The village of Polgardi is a dusty roadside settlement northeast of Lake Balaton, a resort area in western Hungary popular with German tourists. Two thousand years ago Balaton was popular with Romans, a kind of Jersey Shore for the generals who ruled Pannonia, the immense Roman province that encompassed parts of today's Croatia, Bosnia, and Yugoslavia, along with parts of Hungary, Romania, and Albania. The region was a hub of the Roman Empire, the site of countless wars, and crisscrossed by trade routes. In the fourth and fifth centuries Goths and Vandals swept down from the north, and the Romans bolted, leaving behind the lavish wreckage of their occupation. Ever since, the Balaton area has been a rich hunting ground for archaeologists and treasure seekers. Workers at a stone quarry outside Polgardi often found coins and other artifacts, and in the years following World War II a lively trade developed between locals and the Hungarian and Soviet soldiers stationed nearby. Some of the loot was semi-valuable, but most was essentially ancient junk: bent coins, ceramic fragments.
According to the Hungarian government and police officials, on a warm day in 1978 Jozsef Sumegh, twenty-two years old, was doing a routine excavation at the Polgardi quarry when his shovel hit metal. He unearthed something the likes of which no one in the modern world had ever seen: a copper cauldron, about three feet in diameter and one foot deep, containing cunningly crafted silver plates, ewers, an amphora, and a basin of the Roman era. The treasure is known to have included at least fourteen pieces and may have included as many as thirty. The cauldron was encrusted with grime, and blackened by a cooking fire that had gone out more than 1,600 years before. The silver was barnacled by centuries of detritus, and Sumegh could not possibly have known exactly what he had found, though he must have sensed that it was extraordinary. It would turn out to be one of the most beautiful and valuable treasures ever to have survived from the ancient world.
A few months later Sumegh quit his job without explanation and moved to Budapest. He lived in a hostel. He took menial jobs. He came home every other week, and he told his family next to nothing about his life. But relatives noticed that he had taken to wearing Levi's jeans and American shirts, extravagant, expensive, and bold fashion for Communist Hungary. The only place to buy clothes like that was the flea market near the Budapest airport, a mangy fiefdom of tents and stalls ruled by Gypsies and black marketeers, where the right contacts could get one anything from belt buckles to diamonds to automatic weapons. In those days any Hungarian who wanted to unload something unusual and potentially troublesome went to the flea market.
After a few months, in early 1979, Sumegh left Budapest to fulfill his national-service requirement. He was assigned to the army barracks in Papa, a half hour's drive from Polgardi. But before he left for the army, evidence suggests, he buried the cauldron and its contents—minus at least three pieces of the silver, which he may have sold—in the dirt floor of a wine cellar adjacent to the quarry.
How many people Sumegh told about his find is unclear. Zoltan Fodelmesi, the principal of the local school, an avid coin collector who often traded with Sumegh, says he remembers once being asked to Sumegh's house. The house was divided into two rooms. The entire family—Sumegh, his two young brothers, and their parents—slept in one of them. Sumegh's find was locked away in the other. Only he and his mother had access.
Fodelmesi, now in his seventies, is stooped, his cheeks and chest sunken. He wears an expression of perpetual worry. He says that he knew from the beginning that knowledge of the treasure was dangerous; today, more than twenty years after Sumegh showed it to him, he says he is still afraid for his life. Fodelmesi advised Sumegh to take the find to the national museum in Budapest. Most countries offer a reward for the surrender of found antiquities, but Hungary's citizens are required to turn everything they find over to the state museums, and they may only receive a small fee in return. Sumegh had no incentive to do anything but sell—which is what he told Fodelmesi he was going to do. "And not cheap," he said. He'd had his eye on a plot of land in the village, and he wanted to buy it and build a house on it.
No one knows for sure exactly how the treasure began to find its way to market. The most likely scenario, based on interviews and circumstantial evidence, is that someone at the Budapest flea market—who also had no idea what he was dealing with—took a few pieces off Sumegh's hands. Somehow three pieces of the silver wound up in Vienna, a center of the antiquities trade, in the possession of two antiquities dealers, Halim Korban and his partner Anton Tkalec. Korban is a Lebanese who sold icons and minor antiquities out of a shop in the Vienna Hilton. Tkalec (pronounced Ka-litz) is a Yugoslav Serb who had developed a business selling mostly Greek and Roman coins in Zurich. His personal and political connections are believed to have run all the way to the top of the Yugoslav government. Some of those who know Tkalec say that after Sumegh passed through the flea market, Tkalec got three pieces of the silver. The first thing Tkalec would have done, they speculate, is to find out just what he had. He wasn't an antiquities expert—he was a coin guy. Korban was the one with contacts in the antiquities world.
In November of 1980 one piece of the silver was sold to a dealer consortium called the Art Consultancy. On November 24 Korban flew to London with a package. In the package was a piece of the treasure, a silver ewer or pitcher. Korban took the ewer to a web of antiquities dealers at the center of which was Peter Wilson, then sixty-seven and recently retired as the chairman of Sotheby's. Wilson was the art market's pre-eminent power broker. He had the piece taken to the British Museum for evaluation. The dealers had thought the piece was Islamic—nice but not special. After a little cleaning the museum realized that it had something Roman—and spectacular—on its hands.
Most of the pieces in Sumegh's treasure are decorated with images: exotic beasts, Achilles and Ulysses, Castor and Pollux, Atalanta. The handles of the amphora are solid silver panthers. A wine pitcher one and a half feet tall shows the revels of Bacchus in gilt. A pear-shaped pitcher of the same size has ten sides divided into 120 hexagonal panels, each with gilded figures of hunters and wild animals. What Tkalec and Korban at least suspected—and later confirmed—was that the treasure included several enormous plates, up to two and a half feet across, several inches thick, and weighing up to eighteen pounds apiece. The centerpiece is a plate engraved and inlaid with a skill that experts say is unequaled in all of surviving Roman-era silversmithing. The plate has a Latin inscription: "Let these, O Sevso, be vessels fit to serve your descendants worthily." Experts believe that Sevso was a Roman general. The antiquities curator at the Hungarian national museum, in Budapest, told me that the only ancient workshop capable of craftsmanship like this was in Thessaloniki, in Greece. Had the entire hoard been sold together, it might have pulled as much as $200 million. Any museum in the world would consider the treasure to be its most important Roman-era possession, and any country would be eager to claim it as national patrimony.