Fourth Century Roman “family silver” returns home to Hungary

A Roman nobleman of Pannonia hid family silverware from nomad invaders in the 4th century AD. About 1,500 years later, a Hungarian miner finds it, tries to sell it on the black market, and dies in mysterious circumstances a few years later. The treasures seemed to be lost forever. The tale begins like a crime novel, but it’s nonfiction and, with the news last week, has a happy ending.

“Hungary has succeeded in arranging the return of the remaining seven pieces of the uniquely important and priceless hoard from ancient Roman times known as the Seuso Treasure,” Prime Minister Viktor Orbán announced last week. “Our priceless national treasure – our family silver – belongs here in Hungary.”

The prime minister unveiled the entire collection of the known pieces of the Seuso Treasure, accompanied by Museum of Fine Arts Director László Baán. The priceless find is now on display in the Hungarian Parliament Building, open to the public every day between noon and 6 p.m. until the end of August. Following that, the exhibition will tour the country before being transferred to the Hungarian National Museum.

In the mid-1970s, József Sümegh, a miner in the western Hungarian town of Polgárdi, not far from Lake Balaton, happened upon an ancient collection of artifacts in a huge caldron. Among the treasures found were pure silver jugs, dishes, and a vessel for eating or washing used by a 4th century noble Roman family in what was then the northeastern outskirts of the Roman Empire. Sümegh was hiding the priceless pieces and began gradually to sell them – some pieces even turned up at the infamous Ecseri flea market in Budapest.

What seemed like a lucky find turned out to be a tragedy for the man, who was found dead in his cellar one day in 1990. According to one of his friends, Sümegh had been seen shortly before with high-ranking Hungarian and Russian officials. Three of Sümegh’s confidants were also found dead. The treasure was then apparently smuggled to the West, likely to New York, reportedly with help from József Czinege, son of the minister of defense of the communist regime.

Historians claim that Seuso hid the valuable cauldron – full of his precious, family silver – ahead of a vandal attack. He was so successful in doing so that the fourteen known pieces of the almost complete collection are in perfect shape, making it one of the two most valuable collections from the era. The seven pieces that have now been returned comprise the Achilles and Milagros plates, a ewer decorated with animals, an amphora, the Hippolytus Ewer, and two buckets with decoration similar to that on the Hippolytus Ewer. On the most notable piece in the collection, a 70 cm diameter solid silver plate decorated with gold, the name of the owner and some geographical terms (e.g. Pelso, the Latin name for today’s Lake Balaton) can be seen.

Museum of Fine Arts Director László Baán told reporters that each and every government since 1990 has attempted to reacquire the treasure, whether through negotiation or legal action. “This has now been achieved in two stages,” he said, “as the first seven pieces were returned here in 2014, and the remaining seven pieces – which are even more valuable from an art history viewpoint – have now been returned to Hungary.”

“This means that the complete Seuso Treasure is now back in Hungary,” Baán said.

The return is an enormous success, ending a struggle that has lasted some three decades. The family silver is finally home! Check it out for free at the Parliament building until the end of August.