As we approach the festive season, there is a lot to look forward to – catching up with old friends, celebrating Christmas with our England-based family, and a new book in the offing.  Both the paperback and ebook of Mourning in Malmö are now out for pre-sale and will be available to read on January 3rd.  (The American paperback sometime in April)  The future is promising.  And it probably looked that way for a Hungarian man who unearthed a dramatic treasure.  The consequences were to turn out tragically different.

I came across the story on our visit to Budapest in October.  We visited the National Museum of Hungary.  One of the exhibition areas had a collection of astonishingly beautiful, crafted, silver plates and vessels, as well as a copper cauldron about three feet in diameter and one foot deep.  Some of the plates are enormous – two and half feet across and several inches thick.  Many are decorated with images of exotic beasts and mythological characters – Achilles and Ulysses, Castor and Pollux.  All are believed to be the property of Sevso, a Roman general.

It wasn’t until we looked up more information on the Sevso Treasure that we came across the extraordinary story of its discovery and tortuous route to the museum; a tangled tale of greed, deceit and murder that is still shrouded in mystery.  Sevso was based in the Roman province of Pannonia, which covers what is now Croatia, Bosnia and Hungary.  It was a thriving part of the empire until the arrival of the Goths and Vandals in the fourth and fifth centuries.  Some of the Romans buried their wealth before fleeing westward.  In this region lies Lake Balaton, which was popular with the Romans and has proved a rich hunting ground for archaeologists and treasure hunters ever since.  Workers at a quarry outside the village of Polgardi, northeast of the lake, often turned up coins and other artefacts.  But that was nothing to what a twenty-two-year-old man was to unearth in 1978.  Jozsef Sumegh’s shovel hit something metallic during a spot of illicit excavating in the quarry.  He’d discovered a hoard that, if it had been sold complete, could have been worth $200 million.  It probably cost him his life.

Sumegh should have handed over his treasure to the Hungarian authorities.  What he did do was quit his job and move to Budapest.  It may have been here that the first pieces of his find were sold on.  He was then called up for national service.  Before leaving, he buried the massive copper cauldron and the silver items in the earth floor of a wine cellar close to the quarry.  Shortly before being discharged from the army, he was allowed a short leave.  On his way home, he stopped off at a local bar for a few drinks.  Two strangers, after asking for him by name, engaged him in conversation.  Later, they all left with a drunken Sumegh.  They were last seen heading across fields towards the wine cellar.  Two days later, a couple of quarry workers approached the cellar in the snow and saw three sets of prints heading towards the door – but only two sets leaving.  They found Sumegh hanging by his neck from the rafters, yet his knees were touching the floor.  There was a big hole in the earth.  Over the next two months, there were two more strange deaths.  A close friend and co-worker died after being fed poisoned cheese, while another friend was found hanging in a nearby forest.

Meanwhile, three pieces of the silver ended up in Vienna in the hands of two dubious antiquities dealers.  In 1980, one of the pieces was sold on to a dealer consortium called the Art Consultancy.  Ten years later, Sotheby’s in New York announced the upcoming sale of a treasure of fourteen pieces of silver, supposedly from Phoenicia (modern Lebanon), owned by the Marquess of Northampton.  The Marquess had bought the items, one at a time, purely as an investment from the Art Consortium.  The J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles were interested but were suspicious of the licences provided.  As it turned out, they were right to be, as the licences had been forged by one of the Viennese dealers, who had Lebanese connections.  This had been done deliberately to distance the treasure from where (and how) it had really been found.  If the fourteen items were proved to come from Hungary, the government would claim them.   As a matter of due diligence, Sotheby’s notified all the countries that had been within the old Roman Empire.  Lebanon (erroneously), Hungary and Croatia all claimed the hoard as their own and all three sued Northampton for the return of the treasure.  The hoard was impounded by a Manhattan judge until everything could be resolved.  When soil samples were swabbed from the silver, it proved that the burial place was western Hungary.  Jozsef Sumegh’s death also pointed to the area where the Sevso silver had been found.

It still wasn’t until 2014 that the first seven pieces were returned to Hungary, with the second batch in 2017.  The combined cost was 43 million euros.  But many believe Sumegh had discovered at least thirty pieces.  What happened to the others is lost in the labyrinthine world of the crooked antiquities trade.  Sumegh’s killers have never been traced, yet alone brought to justice.  How the silver items ended up reaching the open market is another mystery.  The consolation is knowing that Sevso’s treasure – or a significant part of it – can now be enjoyed by visitors to the National Museum of Hungary.

Budapest will play a part in Anita Sundström’s next adventure, which I will be writing next year.  Until then, there’s a festive season to be enjoyed.  So, I’d like to take this opportunity to wish all my readers a merry Christmas and a prosperous 2020.