Karlsruhe Palace

Who Stole Grand Duchess Hilda of Baden’s Tiara?

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In 2017, a thief walked away with Grand Duchess Hilda of Baden’s tiara, worth $1.2 million. I bet they didn’t even know who she was.


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On the night of April 21, 2017, someone walked into the Badisches Landesmuseum in Karlsruhe, Germany and walked out with a tiara worth $1.2 million. Museum officials called the police right away, but the news didn’t break for 17 more days. I saw the first headline later that May: Grand Duchess Hilda of Baden’s tiara had been stolen.


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The thieves didn’t touch the eight-pronged Crown of the Grand Dukes of Baden, topped with a diamond-studded cross. They didn’t take the golden mirror and candelabra that had belonged to Grand Duchess Stéphanie, the adopted daughter of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Instead, they opened a locked display case, removed the small diamond tiara inside, and closed the case as if they’d never touched it.

The Tiara

Hilda’s tiara is called a kokoshnik, after the traditional Russian headdress. It’s flat on the bottom, with an arched top. Some kokoshnik tiaras fill the space between the top and bottom of the frame with a wall of diamonds, enamel, or metalwork.

This one isn’t like that.

The base consists of three distinct rows of diamonds: one with rectangular stones, one with a laurel wreath motif, and one with intricate scrollwork. The middle of the tiara is open. The arched top frame anchors a series of symmetrically draped garlands with diamond drops hanging between each. Those diamonds would have swung and swayed as the wearer moved, sparkling with every step. The classical garlands are intersected by a wavy horizontal line, a never-ending sine graph that, to me, looks out of place.

Grand Duchess Hilda of Baden's Tiara | from Who Stole Grand Duchess Hilda of Baden's Tiara?
Image by Gryffindor, licensed via CC BY SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Overall, the tiara contains 367 diamond brilliants set in platinum and yellow gold (Source: Tiara by Diana Scarisbrick). If you had seen it in real life, the stones would have looked extra-super sparkly. That’s because they’re mounted between metal strips, rather than onto metal strips, letting as much light through as possible. Jewelers call this setting à jour.

A Real-Life Heist Movie

If you’re like me, your heart skipped a beat when you saw that headline. A real-life heist? With a tiara as the target? It sounds like the plot from a 1960s caper flick. I can imagine Cary Grant closing the door of a safehouse, peeling off a black cap and holding up a black bag. In the dim light let in by a crooked shutter, the tiara sparkles for the camera before Cary Grant bags it up and puts it in a wall safe behind a shitty fake Monet.

In the dim light let in by a crooked shutter, the tiara sparkles for the camera before Cary Grant bags it up and puts it in a wall safe behind a shitty fake Monet.

It’s almost romantic.

Almost.

Then my inner Indiana Jones kicked in. This tiara belongs in a museum, and someone ruined that for all of us.

Once my anger had processed, a new emotion took hold of me. I tilted my head and said, “Wait…who is Grand Duchess Hilda of Baden?” I’d never heard of her, and I spend a fair amount of time reading about European royal history. Who was she? What role did this tiara play in her life? What role did she play in history? I had no idea.

So I Googled her.

That’s when shit got interesting.

Hilda, Heimat, and Hitler

My first research stop was…you guessed it…Wikipedia. Malign it if you must, but it’s a useful starting point to figure out what people already know, what they used for sources, and who else is connected to this person.

Grand Duchess Hilda of Baden | from Who Stole Grand Duchess Hilda of Baden's Tiara?

I found a few interesting tidbits:

•       Hilda’s father inherited the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.

•        Hilda and her husband were dethroned in the German revolution immediately following World War I.

I’ve studied the Romanovs as a hobby for years. The words “dethroned” and “World War I” struck an immediate chord. Anyone whose experience I could compare to the Russian royal family’s seemed worth a second look. Plus, my married name is Wiltz, and there’s a county in Luxembourg named Wiltz. I can take a cosmic hint. This story literally has my name all over it.

I can take a cosmic hint. This story literally has my name all over it.

So I kept researching.

And I kept falling into rabbit holes.

Non-stop life-absorbing rabbit holes that required me to read books written in German.

I don’t speak German. I don’t read German. What the hell was I thinking?

But I couldn’t turn away from this story once I started unraveling it. Like a swirling galaxy, it enveloped me, expanding to occupy all the space in my head. Every question led to hours of creative Googling and a lot of book buying, which led to hours of translating, which gave me tiny answers that led to bigger questions.

