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The Hesse Crown Jewels Court-Martial Case

It reads like a story taken from a best-selling crime novel, yet it is a true criminal case of a jewel heist staged in a castle in the 1940s, starring U.S. military officers, German royalty, and $2.5 million in treasure. The tale is rife with deception, conspiracy, and international intrigue. The records are on Fold3.

Major David F. Watson, Colonel Jack W. Durant, and Captain Kathleen Nash were the perpetrators. The court cases for the three defendants, brimming with documents, photos, testimony, and correspondence, can be viewed in the Court-Martial Case Files Relating to the “Hesse Crown Jewels Case“, 1944-1952.

As the Allies moved into Germany toward the end of World War II, Prince Wolfgang of Hesse abandoned his family’s castle in Kronberg, north of Frankfurt, Germany. Before leaving, he placed family heirlooms and jewels in a zinc-lined box, buried it in a hole in the castle basement, and covered it with concrete, hoping it would be safely hidden until the end of the war. It wasn’t.

In April 1944, American Forces occupied the castle to use as an officers’ club. Shortly thereafter, Capt. Nash discovered the cache. She, along with Watson and Durant conspired to steal the valuables. Many of the items were sold in Switzerland and Ireland, the rest were mailed or smuggled to the U.S. The property—including jewelry, silverware, gemstones, and books—is identified in lists and photos within the court records. Details of how the heist came about can be found within Kathleen Nash Durant’s testimony at her trial, as well as in depositions by those who either stayed at the castle or encountered the trio at some point after the theft.

Col. Robert Q. Brown, in charge of the staff running the officers’ club in the castle, testified during Capt. Durant’s hearing that he “knew firsthand that the Castle was jam-full of valuables – pictures and all sorts of things.” But, “never heard secondhand or otherwise of any buried valuables.”

Many of the treasures were never recovered. Kronberg Castle was eventually returned to the royal family and became a luxury hotel. View the Hesse family chart to see where Prince Wolfgang, a descendant of Kaiser Wilhelm, fits into the German royal line.

Dozens of friends, colleagues, and family members sent pleas for clemency in Watson’s case beginning with this letter from Lt. Col. H.T. Peery, a vice president at Bank of America. Ultimately, Watson was sentenced to three years, but paroled early. Nash received five years and Durant fifteen. More of the story can be found in the Hesse Crown Jewels Case description and, of course, within the documents themselves.

One Comment

  1. Betsy Miller says:

    An interesting source on the Hesse family (which talks briefly about the theft of the Jewels) is “Royals and the Reich: The Princes von Hessen in Nazi Germany” by Jonathan Petropoulos. This book also relates a more-recent post-war return of valuables, taken by Allied personnel from the same residence (looted from a room, not hidden or buried).