in the British Museum, singled out by director Neil MacGregor for his critically acclaimed "History of the World in 100 Objects."
But on Wednesday, 15 years after the British Museum bought the Warren Cup for over $2.5 million (£1.8 million), a highly respected German archaeologist suggested it could be a forgery.
At a public debate staged by King's College London, Professor Luca Giuliani challenged the museum's view that it dates from the 1st Century AD.
The professor of classical archaeology at Humboldt University in Berlin dismissed it as a creation of the early 20th Century, arguing that such explicit imagery is unprecedented in Roman silverware.
He suggested instead that the cup was designed for explicitly (and erotically explicitly) for Ned Warren, who bought it in Rome in 1911, and who also acquired other "counterfeit" pieces, he said.
Warren, who traveled Europe with his male lover collecting art treasures wherever they went, also commissioned Rodin's "The Kiss" and told the artist to ensure the genitals were generously large.
Warren's art treasures comprise a large portion of the Classical collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York ... and 90 per cent of the Classical collection at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Prudish Bostonians called Warren and his lover the "Bachelors of Art" ... and the two men spent most of their time in Britain when not prowling Europe in search of art treasures.
The new claims add fuel to the long-simmering debate over the Warren Cup.
For decades it languished in storage because museum curators on both sides of the Atlantic were reticent to buy it and put it on public display.
When the British Museum finally bought it a few years ago, tabloid headlines trumpeted the news worldwide and showed photos of the cup's depictions of male-male sodomy.
A replica of the cup is sold in the British Museum Shop.
It features male lovers in various poses. One pair shows the erastes ... an older, active lover ... who is bearded and wears a wreath, and the eromenos ... the younger "beloved" ... who is a beardless youth.
Another scene features a beardless erastes and an eromenos who is just a boy.
The new claims by the German expert have been refuted by Professor Dyfri Williams, author of the book THE WARREN CUP, published by the British Museum Press in 2006.
Giuliani's doubts were aired in Germany last year, but Wednesday marked the first time he has addressed a British audience on the subject.
He acknowledges the high skill, but much of his doubt were based the fact the iconography suited Warren's specific taste ... and the fact that this is supposedly a unique Roman item.
"There is no other Roman silver tableware with a comparable subject matter," he told stunned listeners.
"Silver vessels have a completely different iconography. Sexual escapades have no place here." Parallels are only found in lesser material ... pottery ... he argued.
Speaking to THE GUARDIAN just before the event, he said such highly explicit imagery is completely unknown from the Roman world: "You never find any such example." But it is comparable to pornographic imagery available in the 1900s, he said.
Williams paid tribute to his adversary, describing him as "a very intelligent, highly respected scholar, very important person in German scholarship".
He told the Guardian: "I wouldn't want to attack him on a personal level at all."
But he disagrees with his theories. The fact that Warren bought other fakes is irrelevant, he said.
He also dismissed the uniqueness of the iconography as not being proof: "We're really only reacting to each piece when it's found. We may find something spectacular next week."
He added: "The real issue, which he has not addressed, is the object itself … If the cup was made around 1900, as he claims, they would be using virtually pure silver. They have been refining silver since the middle of the 19th century."
Giuliani said at the beginning of the lecture on Wednesday night that his thinking was "an experimental line of thought". He also made reference to the fact that the cup could be deemed genuine if it showed signs of ancient corrosion on the inner side of the cup.
Williams was able to confirm that it did indeed show signs of corrosion and showed an image to prove this, leading Giuliani to say if that was so, then he would need to change his mind.