Some questions were easy: what does “heimat” mean? Others were harder: what does a “landesmutter” do? Why was the German revolution nearly bloodless when the Russian one was so different?

I was glued to Google Translate, agonizing over German idioms, dreading going to work the next day because I was SO CLOSE to getting another piece of the puzzle.

Before long, I realized you couldn’t explain anything about Grand Duchess Hilda of Baden’s tiara without talking about her family. This story was about three generations:

•       The Patriarch: Adolph of Nassau (later Grand Duke of Luxembourg)

•       The Tiara Owner: Hilda of Nassau (later Grand Duchess of Baden)

•       The Tragic Niece: Antonia of Luxembourg (later Crown Princess of Bavaria)

One of them built the German version of the Taj Mahal. One of them lived  in the shadow of a domineering woman, never able to step into her own light. And one of them was almost killed by personal order of Adolph Hitler.

Yeah. I told you this was an interesting story.

 Cast of Characters

You’ve probably never heard of Adolph, Hilda, or Antonia.

I sure hadn’t.

But hot damn, you guys, this story sizzles. It has everything. Doomed love. Tragic death. War. Exile. Wine. Scandal. Gossip. Heartbreak. Nazis.

And, at its heart, people.

People who made choices to fight for the honor of what they believed in. People who survived when all the odds were against them.

Although you’ve probably never heard of the main characters, you’ve definitely heard of the supporting cast. Queen Victoria. Princess Elizabeth (Ella) of Hesse and by Rhine. Kaiser Wilhelm II. Empress Elisabeth of Austria. Clara Barton. Princess Pauline Metternich. Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria. Adolph Hitler. Theodore Roosevelt. Yeah, that’s right, Team America—Theodore freaking Roosevelt.

Text graphic: Yeah, that's right, Theodore Freaking Roosevelt | from: Who Stole Grand Duchess Hilda of Baden's Tiara?

Someone connected to this story went down on the Titanic. Someone else made an appearance in the Wonder Woman movie. Someone else appeared on the big screen as part of a team led by George Clooney when his story made it big.

I hope I’m able to blow your minds when I lay out the whole story for you. I’m working on it now – and you can check out what I’m working on here.

But Let’s Get Back to the Robbery

So what really happened on the night of April 21, 2017? The night Grand Duchess Hilda of Baden’s tiara was seen for the last time?

We may never know.

The robbery was probably an inside job. None of the reports after the theft mentioned broken glass or signs of an illegal entry.

The robbery was probably an inside job. None of the reports after the theft mentioned broken glass or other signs of an illegal entry.

Once they got away from the museum undetected, the thief (or thieves) probably pried the diamonds out of the tiara’s frame immediately. If there were multiple thieves, they likely split up the stones. The frame could have been hidden, melted down, or maybe snapped into pieces, one for each thief. There’s almost no chance the tiara will be recovered as it was.

The other option? A mastermind paid for the heist because he or she had to have this tiara. I’d prefer that, because at least it keeps the tiara intact – even if it means we never see it again. It’s not probable, but not impossible.

In a year and a half since the theft, no further details have been made public.

 A Copycat Crime?

On July 31, 2018, another daring jewel theft happened in Sweden. How do I remember what day it was? A wildfire broke out half a mile from my house and a roadblock kept me from going home that night. So I got drunk in a nearby brewery and watched this story on the news.

Here’s what went down. Two thieves walked into a Swedish cathedral in Strängnäs in broad daylight and smashed the locked glass case that held the funeral crowns of Karl IX and Queen Kristina, created in 1611.

A photo of the funeral crowns of Karl IX and Queen Christina of Sweden, along with their orbs and scepters. Photo by Livrustkammaren (The Royal Armoury), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Livrustkammaren (The Royal Armoury), public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

There were only two other people in the church at the time, a priest and a janitor, which sounds like the beginning of a joke but isn’t.

There were only two other people in the church at the time, a priest and a janitor, which sounds like the beginning of a joke but isn’t.

The security alarms went off, but no one got to the thieves in time. They grabbed the crowns and a golden orb, then biked their way from the cathedral to the nearby lake, where they hopped in a waiting speedboat and sped away.

The next day, Swedish police began conducting raids, but refused to confirm or deny whether they found the crowns and orb. A later Swedish report says they haven’t found anything yet. One of the thieves, a man, was later identified by traces of blood he left at the scene. A few days later, police began searching the coastal area of Roslagen. A Swedish policeman, Leif Persson, told the press he thinks someone specifically ordered the thieves to take these particular items. Why? Because they aren’t particularly valuable – worth only about $56,455 in raw materials, according to Artnet.com. But it’s also possible the thieves were really good at escaping and really bad at picking what to steal.

