Monday, April 20, 2020

The Seuso Treasure: Misdirection, Mayhem, and Murder Most Foul

In 1980, two magnificent pieces of Roman silver serving pieces dating from the late 4th to early 5th century CE were offered for sale in London by two antiquities' dealers from Vienna. Documentation supplied by the Lebanese embassy in Switzerland claimed a treasure hoard that included the two pieces had been found in the Tyre and Sidon regions of Lebanon. The complete hoard was subsequently acquired by a consortium headed by the 7th Marquess of Northhampton who then attempted to negotiate a sale to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles for $10 million. At that time, the Getty Museum had been recently endowed with the complete fortune of J. Paul Getty, who had died in 1976 and was aggressively expanding its collections. But when the deal fell through, the treasure was put up for sale in New York in 1990 by Sotheby's. That sale was halted when documentation was determined to be suspect. Soon the governments of Hungary, Yugoslavia and Lebanon each made claims of ownership. Hungarian authorities claim that the treasure was discovered by a young soldier, József Sümegh, in around 1975–76 near the town of Polgárdi in central Hungary. Sümegh's dead body was found in a nearby cellar in 1980. Although the official investigation at the time determined that he had committed suicide, later the police came to the conclusion that he had been murdered. (As of 2012, the murder had not been solved).
Yugoslavia's case was based on claims that the treasure had been originally found on 30 June 1960, in the village of Barbariga in Istria (present-day Croatia). The village is some 20 kilometres north of the city of Pula, an important city in Roman times. According to local witnesses, the treasure had been discovered in old trenches in a nearby Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) compound.[9] In the 1980s the JNA gave permission to local archeologists, led by Vesna Girardi-Jurkić, to further excavate the site. According to unconfirmed eyewitness reports of army excavations, the 14 known artefacts were only a small part of a much larger treasure trove as it took soldiers and police brought to the site six days to list all the items found at the site. However, very few details of the project were ever released to the public as the alleged site was entirely within a military area closed off to civilians.[9] Yugoslav archaeologists' efforts eventually failed to provide any conclusive evidence for the treasure's origin, although the soil residue found on the artefacts was proved to match the samples of soil from the area. After the breakup of Yugoslavia the newly independent Croatia pressed on with the case and included the results of the soil analysis in its formal ownership claim to a New York court.
In November 1993, the New York Court of Appeals rejected the claims, and found no case for removing it from the possession of the Marquess of Northampton. Meanwhile, the Marquess sued his solicitors for their failure to properly research the treasure's provenance and the Marquess was awarded £15 million in damages. In September 2006, London auctioneer Bonhams announced that it would exhibit the treasure privately, in a move seen as a prelude to a sale by private treaty or by auction at a future date. The Ministry of Education and Culture of Hungary, formally challenged any sale. In March 2007, The Art Newspaper reported that a further "187 silvergilt spoons, 37 silvergilt drinking cups, and 5 silver bowls", previously unknown, but part of the original hoard, were reputed to exist. Research presented in February 2008 by the Hungarian archaeologist Zsolt Visy strengthened the view that the origin of the treasure may be the Lake Balaton region of Hungary, evidenced by the presence of an inscription on the "Hunting Plate" reading "Pelso," the Roman name for Lake Balaton in Hungary, just west of the alleged place of discovery. Archaeologists also pointed to the discovery in 1873 of a Roman quadripod with very similar decoration near the lake. The similarities in workmanship and motif was so striking, archaeologists said it was very likely created by the same workshop.
The Roman occupation of what would become the Roman Province of Pannonia began under Octavian in 35-34 BCE following a series of campaigns he conducted against the Illyrians. Localized rebelliions cropped up periodically thereafter until the Dalmatian-Pannonian Revolt erupted in 6 CE, lasting for four brutal years. One of the rebel leaders, Batone the Dalmatian, captured by Tiberius, blamed the Romans for the unrest saying "You are responsible for this war, because in defense of your flocks you send wolves instead of dogs and shepherds, as custodians ." After ultimate Roman victory, the region was divided into Pannonia Inferior and Superior under the administrataion of a legatus Augusti pro praetor at the head of 3 legions: VIII Augusta , VIIII Hispana and XV Apollinaris.
Pannonia ultimately became a productive province of the Roman Empire, especially after the great forests were cleared by Probus and Galerius. Before that time, timber was one of its major exports along with oats, barley, and a kind of beer named sabaea. It was also famous for a breed of hunting dogs. Although no mention is made of its mineral wealth by the ancients, it is probable that it contained iron and silver mines, perhaps the source for the objects of the Seuso Treasure. By the late fourth century, though, the Quadi, in a coalition with the Marcomanni and Sarmatians plundered Pannonia. The initial raids were stemmed by Constantius II but another Quadi incursion in 374 CE forced Valentianian I to lead retaliatory campaigns in the region. By the beginning of the 5th century, Pannonia was no longer secure, exposed regularly to Gothic and Hun raids. The wealthy Seuso probably buried his hoard of silver during this period where it lay undiscovered for almost 1500 years.
Finally, on March 26, 2014 the Hungarian prime minister announced that seven items from the Seuso Treasure were being returned to Hungary upon the payment of €15 million. Then on July 12, 2017 Hungary announced another seven pieces would be repatriated. The Treasure is now on display at the Hungarian National Museum.

All images courtesy of the Hungarian National Museum.
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