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: The Hesse Crown Jewelry Heist

The Hesse Crown Jewelry Heist

Princess Margaret Wearing her Crown and Jewelry
Princess Margaret Wearing her Crown and Jewelry

In Germany, during the years of WWII, three American soldiers committed one of the world's most infamous jewelry heists in all of history. The jewelry stolen by the American soldiers was not an ordinary collection, but happened to be the Crown Jewels of Germany, which at the time belonged to Princess Margaret of Hesse, daughter of the then German Emperor, Frederick III and Queen Victoria, Princess Royal. At the time, the jewelry was believed to have a value of over $2.5 million USD, but today this would be equivalent to well over $30 million US dollars. Indeed, with jewelry increasing in value over time, the value of the collection today would be much more.

The story of the Hesse Crown Jewels heist began during the time of WWII. To help secure the future of the Hesse family, in October of 1944, Prince Richard and Prince Wolfgang of the House of Hesse secretly placed a large collection of their crown jewels into a wooden box lined with lead and zinc, which was buried in the basement of the Kronberg Castle. The box was lowered into a hole they had dug into the floor and then covered and sealed over with concrete. The contents included several diamonds, gemstones, bracelets, rings, necklaces, tiaras, rare coins, pieces of silver, gold and family heirlooms. After burying the jewels, they abandoned the castle and planned to return and retrieve the jewels after the end of the war.

The jewelry was intended to ensure that the Hesse family legacy would continue to prosper and by burying it deep within the basement of the castle, it would be protected from the air raids that were becoming more frequent in Frankfurt and the surrounding area. Burying the jewelry box in concrete was meant to keep it safely hidden from looters, but the freshly poured concrete patch suggested that something valuable was hidden beneath it. In 1944, the American Forces used the Kronberg Castle as an army officers' club and in November 1945, rumors of buried treasures in the castle had spread amongst the officers.

Prussian 10 Mark Coin from the Hesse Crown Jewels
Gold Coin Stolen from Hesse Crown Jewels

It was Captain Kathleen Nash who first discovered the patch of freshly poured concrete in the basement of the castle, and she, along with Colonel Jack Durant and Major David Watson dug through the concrete floor in the basement of the Hesse house. They eventually chipped the concrete away and discovered the hidden jewelry box packed full of treasures. Much of the silver and gold was sold in Switzerland and Ireland. They knew that smuggling the jewelry through the post would eventually get them get caught, so they removed the diamonds and precious stones from over half of the jewelry mountings to be set aside and sold later. They then took all the gold and silver settings and sold them to shops in Bern, Basel and Zurich, along with pieces of silverware and other valuable items from the Hesse family castle.

After the war had ended, in February 1946, in preparation of the marriage between Prince George of Hanover and Princess Sophie of Greece, the Hesse family ordered the crown jewels to be retrieved from the secret stash, since it was a tradition for the bride to wear the crown jewels during the marriage ceremony. It was at this time that they discovered their treasure to be gone and presumed it stolen. The reigning matriarch, Countess Margaretha, reported the incident to the Provost Marshal of the US Military Police, who launched an investigation leading to the eventual arrest of CPT K. Nash, COL J. Durant and MAJ D. Watson.

A mere $1 million dollars' worth of jewels was recovered from the $2.5 million that was taken during the Hesse Crown Jewel heist. It was reported that there were 270 recovered items, which filled up a vault measuring 22 cubic feet. The items that were returned to the rightful owners included 54 loose rubies, 67 loose emeralds, a large 116.20 carat sapphire, loose diamonds weighing over 280 carats, a platinum bracelet encrusted with over 400 diamonds, and a platinum bracelet and watch set with over 600 diamonds. Since most of the settings were damaged from having the stones pried out, many of the recovered items had lost a lot of their value. Although today the case is considered closed, over half of the Hesse Crown Jewels are still missing and have never been recovered.

  • First Published: January-19-2015
  • Last Updated: August-30-2017
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