18 December 2022

Maison Bulgari and the Nazis

Maison Bulgari, Rome

by Marc Masurovsky

Why would a high-end luxury goods business like Bulgari become a target of Allied investigations during WWII? That honor resulted from a convergence of seemingly isolated factors when, brought together, created a pattern of behavior extending internationally and involving businessmen, art agents, Nazi officials, and a possible Jewish victim of plunder. The end result was a suspicion that Bulgari would allow itself to be used as a conduit and enabler of Nazi attempts to secrete assets overseas in places where they could technically be invested in ventures meant to subvert the post-1945 world.

In 1941, US officials questioned Achille Colombo after his arrival in New York from Italy via Buenos Aires, Argentina. The circuitous journey lasted seven months from March to October 1940. Colombo had with him two platinum, diamond and ruby rings worth 47,000 dollars (1945 value). He told US officials that he had acquired them from Bulgari in Italy, several years prior. They were to be delivered to Henri Untermans, Bulgari’s representative in New York.

Henri Untermans
Colombo had a bank account at Banco de Provincia in Buenos Aires. They suspected Colombo of acting as a channel to sell assets “removed from Italy.” While Colombo was on his long and circuitous trek to New York, the Bulgari House opened its Lugano store from which it would transact in high-end and high-value objects. A financial investigation into Colombo’s business dealings revealed a three-way transaction involving the rings between Constantine G. Bulgari in Lugano, Banco de Provincia, Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Chase National Bank in New York City. The transaction was worth 47,000 dollars, the exact value of the rings in Colombo’s possession.

Eberhard von Mackensen

Constantino-Giorgio Bulgari and his partner, Giorgio-Leonido Bulgari, both Greek-born, owned The House of Sotirio Bulgari. Based in Rome, the Bulgaris were able to avoid restrictive measures imposed by Fascist authorities on Greeks residing in Fascist Italy. They hobnobbed with Eberhardt von Mackensen, the German Ambassador in Rome, with whom they were often in daily contact. One of the Bulgaris even met in Zurich with the Baron Kurt von Behr, senior official of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) in German-occupied Paris. He acted as Hermann Goering’s emissary to explore possible ways of laundering plundered diamonds valued at 7 million Swiss francs, once the property of Louis Arscher, a Parisian jeweler.

To spice things up a bit, Giacomo Laurenti, Bulgari’s lawyer in Lugano and honorary Greek consul, was allegedly implicated in trafficking precious stones from across Europe. Some jewels and stones that he had shipped to the Americas were seized in Bermuda by British blockade officials. When US diplomats stationed in Switzerland questioned Laurenti about his work for Bulgari, he stated that he acted as a “mail drop” for them so that they could communicate with “persons outside Axis territory.” Laurenti was not alone: Benno Geiger, a Venetian art dealer of German ancestry, did Goering’s bidding as a go-between to acquire old silver and other luxury objects from Bulgari to the tune of nine million lira (1945 value).

Primary Sources:

Safehaven Report, Maison Sotirio Bulgari, Rome, Italy, Despatch No. 11823 from US Embassy in Berne, 1 June 1945, 850.3 series, RG 153 M 1933 Reel 2 NARA.

Looted Art in Occupied Territories, Neutral Countries and Latin America, Foreign Economic Admnistration revised report, August 1945, pp. 24-5., RG 239 M 1944 Reel 9, NARA.

Photo credits:

Bulgari, Rome

Henri Untermans
c/o Sousa Mendes Foundation

Eberhard von Mackensen

05 December 2022

The disappearance of Raphael's Portrait of a Young Man

Portrait of a Young Man

by Marc Masurovsky

What happened to Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man which belongs to the world-renown collection of the Krakow-based Czartoryski family? The now-iconic painting (the poster child for WWII plundered “treasures”) pulled off a world-class vanishing act in the early days of May 1945 as US troops closed in on the South Bavarian compound of Hans Frank, Governor-General of German-occupied Poland.

The Czartoryski family, one of the flowers of Polish nobility, owned palatial residences and estates in Krakow, Goluchów and Sieniawa (Poland). Since 1893, the Goluchów Castle served as a Museum of the Czartoryski collection. Many of the family’s artistic possessions were stored and displayed there. They included close to 5000 art objects and antiquities as well as several hundred Old Master paintings. The bulk of the collection was transferred to Sieniawa for protection. Soon after the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939, German troops reached the Czartoryski estates and seized their contents. To make matters worse, a local mason had betrayed the location of the hidden Czartoryski “treasury.”

