At the beginning of 1917, Emperor Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, and their five children found themselves left with a handful of loyal servants who refused to abandon them when they were imprisoned in their home at Alexander Palace.
Then, in July of that year, the interim government decided to send the Russian Imperial Family further east to the small town of Tobolsk. One imagines, as prisoners, they were stripped of their belongings to the bare minimum, and only permitted to take one small suitcase.
In truth, the special train transporting the family to its new prison was comprised of several crate cars containing their daily essentials. In particular, they managed to conceal and bring along an enormous amount of jewellery. At Tobolsk, housed at the governor’s palace, conditions were not too harsh, but the October 1917 revolution was yet to come. It was then that the communists came into power, and slowly, the situation deteriorated for the prisoners.
In March 1918, Lenin’s government decided to send them even further East, all the way to the small town of Yekaterinburg. Due to the young tzarevich’s illness, the whole family did not leave together. The first contingent to leave included the emperor, empress, and the Grand-Duchess Maria. Once arriving in Yekaterinburg, they were locked up in the infamous Ipatiev House and subjected to a most brutal regime. They managed to get a message to their family left behind at the governor’s palace. They told them that their new conditions were quite cruel, that they were watched day and night, and that it would be best to hide all or at least most of the jewellery they had smuggled to Tobolsk.
So, the three sisters filled several glass jars with the jewels that they then entrusted to different religious figures who had thus far been permitted to visit the prisoners. Apparently, there were three enormous jars entrusted to 3 nuns and monks, hidden in 3 different places. The first jar contained 154 of the most valuable jewellery. It was an impressive inventory. One nun was suspected by the Bolsheviks, arrested, tortured, and made to give up the hiding place. The Bolsheviks took photographs and an inventory of the jewellery found, but what then became of it? Only God knows.
However, there are still two other jars of the same size and similar value that have never been recovered and must still be somewhere in the Tobolsk region. In particular, the one entrusted to Father Alexei Vasiliev, which is thought to contain diamonds from the empress’ and grand-duchesses’ tiaras. This treasure remains hidden in Tobolsk. The third jar was taken to the town of Omsk, where it has yet to be found.
The empress and the grand-duchess had also managed to conceal within their clothing a fair amount of stones disassembled from smaller jewellery of considerable value. They sewed them into their corsets, covered them with fabric to use as buttons, and hid them in their hats. In short, they were extraordinarily ingenious in trying to save their valuables for a rainy day. Upon their murder, most of the jewels were discovered and apparently stolen.
And yet, some were found in a mine shaft when Yekaterinburg was liberated by the White émigrés; they were duly photographed. I particularly remember seeing in those black and white photographs a beautiful cross of emeralds and diamonds. Since then, everyone has made sure to make these jewels disappear. A photo was recently posted on Facebook of this emerald and diamond cross that shocked me. The photograph seemed to be recent since it was in colour. A true mystery!
And that is not the only mystery. In their admirable and fascinating book, “The Fate of the Romanovs”, Greg King and Penny Wilson recount a strange tale. In 1919, a British warship transported 29 crates containing belongings of the imperial family out of Russia and to the emperor’s cousin, the king of England. The emperor and empress had probably decided to store away as many of their most valuable possessions as they could and entrusted them to their beloved cousin, the king of England. This must, of course, have been before the king refused to receive the family, thereby indirectly sending them to their horrible deaths.
The crates arrived in London and were opened in the presence of King George V, the Queen Mother Alexandra, sister of the empress mother of Russia, and the Grand Duchess Xenia, sister of Nicolas II, who had managed to take refuge in England. According to the authors, the crates contained only a few items of little value, some lamps, and dirty and ripped-up fabric. A few months later, the Grand Duchess Xenia received a letter from the Baroness Buxhoeveden, former lady to the empress who had gone with her to Yekaterinburg. The baroness asked the grand duchess if she had found Empress Alexandra’s jewellery hidden in one of the crates inside a roll of dirty and ripped-up fabric. Armed with this new information, the grand duchess went back to the crates and found the jewels.
This story doesn’t ring true to me. Firstly, the Grand Duchess Xenia hated the Baroness Buxhoeveden, whom she accused of betraying her brother, the emperor, and would never have listened to her. Secondly, had the jewels indeed been found in the crates at Buckingham Palace, I would be stunned if King George and Queen Mary would have allowed the Tzar’s sister to keep them. So, I find this story implausible.
Then, I remembered the memoires of Georges Wildenstein, the famous art dealer. In his book, he recounts having been invited by Prince Charles to visit the attics of Balmoral Castle where the prince showed him the enormous crates bearing the Russian imperial coat of arms that had never been opened.
According to the prince, the crates were sent by Nicolas II to George V. The latter, out of respect for his cousin and the expectation that he would one day return to claim his possessions, had never opened them. I inquired as to who else knew this information. I was told that the attics of Balmoral were far too small to hold large crates and that no one, starting with the castle’s curators, had ever seen any crate bearing the Russian imperial coat of arms. So, that is another unlikely story.
What seems much more likely to me, is this next account. I shared Wildenstein’s story with my friend Guillaume, and it evoked a strange memory. A documentary filmmaker had been filming at Windsor Castle, mainly in the library and the archives housed in the castle’s large tower. He had been working there for several days and had become good friends with two young employees who knew the castle like the back of their hands. They told the filmmaker they had seen several huge, enormous crates bearing the Russian imperial coat of arms in the cellars at Windsor Castle. They were absolutely certain of what they had seen. And that’s where we are now.