Seuso-treasure Repatriated

26 March 2014.


Hungary has acquired and repatriated seven pieces of the unique, priceless, ancient Roman silver treasure known as the Seuso-treasure

The unique and priceless artifact known as the Seuso-treasure is an ancient Roman hoard of silver objects of exceptional professional craftsmanship. The treasure was named after its owner, a high-ranking Roman officer, Seuso, who lived more than fifteen centuries ago next to Lacus Pelso (today known as Balaton), in the territory of today’s Polgárdi, and who (or whose heirs) concealed the treasure most likely due to a military attack at the end of the 4th century or at the beginning of the 5th century.

The treasure trove, crafted in the 4th century AD, consists of large silver vessels. The best-known piece of the treasure is the plate after which the treasure was named. In the center of the large piece meticulous hunting scenes are framed by Latin signs dedicating the treasure to its presumed owner and his family, while on the plate the word Pelso, the Latin name for Balaton, can be read. The silver Seuso-treasure consists of fourteen silver vessels used for dining and washing. The treasure includes two large flat plates which were used for serving food (the so-called Hunting Plate and the Geometric Plate), two additional serving plates which were presumably also used as ornaments (the so-called Achilles- and Milagros-plate), a deep basin which was presumably used to wash one’s hands and face with two geometrically decorated ewers attached thereto, as well as three additional ewers, one decorated with Dionysian symbols, one with animals and one with Greek mythology symbols (the so-called Hippolytus-Ewer). Two buckets – the decoration of which is similar to that of the Hippolytus-Ewer –, one casket serving as storage for perfume jars and an amphora also form part of the treasure. The vessels were concealed in the large copper cauldron. The Hungarian State has now acquired seven silver pieces of the Seuso-treasure: the Hunting (Seuso) Plate and the Geometric Plate, the two geometric ewers, the Basin, the Casket, the Dionysiac Ewer and the copper cauldron that was used for hiding the treasure 1500 years ago.

The Seuso-treasure, both in terms of composition and in terms of its assumed concealment circumstances, fits neatly into the range of other known silver artifacts recovered from the territory of the Roman Empire from the late-Imperial era. The Seuso-treasure is considered to be prominent both in terms of its artistic and its material value; among the somewhat thirty precious metal artifacts including feast dinnerware pieces known to be from the period between the end of the 2nd century to the second half of the 5th century. Altogether the quantity of its silver vessels amounts to approximately 68.5 kg as the result of which it qualifies as the most significant among subsisting silversmith treasures known and revealed to date at some 1800 archeological locations from the late-Imperial era.

The fourteen-piece silver collection appeared in 1990 at an auction organized by the New York-based auction house Sotheby’s where its sale was attempted. However, one day after the opening of the exhibition of the collection in New York, Lebanon and then Hungary and Yugoslavia filed a claim for the treasure arguing that such treasure was found in their respective territories and that as such they were entitled to the collection. Lebanon’s claim was later withdrawn while the claim of Hungary and that of Croatia acting as the successor of Yugoslavia was dismissed by the jury, and the appeals of both countries were dismissed in 1993 in appellate court. At the time Hungary could not prove ownership of the collection therefore the collection remained with its possessor.

The Seuso-treasure was found in the middle of the 1970s around Polgárdi, situated close to Balaton. Despite the international investigation that has been ongoing since then, little is known for certain about their history until their aforementioned appearance at the New York auction in 1990. According to the information available, the artifacts were tracked down by an amateur archeologist, József Sümegh, who, however, did not make any official notification about the trove. Sümegh died – his hanging body was found in 1980 in a cellar close to Polgárdi. Following that, the collection disappeared; supposedly it was taken to the West-European market via intermediates in the 80s. According to the information available, the fourteen silver pieces known today were purchased by several collectors based on fake Lebanese documents in the beginning and in the middle of the 80s. The sale of the treasure was attempted via the aforementioned New York auction in 1990 by a consortium led by an English aristocrat, Lord Northampton for an auction price amounting to 100 million euros at today’s value.

Throughout the last almost 25 years Hungary never abandoned the goal of acquiring this unique trove collection. Simultaneously with continuing verification procedures, the representatives of consecutive Hungarian governments negotiated with the owners of the Seuso-treasure several times, albeit unsuccessfully. Agreements failed due to several factors, including the exorbitant price of the artifacts the owner had intended to sell the Seuso-treasure for tens of billion forints.

The negotiations that finally led to success started around a year ago. During the negotiations János Lázár, state secretary of the Prime Minister’s Office and László Baán, director of the Museum of Fine Arts, represented the Hungarian state. The compensation payable for the acquisition was 15 million euros, which – at today’s value - is about one third of the auction price asked for in 1990. The treasure was repatriated to Budapest at the end of last week with the logistical help of the Counter Terrorism Center.

The acquired treasure can be viewed free of charge from Saturday, March 29, in the building of the Parliament. From 2018 onwards it is intended be one of the “gems” of the new museums’ quarter.

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The Sevso treasure and its significance