“Everybody’s doing it”

In October of 1944, princes Wolfgang and Richard of the House of Hesse dating back to the 17th century hid a large wooden box in a zinc-lined hole in the basement of their castle full of the bulk of the Hesse fortune which would have been valued at roughly $31 million today.

Soon after Frankfurt’s fall to U.S. forces, staff officer Maj. Joseph M. Hartley requisitioned Kronberg Castle for US troops, moving the Hesse family into cottages on the property. The US officially renamed the estate the “Kronberg Castle Country Club” and Hartley stocked the castle with booze, cigarettes, and foods the starving Germans had no access to. Hartley was busy so he turned the operation of the castle “club” to Capt. Kathleen B. Nash. There, she met Col. Jack W. Durant. Army Air Forces staff officer. Snooping for souvenirs to pilfer, the treasure was discovered and “appropriated” by these two and two other Americans. 30 boxes of their booty was shipped back to the States, other parts of it were pawned in Switzerland, and still more given as gifts to loved ones.

The Hesse treasures allowed the thieves to finance a luxurious lifestyle, and they were able to get most of the remaining loot out of Germany. However, their crime was discovered. The day after the treasure was unearthed, a loyal, longtime manager of the estate told the family about the Americans’ theft. The Hesse family eventually were able to contact the army office in charge of protecting Germany’s cultural and historical artifacts, but they were almost unresponsive so the family went to the army’s Criminal Investigation Division (CID) in mid-April 1946 and asked for an investigation.

Meanwhile, the thieves left Germany and moved the remaining few pieces of the trove out of the country. Nash, Durant, and another thief were court-martialed separately in Germany on charges including larceny, dereliction of duty, and conduct unbecoming U.S. military officers. Each used the same defense: by “liberating” the jewels, they had only done what hundreds of thousands of other U.S. service members had done.

One thief was sentenced to federal prison for 3 years, one to 5, and the other to 15. The few jewels the army recovered were not returned to the Hesse family until 1951, and virtually all the gems had been removed from their original mountings. Aside from this horrible injustice, the army continued its occupation and use of Kronberg Castle until 1953, after which it was returned to the family in much worse condition. Most of the recovered jewels had been pried from their settings. Some of the thieves’ family members in the US died mysteriously rich.