Hans Frank

In October 1939, Kajetan Mühlmann, who had played a major role in the plunder of cultural treasures in German-occupied Poland, brought to Berlin choice pieces from the confiscated Czartoryski collection—works by Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt. In late November, at Martin Bormann’s urging, Hans Posse, the director of Hitler’s Linz museum project, requested the transfer of the best pieces from the Czartoryski collection to the Linz museum. It fell on deaf ears. The paintings returned to Krakow only to be shipped back to Berlin in 1942, this time on orders from Field Marshal Hermann Goering. However, the Nazis, fearing for the safety of the works due to Allied bombardments, opted to send the works back to Krakow, where they were stored at the Wawel Castle. 

Wawel Castle, Krakow

From August 1944 to January 1945, in the face of an imminent offensive by the Soviet Red Army, a gradual evacuation began of Hans Frank’s Krakow HQ and the many plundered art objects and paintings under his control. The main evacuation point was the estate of Count Manfred von Richtofen in Seichau (Sichów), Silesia, which the Auswärtiges Amt [German Foreign Office] had requisitioned for use by Hans Frank, his staff and the German Army. At the outset, a small number of Frank’s aides had appeared at Seichau (Sichów). It was not until the surrender of Krakow that the largest contingents overtook von Richtofen’s castle. He confirmed that Frank and his top aides had remained in the main house for only a few days until their “sudden” departure on 23 January 1945. In other words, Frank did not reach Seichau (Sichów) until mid-January 1945. 

Seichau Castle, Silesia
A German official by the name of Gross indicated that in the months following the requisition of von Richtofen’s estate, there was a continual movement of “lorries” which carried ‘objets d’art’ as well as“foodstuffs and large quantities of alcohol.” He noted that, after the departure of the Frank party on 23 January 1945, the rooms that they had occupied at Seichau (Sichów) were in “complete chaos,” a statement confirmed by Fraulein Liselotte Freund of Seichau Castle. (Gross and Liselotte Freund supplied separate statements to an SS investigative officer on 2 February 1945).

Frau von Wietersheim’s Muhrau estate, 14 km from Seichau, served as a secondary evacuation point. Wilhelm Ernst von Palézieux, Hans Frank’s chief of the ‘Referat für Kunst’ (Art Section) and Eduard Kneisel, an Austrian-born restorer, were responsible for ensuring the safety of the plundered treasures from the Czartoryski and other noble Polish collections. They watched over the thousands of art works and objects in their custody at both estates.

It took the greater part of a month for the various convoys carrying Hans Frank and his many staff members to reach Neuhaus am Schliersee in southern Bavaria where Hans Frank had an estate. Neuhaus am Schliersee became the final destination for the Polish looted cultural treasures under Frank’s control, including those that belonged to the Czartoryskis. On 17 February 1945, Hans Frank informed Dr. Lammers, chief of the Reich Chancellery, that the last convoys had reached Neuhaus.

According to London-based Count Zamoyski, one of the heirs to the Czartoryski estate, the Portrait of a Young Man by Raphael was stored at a villa serving as a residence for Wilhelm Ernst von Palézieux in the immediate vicinity of Hans Frank’s compound. Eduard Kneisel confirmed this fact in subsequent years and testified that he had not conducted any restoration work on the painting but that it had been removed from its massive crate.

The “vanishing”

In the first week of May 1945, American military units converged on the Bavarian compound of Hans Frank at Neuhaus am Schliersee. They searched Frank’s office in the “Bergfrieden” chalet, which was near the “Schoberhof”, his main residence. According to an American miliary investigative report, the troops conducted only a superficial search of the “Schoberhof.” The MFAA took nearly a year to file a report on the circumstances surrounding Hans Frank’s capture and the disappearance of the Raphael. The report acknowledged that US troops had not conducted an extensive search of the “Schoberhof.”

On 4-5 May 1945, American troops located and arrested Hans Frank as he tried to escape with members of this retinue. Frank made a failed attempt at suicide on 6 May 1945. US troops recovered most of Hans Frank’s loot. However, the Portrait of a Young Man by Raphael vanished into thin air either right before the arrival of American troops or under their very noses while they were overtaking Neuhaus. It’s anyone’s guess where the painting is currently stashed. 

Primary sources:

Document 3614-PS, Evacuation of Cracow, UConn Archives and Special Collections

Frank to Lammers, Document 3614-PS, Office of US Chief Counsel, IMT

undated letter from Count von Richtofen to an Ortsgruppenleiter of the NSV [National Socialist Welfare Organization]

"The loot from Poland," unsigned summary. RG 59, Lot 62D-4, Ardelia Hall Collection, Box 9, NARA.

Ardelia Hall to Count Zamoyski, 15 December 1960, Lot 62D-4 Ardelia Hall Collection, Box 13, NARA.

Walther Bader interrogation by Edgar Breitenbach and Dr. Roethel, 24 June 1947, RG 260 Prop. Div., Ardelia Hall, MCCP, Box 479, NARA.

RG 239 M1944 Reel 127 NARA. 

Photo credits

Hans Frank

Kajetan Mühlmann

Wawel castle