TOP ROW: The Treasure's "Birth Certificate"; Amphora handle with panthers. SECOND ROW: Picture of Seuso's supposed villa; The first seven returned pieces. THIRD ROW: Sümegh József; The tripod / quadripod; Lord Northampton. BOTTOM ROW: Top of the Seuso Platter with tiny Chi-Rho in the middle of the inscription; Illustrating sizes and scale of the pieces.
The Seuso Treasure
Olga Vállay Szokolay
At the onset of the Middle Ages, Pannonia was a province of the Roman Empire, covering a significant part of European geography. Valeria was one of the four parts of the province, bordered by the river Danube (Duna) on the north and east, by the Drava River on the south and included most of Transdanubia, (Dunántúl), thus had been part of what has been Hungary for the last eleven hundred years.
Archeological relics, verifying incredibly high cultural and technical achievements of the Roman era, have been ubiquitous in the Pannonia Valeria area of Hungary: ruins of roads, bridges, temples, villas, aqueducts, amphitheaters, baths, just to name a few. Over the centuries, unsung peasants turned up broken pieces of stone and metal objects while plowing or digging in the fields, unaware of the potential colossal cultural value of their findings. The Romans’ artistic and engineering development had been about a millennium ahead, a feat that was never equaled or revived until the Renaissance: hence the name!
A mysterious find, unearthed from its hiding in Pannonia Valeria in the 1970s, became known as the Seuso Treasure. Although the identity and origin of SEUSO (spelled SEVSO) remains unclear to the present day, the only trace of it as a name of a person appears on the sizable Hunter or Seuso Platter, the most important piece of the vast collection of silver artifacts. The inscription on its edge reads: “HEC SEVSO TIBI DVRENT PER SAECVLA MVLTA POSTERIS VT PROSINT VASCVLA DIGNA TVIS”. It translates as: “May these dishes remain yours, Seuso, for many centuries and your worthy descendants”. (Translation varies)
So who was Seuso? He had to be a high-ranking person, a legatus, a successful defender of the Empire, deserving the highest honors. His name is not Roman. Some authorities guess its origin as Celtic, others as Thracian or Germanic. The platter may have been a commemoration of a celebratory dinner ensuing a greatly enjoyable hunt, potentially with the Emperor himself on the guest list. It gives two other significant clues about Seuso. One is the Christogram (Chi-Rho) separating the start and the end of the inscription, indicating that Seuso most likely was a Christian. The other is the word PELSO, the name of Lake Balaton in antiquity, that ties Seuso’s residence, thus the treasure, inalienably to the Balaton region.
It was in May 1878 that 10 broken silver pieces turned out from the ground when a local man was digging up a plum tree on the southeast slope of Kőszár-hegy, a hill near the town of Polgárdi. He duly surrendered the pieces to the authorities. Experts of the Nemzeti Múzeum (National Museum) identified them as produced in the fourth century and restored them into a collapsible tripod. The sensation prompted it to be sent to the Paris World Exhibit. (Ironically, during a 2002 further restoration, the tripod turned out to be a quadripod.)
Almost a century later, in 1974, a retired carpenter discovered ruins of a huge late-Roman residential edifice on the shores of Sárviz, near Szabadbattyán. There he also found and turned in to the museum a gigantic, relief-adorned lead cauldron and some coins, for which he was paid about a month’s pension. In his version, the original location of the Treasure was the ruined villa. Others maintain that it was found several hundred meters further, on Kőszárhegy by Sümegh József in 1976.
Sümegh József worked as a laborer at the local quarry. He lived at Polgárdi, where everyone knew that in 1975-76 he had found some huge, valuable pure silver platters and jugs. A local man later testified that he had seen two cauldrons loaded with many larger silver objects as he was helping Sümegh transport them in a horse-drawn carriage to Polgárdi. Between 1977 and 1979, Sümegh allegedly sold some pieces, not fully realizing their value.
A few years later, on December 17th, 1980, the hanged body of Sümegh József was found in an abandoned cellar at Kőszárhegy.
The demise of Sümegh József has remained a mystery to the present day. It was preceded by his finding the treasure and hiding it for years; his military service from 1978; by his cheerful demeanor purchasing a building lot and construction materials as he planned to build the greatest house at Polgárdi after his demobilization. Yet, shortly before his military term ended, he turned unexplainably distant and depressed. On the eve of his death, after meeting two men at the bar, the three of them set out on foot to the dirt road toward Kőszárhegy, toward the ominous cellar. After that Sümegh was never seen alive.
