The Anatomy of Art Crime Investigations
In my line of work—art crime investigations—it’s usually pretty easy to figure out the motive: money.
In 2005, when a Russian dealer with a sketchy backstory walked into Freeman’s Auction House in Philadelphia hoping to sell a 1543 first edition of Copernicus’ On the Revolutions, I had a good idea of what was up. A book like that can fetch $3 million at auction these days.
It was the possibility of a seven-figure payday that prompted an eccentric British dealer to shop around a stolen copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio via—of all places—the famed Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.
I’ve handled dozens of cases involving rare artifacts like these over the past 30 years, first as an FBI agent and more recently as a private consultant. My team and I found one of the first fourteen copies of the Bill of Rights, a first edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and an original manuscript of Pearl S. Buck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Good Earth. Always, the motive boiled down to greed.
But every once in a while, a case comes along that cuts against the grain.
Not long ago, looking into the whereabouts of a missing Nazi diary, I discovered that something far more interesting than money had been at play.
The diary, dating from 1934 to 1944, had been penned by Alfred Rosenberg, one of Adolf Hitler’s oldest and most loyal allies.
Rosenberg was the most prolific writer in the Third Reich, and his bestselling book, The Myth of the Twentieth Century, was hailed as the definitive statement of Nazi ideology. After Hitler rose to power in 1933, only the Führer’s Mein Kampf sold more copies. Though he is little known today, Rosenberg was as prominent in his time as Goebbels, Göring, and Himmler, the famous twisted troika atop Hitler’s totalitarian government. At the war crimes trial in Nuremberg—where he took the stand 70 years ago this month—Rosenberg was declared the “intellectual high priest of the ‘master race.’”
His diary, first unearthed in a Bavarian palace vault at the end of the war, vanished after the Nuremberg trials.
The 500 handwritten pages chronicled private meetings at the highest levels of the Reich. Many of its pages had never been transcribed or copied before it vanished in 1949, so no one knew what secrets it might contain. In that way, it was something more like the original art pieces I have tracked down—a Rembrandt, say, or a Goya. The loss of a historical record of this sort would be something akin to the Islamic State jackhammering irreplaceable museum pieces.
In 2013, working with chief archivist Henry Mayer at the Holocaust museum, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Homeland Security Investigations, I helped trace the diary to upstate New York—4000 miles from the Berlin offices where Rosenberg put pen to paper during the war.
What was so different about this case was that the man who spirited the Rosenberg diary out of Germany half a century ago did not want to sell it. He wanted to publicize it.
Robert Kempner—a Jewish lawyer and an early crusader against the Nazis—was run out of the country in 1936. He made it to New York City with his wife on September 1, 1939, the day the Second World War began. He spent several years helping convict Nazi propagandists in the United States and won a spot on the American prosecution team in Nuremberg.
Kempner stayed on until the end of the war crimes trials in 1949, but his campaign against the Nazis did not end there.
He was angry that many Nazi criminals were going unpunished; the vast majority of those sent to prison after the war were freed by 1958. He was also alarmed by the first signs of revisionist history in Germany. He wanted to publish and publicize the evidence so the world would realize the full scope of what the Nazis had done.
At the end of the trials, Kempner gathered up the papers in his office and sent them back to his home outside Philadelphia, apparently intending to keep a private archive to consult as he wrote about what had happened to his beloved homeland.
Kempner’s postwar career went in another direction—he began representing Nazi victims seeking reparations—and he never got around to publishing the diary. Instead, the pages remained tucked into file folders in Kempner’s home until his death, and then a messy estate battle kept the pages hidden for another 20 years.
Documents as significant as this one belong in public hands. The diary gives us a glimpse into “the mind of a dark soul.” It is raw material for scholars still straining to understand the greatest cataclysm the world has ever known. It is another bulwark against the deniers who carry on even today. And it is a useful tool for the Holocaust museum as it educates new generations of visitors about genocide.
All of which makes the diary an artifact of inestimable worth. As someone who has spent a lifetime chasing the rare and the precious, I know this much: Its true value is beyond what it could ever fetch on the black market or at a public auction. The Rosenberg diary is truly priceless.