Until the conclusion of the New York trial, Croatian government officials had been committed to claiming the treasure. Whoever or whatever lay behind Anton Cvek's story, it certainly reflected a fledgling nation's hunger for a national identity. I heard rumors that in 1992 Northampton had offered to give Croatia either $85 million or one or two pieces of the treasure, gratis, if the Croatians would walk away from their claim. Officials in Zagreb wouldn't talk about that. The story itself might have been planted to bolster Croatia's credibility, and so undermine Hungary's. Dick Ellis told me that Scotland Yard detectives watched a video of Cvek testifying about how big the Sevso plates were, in which he held up his hands about a foot and a half apart. The detectives, Ellis told me, broke out in laughter.
Back in London, I went to see Andy Sellers, the head of the Sevso operation, at his small, dingy office at New Scotland Yard. Sellers, in his late forties, is young for his rank. He is tall and plainspoken, with a military bearing, a street cop more comfortable with armed robbers than with anyone or anything relating to art. He was obviously the last man on earth with whom Van Rijn could do business. At the mere mention of Van Rijn's name Sellers's jaw tightened, his hands clenched his chair, and he shook his head slowly, as if talking himself out of saying something he would regret.
Sellers told me that from the beginning of the Sevso operation he had disliked Van Rijn. He thought him "a manipulative dilettante." Sellers was aware of Van Rijn's reputation—that he'd informed for Scotland Yard for years, and for the French police, the Carabinieri, and the FBI, all the while cutting his own side deals, ratting on the operations of rivals, and then filling the voids he had created. But Van Rijn was the Yard's sole source of information on Sevso, and Felice Cultrera was its only possible approach to Tkalec. "But we risk-assessed it," Sellers told me, "and the other side of it was the Hungarians' expectation, and the sheer value of this commodity." There was also the pathos of the story of Jozsef Sumegh to consider, and the purity of the Hungarians' passion.
Then he told me what had happened in Zurich.
On October 27 Van Rijn and Cultrera met Sellers and two other Yard detectives in Zurich. They collectively decided that Cultrera would meet Tkalec at noon and take him out to a restaurant. They allowed two hours for the lunch, after which they'd reconvene and debrief. But given what he knew about Van Rijn, Sellers had pre-arranged for a Swiss surveillance team to secretly shadow Cultrera.
Three o'clock came and went, and Sellers had heard nothing from Cultrera. Then the Swiss called and reported that Cultrera had gone to Tkalec's office at noon, stayed for only twenty minutes, and then returned to his hotel, and he hadn't left since. Sellers immediately called Van Rijn and said that he wanted to meet right away. When the group was all together, Cultrera told Sellers that everything had gone according to plan, that he'd been with Tkalec for forty-five minutes, and that Tkalec had talked openly about the Sevso silver and was ready to deal. Cultrera also said that Tkalec wanted to give him a photograph of the silver so that there would be no doubt what they were talking about. He would return to Tkalec's office the next morning to pick it up.
The next day Swiss surveillance picked up Cultrera's trail outside his hotel. But instead of meeting Tkalec at his office to get the photograph, as he'd told Sellers he'd do, Cultrera drove straight to the airport hotel where he was to meet the British detectives before his flight home. Cultrera told Sellers that he'd met with Tkalec at his office, as planned. He then handed the detective the photograph that Tkalec had supposedly given him. "When we had a look at this photograph," Sellers said, "we saw it's a laser copy. It looks like a photograph of part of Northampton's [portion of the treasure]. So we now know that FC is giving us bullshit. We're already smelling a rat. FC says he's in a hurry, I've got things to do. FC flew off happy."
Later that day Sellers shared a cab to the airport with Van Rijn. Van Rijn chattered excitedly about the progress they'd made, and how the sting was going better than expected. Sellers listened patiently and then turned and confronted him, telling him bitterly that he'd had surveillance on Cultrera the entire time, and that he knew the Yard was being set up. Sellers was seething. Van Rijn seemed devastated. "If it was an act, it was a good act, of total devastation and surprise," Sellers told me. "The rest of the trip to the airport he's silent and quiet. When we get to the airport, he pulls me to one side and says, Look, about a month ago FC suggested that we try to have you over, and we have a copy of the silver made, and we'll do the switch, and you'll seize the copies, and the Mafia will make copies of the real commodity, and you'll be left looking like a bunch of prats." Van Rijn said he'd tried to convince Cultrera that they had to stick with the Yard's plan, and thought he'd won him over, but obviously Cultrera was having him over as well. According to Sellers, Van Rijn then said, "Look, we'll work together and we will shaft FC. If you let me get back into him, and say all right, let's fucking shaft the police, I'll find out exactly what the plan is, because if the silver's going to be copied, Tkalec's going to have to give it up, and if we know where it's going, and I think I know the silversmith in Seville who'll do the copying, if I know it's there, you can arrange for the Spanish police to seize it, and job done."
