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Soldiers of Fortune – The Hesse Jewel Heist

By Stephen Harding
3/25/2009 • World War II

Nash then hurried off to call Durant. Watson was standing next to his supervisor’s desk when the call came in, though a few seconds into the conversation Durant asked the young major to leave the room. As soon as he hung up, Durant announced he was taking the rest of the afternoon off, then sped away in a jeep. Less than an hour later Durant called Watson, asking him to investigate the regulations pertaining to abandoned German property.

Watson later recalled that he immediately contacted the USFET legal office and asked Lt. Col. James R. Boyd what should be done if American military personnel were to “find some valuables that might have belonged to some Nazi bigwig.” Boyd’s reply, according to Watson, was, “I don’t know of any hard-and-fast rules, but it’s pretty common practice for officers to appropriate some trophies as souvenirs.”

Though initially kept in the dark about the discovery of the jewels, Watson was brought in on the secret on November 8. That afternoon he, Durant, and Nash met in the latter’s castle apartment and spread the box’s contents across the floor. Though they at first discussed keeping only a few of the larger pieces, greed soon reared its ugly head and they decided to keep it all. Knowing they would never be able to get the jewels out of Germany legally, the trio hatched what must have seemed like a simple plan: they would remove all the precious stones from their settings, and then separate out the gold and silver mountings as scrap. They would sell whatever they could to pawnshops and small dealers in Switzerland and the United Kingdom, and then mail the rest back to the States to be disposed of at leisure.

Over the next two months Nash, Durant, and Watson—as well as Carlton, to whom the trio had given a few items to keep him quiet—mailed some 30 boxes of booty back to the States. Several went to Nash’s sisters in California and Wisconsin, others to Durant’s brother in Virginia, and at least one to Watson’s parents in California. In addition, on visits to Northern Ireland in November and December Watson pawned a large quantity of gold; he also gave a few baubles to a former girlfriend in Belfast. In January 1946, Nash and Durant went to Switzerland to sell gold to pawnshops and small jewelry stores in Bern, Basel, and Zurich.

The first two months of 1946 must have been heady ones for Nash, Durant, and Watson. They had managed to turn a significant amount of the Hesse jewels into ready cash, which financed a lifestyle far more luxurious than their military pay would have afforded. More important, they had found ways to get most of the remaining loot out of Germany. Indeed, by the time Nash received orders in mid-February to return to the United States for separation from the army, she and her accomplices might well have felt that they had set themselves up for a very comfortable return to civilian life.

That sense of success was premature, however, for their crime had already been discovered. The day after the treasure was unearthed, Ludwig Weiss reported the find to Heinrich Lange, longtime manager of the Kronberg estate and a loyal Hesse family retainer. Lange, in turn, told Princess Margarete about the Americans’ removal of the trove. On November 10 she had directed Lange to ask Nash for a statement detailing the box’s discovery, a receipt for its contents, and a definitive declaration of when the family could expect the valuables’ return. Nash declined to provide any information, but told Lange that “when the family returns to the castle, they’ll find the jewels as they left them.”

That was highly unlikely, since the conspirators had already decided to keep the jewels. Nash did not document the family’s request in any official files, and whenever Lange raised the issue she claimed the matter was being handled at some unspecified “higher level” of army bureaucracy. In early January 1946 Princess Sophia, the widow of Margarete’s son Prince Cristoph (who had been killed in Italy in 1943), asked Lange to request that Nash return certain jewels so the princess could wear them for her remarriage. Nash declined to meet with the princess and ignored all her subsequent requests for information about the jewels’ disposition.

Nash’s continued stonewalling soon led the Hesses to contact the army office in charge of protecting Germany’s cultural and historical artifacts, asking that investigators look into the case. When that office proved slow to respond, Princess Sophia went to the army’s Criminal Investigation Division (CID) in mid-April 1946 and asked for an investigation of what she believed to be the theft of the jewels.

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