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