Two months later Van Rijn's lawyer sent Scotland Yard a fax terminating his cooperation in all ongoing operations, including Sevso. The reason Van Rijn gave me was that the Yard had put his life—and his family's lives—in danger by reneging on a promise to protect him. He also says that the Yard left him vulnerable to criminal prosecution in France by exposing him as a participating informant in a case involving smuggled bronze statues. The police later told me that although they had installed alarms in Van Rijn's London townhouse, and had offered him a place in the witness-protection program, he continued to send faxes all over the world announcing that he knew of various plots to buy and sell stolen art and antiquities. "I was going to offer him a change of identity, but I knew that it would be a waste of time," Dick Ellis says. "Within six months Van Rijn would resurface as himself, in his striped shirts and plaid blazers and flowery ascot."
A more likely explanation of Van Rijn's withdrawal of cooperation is that his vanity couldn't recover from the humiliation of having been outwitted in Zurich by the likes of Andy Sellers.
For two weeks after the meeting at the Budapest Hilton, Hajdu-Bankuti phoned Van Rijn repeatedly to see how he and Cultrera were progressing, but he didn't return her calls. Instead, just before Christmas, he called Anton Tkalec. They had two conversations. In the first, Van Rijn says, Tkalec offered him a partnership in the silver, so that they could double cross the Hungarians. (I asked to hear that tape, but Van Rijn told me that his recorder had, in this one case, malfunctioned.) In the second conversation, which I did hear, Tkalec's hostility toward Van Rijn was manifest. Tkalec said he had spoken to his lawyer and wasn't interested in talking about the Sevso silver anymore. He and Van Rijn had nothing more to talk about. Then he wished him a Happy New Year and hung up. Van Rijn had eliminated any chance that Tkalec could be surprised by anything at all. He had sabotaged the entire operation.
Meanwhile, I asked Hajdu-Bankuti why her government did not merely buy back the silver.
"It doesn't sound good in the international market to buy back something that went out illegally," she replied. "And the connection with the murder—there were three deaths around it."
I finally called Cultrera himself. He was astonished that this was anyone else's topic of conversation. "This is reality. This isn't a movie, you know," he told me darkly. The day before I called, Van Rijn had told him that Scotland Yard was publicly talking about his participation in the failed sting. Actually, the Yard wasn't—but Van Rijn was.
"How can they talk about something as delicate as that?" Cultrera said. "I risk my life, and they are like that. They are stupid ... They come to me to help for the situation. I am for justice." In what had become for me a litany of denials, Cultrera told me that he never suggested kidnapping Tkalec or had any intention of forging any of the treasure.
When Dick Ellis learned what Van Rijn had been up to with the Hungarians, he was appalled. The whole point, after all, had been to seize the silver in Tkalec's possession, go after Northampton's in the courts, reunite the hoard, and put it on display in the national museum in Budapest, for all of Hungary—and the world—to see. "If they have recovered the silver in the back of a car after paying for it, and Tkalec is covered with black eyes or worse, you're not going to be able to evidence the silver, or maybe link it to the other hoard," Ellis told me. "The Hungarians have to be able to produce evidence and present it to a court and a judge to prove that Northampton's silver rightfully belongs to them."
After I met with Sellers, I sat in a pub around the corner from New Scotland Yard with a detective friend, a man with a keen street intuition and without an agenda. Police officers can get close to the animal angles that lie beneath—and sometimes undercut—intellectual reason. They often come around to the idea that the solutions to most mysteries are simple, if not mundane. The more convoluted the case, the more probable this is. This detective planted his flag in plainness. We drank, ruminating on Van Rijn ("There are those who wouldn't mind seeing him at the bottom of a river," the detective said, only half joking), on Tkalec ("nasty piece of work"), and on the Sevso treasure. At some point he fell silent, pointed at me with his finger, and squinted. "Have you ever considered the possibility," he said reflectively, "that there is no more silver? That what Northampton has is basically the whole lot, except the one piece we know about that Tkalec has? And that all this—the sting, everything—has been for nothing?"
I thought about what Van Rijn—or anyone else, for that matter—actually knew to be true about the remainder of the treasure. I knew of at least one more extraordinary plate, with an engraved Chi-Rho in the center. Tkalec himself had disclosed its existence by having its image published on the cover of an auction catalogue. I'd heard strong rumors and descriptions of another plate, called the Constantine Plate. But who had actually laid eyes on Tkalec's treasure? Who had held it? The answer, as far as I knew, was no one. Except, of course, the enigmatic Tkalec himself. And then it struck me that maybe the reason Van Rijn hadn't followed through with the sting or the kidnapping plot was that he couldn't, because despite the time and the money invested, there was no more treasure—and he had known it all along.