Could this be the same crew that robbed the Karlsruhe museum? If not, were they inspired by the crew that got away with Hilda’s tiara?

We may never know. A 21-year-old was arrested in Sweden on September 13, 2018, but they still hadn’t found the stolen crowns and orb.

Another Copycat Crime?

2018 is the year of the tiara theft, apparently. On November 20, thieves broke open an armored glass case and stole the Portland tiara and a diamond brooch.

It happened on the Welbeck estate in Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire—the ancestral home of the Dukes of Portland. Today, that estate houses a museum called The Portland Collection, with the family’s historic collection of art, jewels, and more. It also houses the pearl earring Charles I wore to his execution in 1649, which I would love to see for reasons I can’t quite fathom.

 It also houses the pearl earring Charles I wore to his execution in 1649, which I would love to see for reasons I can’t quite fathom.

In this particular theft, the burglars committed the crime between 9:45 and 10:00 pm. The alarm on the tiara’s glass case worked; the thieves were just faster than security, which arrived 90 seconds later. Two minutes later, the police arrived. Details are scarce as I write this; a burned-out Audi S5 might have been their getaway vehicle.

This tiara dates back to 1902, when the sixth duke of Portland commissioned it from Cartier. His wife, the duchess, was to be one of the canopy bearers for Queen Alexandra at the coronation of King Edward VII. Everyone knows you can’t bear a canopy for a queen without wearing a crap-ton of diamonds on your head. To that end, the tiara included the Portland Diamond, a stone that was part of the family’s collection. You can see it in the center of the tiara here:

The Portland tiara - it's composed of interlocked circles formed of diamonds, with a diamond drop hanging from the center of each circle.
The Portland tiara, via the Nottinghamshire Police

As with all famous tiara thefts, the thieves can’t expect to sell it on the black market—it’s too well known. Just like with Grand Duchess Hilda of Baden’s tiara, the fear is they’ve already broken it up, destroying a piece of Britain’s heritage in the process.

You have to wonder…why this particular tiara? I can’t help but think there’s an ironic message in the fact that Welbeck is located in Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood’s old stomping grounds…steal from the rich, give to the poor.

I can’t help but think there’s an ironic message in the fact that Welbeck is located in Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood’s old stomping grounds…steal from the rich, give to the poor.

Who Stole Grand Duchess Hilda of Baden’s Tiara?

There’s still no news about Hilda’s tiara. Not to be depressing, but a year and half after it went missing, there’s next to zero chance we’ll ever see it again. Either the thieves have hidden it, broken it up, or delivered it to the criminal mastermind who paid for it to be stolen in the first place.

The tiara may be lost to us, but Hilda isn’t. She’s all I can focus on now.

While we wait, let’s learn as much as we can about Hilda and the other women who owned her beautiful tiara. I’m working on their stories now. I’m going to piece it together right here, and you’re invited to come along for the ride. I’ll be talking a lot more about Hilda and her tiara in future posts. Stay tuned, world.

The End

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Sources

Credits

  • Featured Image, Karlsruhe Palace: Abhishekiyer21, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
  • Music, post audio: “Favorite” by Alexander Nakarada. Generously made available via FreePD.com.

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Comments

  1. As of 26 June 2020 the official investigation into the theft of tiara have been abandoned (https://www.stuttgarter-zeitung.de/inhalt.badisches-landesmuseum-ermittlungen-nach-kunstdiebstahl-in-karlsruhe-eingestellt.53eefe36-d1ef-45bd-aba7-5029f666fa37.html). As you mentioned the police and state attorney also are very much aware that the tiara has been dismantled, converted and reworked, and doesn’t exist anymore in it’s original form. I am not sure if you have mentioned that this is not the only unsolved theft: six months earlier, a valuable ivory baroque carving by the artist Leonhard Kern had already gone missing from the State Museum of Baden. Has it been an inside job? I don’t know — quite frankly, I don’t know if you have been ever been at the museum but other at State Museum of Württemberg in Stuttgart where they have actually installed some serious security around the crown jewels etc., I was a bit shocked to see the whole set-up in Karlsruhe even after the theft. The glass case that once housed the tiara was still there but apart from it having been locked it’s not like there were any additional security measures. None of this excuses stealing anything and robbing the public of being able to enjoy this wonderful piece of craftsmanship and history.