Suicide, as originally declared, should be ruled out on several counts, such as three sets of footprints in the snow going toward the cellar and only two sets away from it. However, the still ongoing investigation for the killer(s) has produced no conclusive results.
After the unresolved death of Sümegh József, the location of the Treasure’s discovery became covered in mystery, unidentifiable, thus any further would-be owners could claim any locale within the Empire as its origin. The Treasure had been removed from its millennial resting place and illegally kept hidden on private property. The time and means of its leaving Hungary is mostly hearsay. What is known is that at some time by some obscure way IT, or pieces of it, had been taken to Vienna.
By now we could justly ask what IT is, what the Treasure really includes?
There we bump into another unknown. Opinions about the scope of this Treasure vary greatly, although the largest guess is probably the correct one. All original numbers enumerating platters, jugs, buckets, wash-bowls, cosmetics containers, utensils are again hearsay. In Hungary, 14 pieces (plus their holding vessel) are known but over 40 have been “seen”. The numbers grow significantly if we consider 37 gold-plated silver cups and 187 spoons, all of which, in company of further platters and such are guarded at some unspecified vault. Originally, most or all the above were kept in lead or copper cauldrons, to be hidden from attacks by the barbarians.
According to Scotland Yard, between 1980 and 1987 various collectors purchased some silver pieces. A Lebanese art dealer conducted business from the Vienna Hilton and he managed to obtain some Roman ornamental silver dishes, which he sold with export papers from Lebanon.
On the international market, first one silver jug was offered at the reputable Mansour Gallery in London. It was bought by the president of the auction house Sotheby’s, as a private person. Later, as further pieces of the collection appeared, he realized the investment opportunity, but lacked capital. He successfully approached art investor Lord Northampton (a.k.a. Spencer Douglas David Compton) to join in the venture, which seemed to promise colossal returns. In 1984, they offered it to the Getty Museum, but the papers certifying the origin were identified as counterfeit. A further unexpected turn came by a Hungarian expert who recognized the word PELSO on the Seuso platter. He readily identified it as the name of Lake Balaton in ancient times. All of these rendered the Treasure unsellable, to the dismay of Lord Northampton. Trying to remedy his client’s financial predicament, his lawyer purchased new forged papers in Lebanon for one million pounds.
Years later, in 1990, at the exhibit preceding Sotheby’s auction in New York, a rich silver set appeared, with Lebanon given as place of origin. Shortly, Lebanon filed a lawsuit against Sotheby’s, requesting investigation of ownership of the Treasure and its surrender to Lebanon. This prompted similar claims by Yugoslavia and Hungary. Unable to establish legality, all claims were essentially dismissed by the New York court. The collection, lacking legal proof of ownership and origin, became legally unsellable.
Having completed extensive soil sampling at the site with results matching the traces on a cauldron, in 1993-94, Hungary filed four lawsuits against Lord Northampton and lost them all. In 1998, Hungary ratified the Unidroit-pact about illicit trafficking of cultural property, which mandates that stolen objects of cultural value be returned to the country of their lawful ownership. Nevertheless, in 2006, Lord Northampton attempted to organize selling the Treasure until the British art dealers’ association declared that exhibiting a collection of disputable fame would be against ethical rules.
In 2012, after years of frustrated efforts to repatriate the Seuso Treasures, a Hungarian law office was commissioned to create a contract that would realize the return of the artifacts to their rightful owner: Hungary. The papers were signed in 2013 (just about in sync with the British Lord’s expensive fifth divorce!), to the tune of 15 million Euros. In early 2014, the first seven pieces of the Treasure were returned while details of the deal have been declared state secret for 30 years!
On July 12, 2017, upon paying a roughly 28 million Euro compensation to the holder(s) of the set, Hungary received the second seven pieces. The invaluable Treasure, aptly nicknamed by Prime Minister Orbán as “Hungary’s family silver set”, was taken on an exhibit tour across the Country, ending its adventurous journey at the Parliament, then its final showcase, the National Museum.
Archeologists and scientists never stopped analyzing the enigma of the history and origin of the Seuso Treasure and neither did Scotland Yard. Whatever their findings, however, the “family silver” is now safely back where it belongs: in Hungary. But it still remains a mystery waiting to be solved!
Olga Vállay Szokolay is an architect and Professor Emerita of Norwalk Community College, CT after three decades of teaching. She is a member of the Editorial Board of Magyar News Online.