"Just a thought," the detective said.
I eventually made contact with Tkalec myself. He spoke to me by phone from Zurich, and from his country house in Thessaloniki, on a number of occasions, and we developed a strange, dueling rapport, in which he would alternately try to intimidate me with dark threats and talk to me openly about his love of antiquities, and of history itself.
He told me that he didn't have the silver—that Northampton's half is all there ever was. "You tell me what you're missing, and I'll tell you what I have," he said, laughing. (An impossible task, it seems, because the only people to have seen the remaining silver, if there is any, are either dead or in the mute chain of dealers.) But one London dealer, who asked to remain anonymous, told me he had seen the inveterate British antiquities collector George Ortiz looking the silver over in Zurich. And Dick Ellis says that Ortiz once bragged to him that he had a piece of the Sevso hoard.
On a number of occasions I asked Tkalec if he could identify what country the silver came from. One time he said that he had no idea, that he was only a part of the treasure's chain of dealers. Another time he said, "Yes, I can, but I don't want to. Who has to know, knows this." As for Hungary: "They are communists looking for their heritage in places where they never had it." About the possible existence of plots to kidnap and entrap him, Tkalec sounded curious and amused. I asked him if he knew Felice Cultrera. He said he didn't. I said Cultrera was allegedly linked to the Santapaolo Mafia. Tkalec said, "The oldish guy who came to me? He was Mickey Mouse." As for Scotland Yard, he said, "They're like Dr. Watson and the other guy ... Sherlock Holmes, that's it, that's it. They have this complex and they want to prove it to the world. It's in their blood. They are a bunch of assholes, excuse me ... Van Rijn is a creep ... He's trying to make some money. He was a kind of playboy. He's not my world. All over the world he was involved in all kinds of funny stories. I'm a hard worker. I work eighteen hours a day. This man never worked more than one hour a week." Tkalec confirmed that he had spoken to Van Rijn just before Christmas, but not about double crossing the Hungarians.
"If you tell me you'll give me ten million dollars," Tkalec told me, "I'll tell you the full story of Sevso. For ten million dollars I will sell my grandmother. I do not want to make my future on the skeletons of other people ... I will never lie. I may not tell the truth, but I will never lie."
An old friend of Tkalec's had told me that Tkalec is half Jewish. Tkalec asked about my background. I am Jewish—half Hungarian, half Russian. When I told him this, it seemed to give him pause. He seemed to mull it over. After a moment his voice lowered, and he told me to be very Jewish—that Jews don't hurt other Jews. It was half threat, half advice. Then he hung up.
In May of 2000 I flew to Zurich to try to meet him. Bank Leu's coin auction, the numismatic world's biggest and most important annual event, was taking place at a hotel downtown. I knew that Tkalec would be there, and he was. He didn't know what I looked like, but I knew him from photographs. Tables were arranged in a huge square around the perimeter of the hotel's main ballroom, with an auctioneer at the head. I sat against the wall across from Tkalec, watching him. Ancient coins came and went for tens of thousands of dollars. Many of them were from his collection. I didn't want to embarrass him by approaching him in front of his colleagues. During a break I went downstairs to the lobby and called him on his cell phone. At first he was amused that I was calling. We hadn't spoken for some months. Then I told him where I was. He became supremely unhappy. He growled that he would never meet me. We argued. After the auction I waited outside his office, along the fashionable Limmatquai, to catch him in private. He called me on my cell phone. He told me that he knew I was there waiting for him, and that he'd never come, and I'd never find him, and we'd never speak again.
In the town of Szabadbattyan, Hungary, about a mile and a half from the spot where Jozsef Sumegh is thought to have found the copper cauldron, lie the recently discovered ruins of an enormous two-story Roman villa. The remains of four Roman soldiers were found crushed beneath a collapsed floor. There were also signs of burning. Archaeologists trying to piece together the last moments of the villa's occupants believe that they escaped ahead of a barbarian attack, and that the soldiers stayed behind to defend the homestead. At some point the silver treasure could have been stashed in a hiding place in what is now the Polgardi quarry.
A short drive away, on the southern shores of Lake Balaton, lives Jozsef Sumegh's brother, Ishtevan, in a house behind a restaurant he owns. He is twenty-nine, a big, cheerful man who turns somber and quiet when Sevso is brought up. The story he tells is harrowing. He says that at one point Jozsef sent him and their other brother, Attilla, for sandpaper, and that they used it to clean off one of the pieces of silver. He is convinced that the military was involved in his brother's death. Both Russian and Hungarian officers visited Jozsef after he found the treasure. "During the 1980s," Ishtevan told me through an interpreter, "there was no way whatsoever for a simple person to take anything across the border." He also remembers that a peasant family in Polgardi was interested not in the silver pieces but in the copper cauldron, to make the local brew. Jozsef showed it to them, but it was too oxidized for use.
