The return of Hungary's lost treasures is a modern cloak-and-dagger affair: at least one person died, foreign courts were dragged in and a secret delivery was made by the Hungarian Counter Terrorism Unit.
Last week the government of Hungary retrieved part of a collection of early Roman silver artifacts, unearthed in Hungary. Coined the Sevso (Seuso) Treasure, it dates from the fourth century.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban unveiled the seven restored objects in the Hungarian Parliament where they are now on public display for the next three months. The government admitted to paying 15 million euros to get the objects back as a form of "compensation" to the previous holders, as well as having Hungary recognized as the lawful owners. The Sevso treasure is believed to be the most valuable silversmith collection from that period of Roman history.
The original find consisted of 14 pieces of silverware that include large inscribed plates, ewers and a cauldron. They are named "Sevso" after the original owner, thought to be a Germanic warrior working for the Romans who employed legionnaires in their empire to fend off invaders. The area around Lake Balaton had been settled by the Romans. On the object called The Hunting Plate an inscription reads: "Let these, O Sevso, yours for many ages be, small vessels fit to serve your offspring worthily." It is the only recorded mention ever of the individual called Sevso (Seuso).
The collection was first found by Hungarian soldier Jozsef Sümegh, who was also an amateur archaeologist. It is believed he excavated the buried collection in 1976 near Polgardi at Lake Balaton, located a few hours' drive south-west of the capital Budapest.
The Sevso treasure is believed to be the most valuable collection from that period of Roman history.
What Sümegh did with his find over the next few years is unclear. But in December of 1980 - just before he was to be decommissioned by the military - he was found hanged in a local cellar. Authorities deemed it a suicide, but the case has now been re-opened as a murder investigation. Further complicating the case is the belief that Sümegh worked for the military's secret service arm and that somebody from his own department might be a suspect. At least three of his soldier colleagues also died around that time under mysterious circumstances.
Dealing in silver
"The whole village knew that Jozsef was dealing with silver. That was no secret," recalled the director of Budapest's Museum of Fine Arts, Laszlo Baan. One of the main players involved in getting the treasure back, he gave Deutsche Welle an exclusive tour of the exhibit.
After Sümegh's death the objects found their way to Vienna and wound up in the hands of Lebanese dealers. The treasure was eventually bought by a Western consortium that included British aristocrat Lord Northampton on the advice of Sotheby's president at the time, Sir Peter Wilson.
When the collection was put up for sale at Sotheby's in New York in 1990, three countries protested, claiming that the treasure belonged to them: Lebanon, Hungary and Yugoslavia (later Croatia). The artifacts were then removed from auction. Eventually, only Hungary continued to contest the case, further justifying its claim by showing that an inscription on one of the artifacts mentions "Pelso" - the Latin name for Balaton.
The long journey 'home'
However, various court decisions in New York and later in London did not recognize Hungary as the rightful owner; hence the collection was allowed to return to the "possessor," Lord Northampton. Part of that collection then changed hands a few years ago, going to a British couple.
In October 2012 the couple then used an intermediary to approach Laszlo Baan at Hungary's Museum of Fine Arts.
"I knew the man who came to visit me at the Museum," explained Baan. "He told me about the possibility of buying back part of the collection. He brought photos documenting what they had. I then contacted the government and worked together with the State Secretary of the Prime Minister's Office, Janos Lazar. Only a handful of people knew about it. It was basically a state secret."
"I then travelled to London and was brought to a building where the treasure was housed in a big safe. I'll never forget the moment when they opened that safe. It was marvelous. I could actually touch something I had only seen in pictures."
Counter-terrorism squad gets involved
Once the deal was done, Baan went to London with members of Hungary's Counter-Terrorism Unit in an unmarked vehicle. They loaded the treasures and drove straight back to Hungary, going through the Channel Tunnel and continuing on to Budapest. It was a 20-hour trip with occupants taking turns at the wheel.
The mystery, however, is not over. Baan estimates that at least 200 parts of the collection are still missing, mainly smaller ones such as goblets and cutlery. The question is: where are they? He thinks they've already been unearthed and smuggled out of Hungary. Meanwhile, Baan would love to get his hands on the seven items still in Lord Northampton's possession. He's keeping his cards close to his chest about his next move.