The Dastardly Past: Counterfeiting Pound Notes.
On or around September 18, 1939, someone in the upper echelons of the Nazi regime proposed the plan that eventually became Operation Bernhard—the large-scale counterfeiting of five-, ten-, and twenty-pound British notes in order to destabilize England’s economy. SS officer Bernhard Kruger ran the operation using as many as 130 professional counterfeiters and skilled Jewish craftsmen incarcerated at Sachsenhausen concentration camp. These individuals both created bills of the highest quality and “seasoned” them, making them look like money that had circulated for a while, producing them in industrial quantities. Scholars estimate that the amount of counterfeit currency approached $150 million pounds. Germany passed the fake notes throughout the Empire—the first came to light in West Africa.
The use of counterfeiting currency as a method of warfare had been practiced at least since counterfeited coinage in ancient Greece; it occurred in many European wars as well as the Civil War in the United States. England’s Chancellor of the Exchequer repeatedly, and confidentially, asked to withdraw the old bills in favor of newly designed “forgery-proof” bills, but England only began to take action toward the close of the war.
The Dastardly Past: The Letseng Legacy Diamond.
On September 13, 2007, a diamond called the Letseng Legacy, weighing 493 carats, was discovered at the Letseng mines in Lesotho’s Maloti Mountains. These mines are renowned for yielding large, colorless, gem-quality diamonds. The Legacy was sold to Graff-SAFDICO for $10 million, which works out to roughly $21,000 per carat.
The Dastardly Past: The Spoonseller’s Sapphire.
Discovered in Bengal by a seller of wooden spoons, this 135 carat, velvet blue stone was previously known as the Spoonseller’s Sapphire. Over the centuries it passed through many hands, including those of the Ruspoli famiy of Italy, who gave it its new name. in the nineteenth century, it was acquired by the tsar of Russia, and was set in a kind of Russian crown/headdress called a kokoshnik, by Cartier in 1909 for the Grand Duchess Marie Pavlovna. It later came into the possession of Queen Marie of Romania, and afterwards her daughter, Ileana, who sold it to “a famous New York jeweler” in 1951. Its current whereabouts are unknown.
The Ruspoli Sapphire was the subject of a research effort described in the journal Gems and Gemology 51 no. 4 (Winter 2015): https://www.gia.edu/gems-gemology/winter-2015-sapphire-ruspoli-sapphire-historical-gemological-discoveries . In this study, the authors unravel the tangled lines of provenance of the Ruspoli sapphire and the Grand Sapphire of France, now housed in the French national museum of natural history in Paris, with which it has traditionally been confused. The article also provides insight into the murky history of famous jewels and how they are so often at the center of mysteries large and small.
The Dastardly Past: Fort Knox
On June 28, 1935 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordered the building of a fortified vault at Fort Knox in Kentucky, which would become the United States Bullion Depository. Construction on the granite building finished in December 1936, and by January 1937 the first shipments of gold began arriving. During the second World War it also housed the United States Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Since it was built, Fort Knox has occupied the popular imagination as the place of riches beyond the dreams of King Midas, or even Auric Goldfinger. It’s also pretty cool for aficionados of Deco architecture.
The Dastardly Past: the Cuerdale Hoard.
Around May 15 in 1840, some workmen repairing an embankment along the River Ribble in Lancashire discovered a large cache of silver. It contained over 7500 coins, 350 ingots, and assorted fragments of jewelry and other objects, dating from the era of the Vikings. The location of the find was along the main land route between the Irish Sea and York, but scholars remain undecided about the whys and wherefores of this deposit of riches. Most of it has, over time, been acquired by the British Museum, which has published a handsome book, by James Graham-Campbell, on the Cuerdale Hoard.
The Dastardly Past: the Tiffany Yellow Diamond.
“What a bonny thing,” he said. “Think what crimes are committed for such playthings as this. Great jewels are the devil’s pet bait.” Sherlock Holmes, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”
From time to time, I plan to showcase examples of “the devil’s pet bait” in this blog, partly because jewels are an inducement to dastardly activity and partly because historic jewelry and jewelers fascinate me. Today’s feature is the Tiffany Yellow Diamond. This is a South African stone that weighed 287 carats when discovered at the Kimberley Mine in the 1870s. It was cut into a modified antique cushion brilliant that reduced its weight to 128.5 carats. It’s considered one of the largest yellow diamonds in the world. It was purchased by Charles Tiffany and his eponymous company still owns it. In 1961 they allowed Audrey Hepburn to wear it for publicity photos for the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
The Dastardly Past: Just Judges.
On April 10, 1934, the lower left panel of the Ghent Altarpiece of St. Bavon’s Cathedral disappears. The altarpiece, known as The Adoration of the Lamb, was painted by Hubert and Jan van Eyck between 1426 and 1432. The stolen panel depicts the Just Judges, and has never been recovered. In 2001 The Daily Telegraph publishes a piece about the theft and ongoing efforts to find the panel.