Recovering Gold and Regalia: a Monuments Man investigates

By Rihoko Ueno
April 11, 2014

Rihoko Ueno, archivist and co-curator of the exhibition Monuments Men: On the Front Line to Save Europe’s Art, 1942–1946, on view through April 20, 2104, examines Monument Man Walter Horn’s connection to the recovery of the Imperial Regalia of the Holy Roman Empire, and a cache of gold coins. In conjunction with the exhibition, the Archives of American Art will be co-hosting a Tweetup with the National Gallery of Art on April 14 from 12:45 to 3:00 p.m. ET. Registration for this event has closed, but you can follow along on Twitter by using the hashtag #MonMenTweetup.


Certificate of naturalization
Walter Horn's certificate of naturalization, 1943 June 28. Walter Horn papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

The Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) Section or “Monuments Men” included more than 300 men and women from different countries. The Archives of American Art has the papers of several of the Monuments Men, including one person whose achievements I will highlight in this blog post: Walter William Horn. Lieutenant Horn was an MFAA intelligence officer who tracked down stolen art, notably the Imperial Regalia of the Holy Roman Empire and a cache of gold coins worth $2 million in 1946.

Walter Horn was born in Waldangelloch, Germany in 1908. He grew up in Heidelberg and received his doctorate in art history from the University of Hamburg. Horn fled Nazism in Germany and immigrated to the United States in 1938 to be a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley. He quickly became an art history professor and co-founded the university’s Department of Art History.

In 1943, Horn became a naturalized American citizen then joined the U.S. Army. Horn’s German language skills were put to use interrogating prisoners of war in General George S. Patton’s Third Army, and later in the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF). In July 1945, Horn joined the Army Intelligence Unit of the MFAA.


Searching for the Imperial Regalia of the Holy Roman Empire

Recovery of the Imperial crown jewels of the Holy Roman Empire report
Report regarding recovery of the Imperial crown jewels of the Holy Roman Empire,1946 March 19. Walter Horn papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Horn’s first assignment was to find the Imperial Regalia of the Holy Roman Empire. After Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938, Hitler ordered the Imperial Regalia along with other treasures and holy relics to be taken to Nuremberg, removed from the Treasury in Vienna’s Hofburg Palace, where they had been since 1804. The Nazis intended to use the Imperial Regalia as political symbols to rally a Nazi resistance movement. In order to protect the treasure from air raids, the Nazis kept the looted art cache in a bunker underneath Nuremburg Castle, but the five most important pieces of the Imperial Regalia—the crown, orb, scepter, and two swords—were missing when the U.S. army arrived in the city.

Walter Horn’s papers at the Archives of American Art includes an August 14, 1945 report detailing his investigation into the disappearance and recovery of the Imperial Regalia. Based on this report, Horn quickly learned of a rumor that the Nazis sank the Imperial Regalia to the bottom of Lake Zell am See in Austria. The source of the rumor was SS Oberführer Spacil, treasurer and leading official of a branch of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Reich Main Security Office), who was a prisoner at the Seventh Army Interrogation Center.

In his quest to find the Imperial Regalia, Horn ricocheted between multiple interrogation centers in different cities. From July 25 to 27, 1945, Horn interrogated twenty-one people in Nuremberg, including two city councilmen, Stadtrat Fries and Stadtrat Schmeiszner. His investigations reveal that the orders to separate the Imperial Regalia probably came from Nazi Commander Heinrich Himmler. Oberbuergermeister Willy Liebel, the mayor of Nuremberg since 1933, followed Himmler’s instructions and had four copper containers made to hold the Imperial Regalia. Fries and Schmeiszner claimed that they separated the Imperial Regalia in early April in the company of Mayor Liebel, placed them in the copper containers, and then gave the objects to an unfamiliar SS official who drove off with the treasure to an unknown location. Liebel committed suicide later that month.

Horn decided to arrange a confrontation between Fries and Spacil, whom was suspected of being the unknown SS officer. Spacil was transferred to the Theater Interrogation Center. Fries was arrested and transferred to the same center on August 3, 1945. After one night of solitary confinement and a short interrogation prior to the arranged confrontation, Fries confessed that he lied: the Imperial Regalia was not given to an unknown SS official, though a fictitious removal was staged in April. He, Liebel, Schmeiszner, and another SS official hid the Imperial Regalia themselves on March 31, 1945, and he agreed to show them the location. Fries was then taken back to Nuremberg. On the morning of August 7, Horn and a captain of the U.S. army brought Fries and Schmeiszner to the entrance of Panier Platz Bunker, where the Imperial Regalia was hidden behind a wall of masonry in a small room off of a subterranean corridor, approximately eighty feet below the surface.

The Imperial Regalia was brought back to Nuremberg castle. On January 4, 1946, Monuments Man Andrew C. Ritchie escorted all of the treasure on a plane back to Vienna where a formal transfer was made to Austrian officials.


Recovering the Gold Coins

Report on the recovery of the gold treasure of Kremsmünster
Investigation report on the recovery of the 'gold treasure of Kremsmünster', 1946 May 11. Walter Horn papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

According to Horn’s investigation report of May 11, 1946 to the MFAA Restitution Control Branch, the gold coins were stolen by the Nazis from 12 Austrian and Czechoslovakian monasteries in order to be featured in the coin collection at Hitler’s Führermuseum to be built in Linz. Consequently, the coins are sometimes referred to as “Linz Gold” or the “Linz Treasure.” Horn refers to them as “The Gold Treasure of Kremsmünster” in his report, based on the names of one of the monasteries plundered in Austria. There is also evidence that suggests the coins were to be part of the Hitler’s gold reserve.

In late October 1945, Horn was dispatched to Salzburg to find the coins which were last seen in the possession of Helmuth von Hummel, who was chief secretary and direct subordinate of Martin Bormann, head of the Nazi Party Chancellery. Based on information gathered by fellow Monuments Man S. Lane Faison, who was a member of the MFAA Art Looting Investigation Unit, the gold coins were removed from the Nazi’s repository of stolen art hidden in Austria’s Altaussee salt mine on April 31, 1945 by Leopold Rupprecht and Hans Schedelmann, who were to be curators at the Führermuseum. The coins were delivered to von Hummel in Berchtesgaden that same day, and he took the coins to Zell am See in Salzburg, Austria in early May, after which the whereabouts of von Hummel and the coins were unknown.

By mid-April 1946, Horn had located Helmuth von Hummel’s wife, Edeltraut, who lived in the town of Mondsee, Austria. The von Hummels had two sons and Horn decided not to arrest Edeltraut because she and her children had tuberculosis. Edeltraut was informed that no other charges aside from the theft of the gold coins were held against her husband, so his imprisonment would be temporary, and cooperation would hasten the reunion with his family. Edeltraut talked to Helmuth on the phone and convinced him to turn himself over to the American forces on the condition that she and her husband are given some time together before his internment. Horn agreed but requested a meeting with Helmuth.

At their meeting, Helmuth said that he transferred the coins from a packing crate to black leather brief cases at Zell am See. He had orders to take the coins to Southern Tyrol but those plans were thwarted by the advancing Allied Armies. He subsequently decided to restore the coins to the clergy and gave them to the prince bishop of Salzburg. The coins were recovered in a safe belonging to the prince bishop roughly 300 yards away from the MFAA Office in Salzburg. Helmuth turned himself in on May 10, 1946. The coins sent to the Central Collecting Point in Munich for restitution.

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Rihoko Ueno is a processing archivist at the Archives of American Art.