Let’s talk about the Sevso/Seuso treasure but from a different angle. Instead of trying to estimate the importance and value of the fourteen silver vessels and the copper cauldron in which the original owner most likely hid them sometime in the late fourth or early fifth centuries, I would like to concentrate on the mysteries surrounding the find. One topic will be the incredible blunders of the Hungarian police and the military court that were involved at the time of the death of the man who most likely discovered the vessels. The other topic will be the story of how the Antall government managed to lose the case and thus the right to ownership because they hired a Washington lawyer of Hungarian origin who was not up to the task.
The original owner’s name is known from an inscription found on one of the vessels: Hec Sevso tibi durent per saecula multa/posteris ut prosint vascula digna tuis (May these, O Sevso, yours for many ages be/Small vessels fit to serve your offspring worthily). It is almost certain that Sevso’s or Seuso’s offspring never had the opportunity to enjoy these large vessels made of very high quality silver. Archaeologists assume that Seuso, a high official in Pannonia, hid his valuables, perhaps fleeing from the barbarian, most likely Hun, invaders. What a quirk of fate! The silver vessels that Viktor Orbán considers to be “the nation’s family silver” had to be abandoned because of the invasion by some Hungarians’ favorite Huns, to whom they wouldn’t mind being related.
The other important piece of information, also found on one of the vessels, the so-called “Hunting Place,” is the word “Pelso,” the ancient name of Lake Balaton. Today only geologists would know anything about “Pelso” as in Pelso or Pelsonia Plate, which is a small tectonic unit near Lake Balaton.
As is usual in cases of great artistic discoveries, several countries in addition to Hungary also claimed the treasure, including Lebanon and Croatia. Eventually it became clear that the Lebanese claim was based on false documentation. Moreover, the word “Pelso” was a good indication that it came from western Hungary. It was in 1980 that two Viennese art dealers offered the treasure for sale in London. It was there that the fourteen silver vessels were purchased by a consortium headed by Spencer Compton 7th Marquess of Northampton. The very fact that the dealers were from the Vienna also points to the likely provenance of the stolen goods in Hungary.
So, let’s start with the person, often described as an amateur archaeologist, who discovered the pieces. I think that “amateur archaeologist” is too charitable a description of this young man. It is true that he was interested in history and archaeology already in elementary school, but that was about the extent of his expertise. I very much doubt that he had any idea about either the value or the importance of the vessels he apparently found in a quarry near Polgárdi, a town only 12 km from Lake Balaton. An amateur archaeologist does not sell bits and pieces of such a find at flea markets, as he apparently did.
The man who found the Seuso treasure was József Sümegh, a twenty-four-year-old bricklayer, who in December 1980 was looking forward to the end of his military service. He was full of plans: he had already bought material for a house he was planning to build. But on December 17 his body was found hanging in a cellar near a quarry. The police decided that it was a suicide, although three sets of footprints were found leading to the cellar and only two leaving it. Moreover, the so-called suicide was achieved with the help of two military leather belts when surely Sümegh had only one. None of that seemed to bother either the Hungarian police investigators or the military court that heard the case.
People who knew Sümegh told the police about the dead man’s occasional mention of treasures he had, but all that made no difference. He talked about a silver vessel weighing roughly 2 kgs which he sold someone for 150,000 forints (about 6.4 million today). Today, almost everybody who had anything to do with the case is certain that Sümegh was murdered. Apparently a few weeks before the murder he showed signs of considerable nervousness as if he knew that someone was after him. It is possible that he talked too much, maybe even bragging about his good fortune while in the army, and eventually came to the conclusion that his treasure might be in jeopardy. So, I suspect that he arrived at that cellar in order to move his treasure to another, perhaps safer place. Obviously, he was followed and murdered. Moreover, two of Sümegh’s former friends who knew about the treasure also died under mysterious circumstances. One died of food poisoning, the other allegedly committed suicide. Both of them seemed to know that the original find was about 40 pieces, and they could have testified to that fact at a later hearing. The Hungarian police, believe it or not, are still investigating, although Sümegh’s death is officially ruled a suicide.
It looks as if his murderers were more sophisticated than he was. They did not try to sell the pieces one by one to Hungarian collectors who didn’t have enough money to pay the price the silver pieces could bring on the international market. They went straight to Vienna with the smuggled goods and sold them to two different art dealers. Of course, most likely the art dealers knew a great deal more about the treasure than Sümegh’s murderers and paid nowhere near a fair price.
Meanwhile, the Hungarians, thanks to the lousy work of the Hungarian police, didn’t even know about the existence of the Seuso treasure. But in 1990 Lord Northampton decided to sell the silver pieces in New York at Sotheby’s. It was at that time that two Hungarian archaeologists read some of the news items about the fabulous forthcoming Sotheby auction and made the connection between the silver pieces in New York and all the talk about the fabulously large silver find by Sümegh’s friends. So, in 1991 the Hungarian government laid claim to the treasure. But Hungary lost the case. Apparently, as Népszabadság claimed not long ago, the lawyer the Antall government hired, Frank Koszorús, Jr., was no match for the half a dozen top-notch lawyers who represented Lord Northampton.
(A side note. Frank Koszorús? Does that Koszorús have anything to do with Ferenc Koszorús, the man who some people claim was responsible for preventing the overthrow of Miklós Horthy by the gendarmes and was the savior of the Jewish population of Hungary? Yes, he does. He is Ferenc Koszorús’s son. By the way, a number of historians, I should note, including Krisztián Ungváry, deny the existence of any planned overthrow of Horthy and claim that the gendarmes were brought to Budapest in anticipation of the deportation of Budapest’s Jewish population.)
Apparently, Hungary was ill prepared to defend its claim in court. Since the police mishandled the whole case, there was nothing specific Hungary could show to establish ownership of the treasure. There were some people who would say that they not only heard about the vessels but even held them in their hands; some people even purchased some of them but couldn’t get anything for them, and therefore they eventually ended up in a garbage heap. For some reason neither the witnesses nor the lawyer could say anything about the murder of the man who found the treasure.
The judge wanted to know whether anyone could testify to where the treasure was originally found. At the time, there was no one. One of the people from Polgárdi was transported to New York. The other day he claimed that the problem was that the interpreter “knew as much Hungarian as he knew English.” Surely, that was not the real problem.
Instead, the problem was poor police work and not hiring a lawyer familiar with cases involving stolen art works but going to Frank Koszorus because he happened to be active in Hungarian affairs in the United States. The case is sadly indicative of how things are handled in Hungary.
P.S. If anyone is interested in Frank Koszorus’s activities in the United States on behalf of Hungary, I wrote an article in Hungarian about how he tried to prevent Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai’s visit to the White House.