In 1980, Ishtevan said, Jozsef and their mother had a screaming match, which he remembers clearly. His mother complained that Jozsef wanted to sell the treasure too cheap, piece by piece, rather than holding out to sell the whole thing for a huge sum. Not long afterward Jozsef was dead, and the treasure was gone. Ten years later, when Ishtevan was seventeen, he and Attilla were jailed for stealing a car. They happened to be paroled just as Northampton was gearing up to sell the treasure through Sotheby's. Ishtevan told me that his mother met him and his brother outside the prison and said that they had to defect immediately, that their lives were in danger because of what they knew about the treasure. She had arranged to have them smuggled out. If they had been caught, the penalties would have been heavy. At the Hungarian border she told them, "I will never see you again, but when I die I am going to leave a good-bye letter that will tell everything I know about the treasure." Ishtevan and Attilla left for Spain. Two weeks later their mother was found dead on the lawn in front of their house. The official cause of death was an accidental fall and blow to the head, but her husband told Ishtevan that this was inaccurate—she had just collapsed and died. A family friend says she posted a letter two weeks before she died, but nothing is known about this letter, if indeed it was written.
Just before I left, Ishtevan asked me how much the treasure was worth. I wrote in my notebook, "$200 million." Ishtevan stared at the figure with indifference. Then he took the pen out of my hand and wrote underneath, "2 life."
Michel van Rijn remains in Tenerife. Occasionally, he says, he goes underground, and when he does, he calls from cell phones, and e-mails through the accounts of friends. But he now appears less romantic knight than nervous refugee. Of course he has people to answer to now, people with resources: the British government, the Hungarians, his old friend Felice Cultrera, whom he has exposed as a police informant. If Cultrera does have links to the Santapaola family hierarchy in Sicily, this may not sit well with them. Van Rijn told me that Cultrera has been hunting for him. Try as he might, Van Rijn cannot account for himself. He wears the mantle of professional rogue proudly, testifying against himself with relish, not confessing so much as taking credit for his ruses and crimes.
The Sevso silver is out of the world's reach. Northampton's stash, I have been led to believe, sits in wooden boxes in a vault on one of the Channel Islands; Tkalec's is most likely in a bank in Zurich. Scotland Yard will not comment on whether or not Tkalec holds any of the treasure.
One night last June, I was waiting in a dingy hotel room in Belgrade for a phone call from Anton Tkalec's friend and former partner, Victor Ristovic. Earlier in the day Ristovic had said he would call to arrange a meeting to discuss Tkalec and the Sevso treasure. At 9:00 P.M. the phone rang. But it wasn't Ristovic. The man on the line wouldn't say who he was. His voice was deep and gravelly—and familiar, though I couldn't place it. During random pauses I could hear him draw on a cigarette. He introduced himself simply as a guy who knew Anton Tkalec, and said he was prepared to vouch absolutely for Tkalec's honor and integrity. Tkalec, he said, would never get involved in anything illegal. He staked his life on it.
He said that he'd been informed that an American journalist was in town asking questions about the Sevso silver. He didn't know my name. Then he said, "Do you know who is this? This is Anton Tkalec." When I told him who I was, he paused, sucked in his breath, and said, "Fuck you. You're in my home town. Do you think if I wanted something to happen to you, you'd be okay for three minutes? Fuck you." Then he hung up. I turned to Branimir Pofuk, who was serving again as my interpreter. Pofuk was sitting on the bed, transfixed. I said to him, "Start packing. We're leaving. Tonight."
Five minutes later Tkalec called me back, and we spoke for two hours. He was bitter and frustrated. I wanted to persuade him to tell me the truth, and he wanted to convince me that he was innocent. "I am involved with Sevso from the beginning," he said, "but I'm one of the chain. It came from me. But I assure you, on the lives of my children and the holy grave of my father, I had the treasure for twenty-two hours. I am a person of honor, not a garbage man. I was inside, and couldn't step out. It was too late for me." I wanted to know who had sold it to him. He paused. He seemed to consider the question. Finally he said, apologetically, "I can't reveal the person."
Later he said, "If you are looking for the holes where the Sevso treasure came from, you will never find them. You will never find the truth in Yugoslavia. You will never find any truth in that country, about anything." Tkalec broke into throaty, rueful laughter. Then he instantly sobered. I could hear him breathing on the other end of the line. "I will be a barrier between you and the truth, a dam. It's the end of the story. If you keep coming after me, I'm going to fuck your soul." Then he was gone.