    Well, you alluded to a lot of intrigue and a side cast of characters on the website. I’m not sure where this is going or if this is for your Patreons. I can only say that it’s still worth visiting Karlsruhe – for one, the Ducal Botanical Gardens (https://www.botanischer-garten-karlsruhe.de/en/home) adjacent to the Palace (now turned museum) which were established by Duke Karl Friedrich of Baden, Hilda’s great-grandfather-in-law, based on the exotic plant collection of an even earlier ancestor. Also well worth visiting and only a short walk through the park from the palace is the Sepulchral Chapel of the Grand Duchy (https://www.grabkapelle-karlsruhe.de/en/home) where Grand Duchess Hilda is buried – the tour I went on was excellent.

    As for further readings – I recommend “Die Frauen am badischen Hof” by Annette Borchardt-Wenzel (https://www.amazon.de/Die-Frauen-badischen-Hof-Gef%C3%A4hrtinnen/dp/3938047496/)… it’s what I’d call an introductory biography on all Baden Margravine and later Grand Duchesses, where of course Hilda has her own (the last) chapter. Now you say you do not speak or read German… well, that’s a pity and I think GoogleTranslate has made great strides but for longer texts and such I, may I suggest DeepL?

    Otherwise, lovely website – thank you for bringing awareness to Grand Duchess Hilda. Hope you get to visit Southwest Germany if you haven’t already.

    P. S. Also yes – in Württemberg (the other half of what is now the State of Baden-Württemberg but back in the day there was the Duchy of Baden and the Kingdom of Württemberg) – and you got that quite right there wasn’t a bloody revolution like in Russia because King William II and Queen Charlotte were very well liked by the people and there already was a parliament in place for many years. There was a provisional government for a hot minute (well six weeks) until there were new elections but ultimately nobody was dissatisfied with the Prime Minister or parliament as such everything stayed as it was. Theodor Pfizer, later mayor Ulm, described the ‘November Revolution’ in Württemberg as follows: “Thus the end of the monarchy brought a break, but not a deep break in the development of the country and its capital. The court, uniforms and orders disappeared, but the state apparatus, the civil servants remained committed to their tasks even in the new regime. The men of the new era, such as the social democrats Blos and Keil, were not inclined towards extremes. Perhaps in the bloodless revolution too little room was given to the new, too much was continued unchanged. But a deep change of heart was hardly necessary in Württemberg. The citizens of the state, who were loyal to the king, were tolerant and politically liberal.” In terms of politics, I daresay, the average citizen wouldn’t have really felt much change at the time.

    1. Author

      Hi Nina,
      Thanks so much for your comment! I’m sad to hear that the set-up in Karlsruhe wasn’t improved after the theft. If two thefts (the carving and the tiara) aren’t enough to convince the operators of the museum to do something, I don’t know what is. I know that budgets are always tight in museums, but it seems like something must be sacrificed to protect what’s left – whether it’s a marketing budget or salary raises or general operating expenses. I wonder if there are any government or non-profit foundational grants that could help out with this sort of thing.

      I’ve never been to Germany, but I really want to fix that! Germany and Italy are my top 2 travel destinations at the moment (both for research projects). I’m still working on the research for Hilda’s story, so there is no finished product yet. I’m a research addict, so the hardest part of the process is sitting down to finesse my notes into something readable and entertaining. I had to put up the page on the website as a reminder to myself to finish the darn thing. Thank you for all the links to the Ducal Botanical Gardens and the Sepulchral Chapel of the Grand Duchy. I really want to see Hilda’s burial in person. There are pictures online, but it’s obviously not the same as being there in person.

      And thanks for the recommendation of Annette Borchardt-Wenzel’s book. I do have that one, and have already gone through it. I wish Hilda’s chapter had been longer, but that just goes to show how tricky it is to get information about her life. That book also got me interested in Markgräfin Amalie, and I bought another book about her that’s sitting on my shelf waiting for me to translate. About a year ago, I switched to DeepL for German translation and haven’t looked back. It does a much better job with colloquialisms and the overall tone of the original work. It didn’t do quite as well with Swedish, but AI and algorithms improve all the time, so I’ll have to give it another shot. I have one more Swedish book to translate – about Queen Victoria of Sweden, born Princess Victoria of Baden.

      Thanks so much for visiting the site! I’m always happy to meet other people interested in German history and Hilda’s story in particular.

      Jenni 🙂

  2. Just found this by accident, whilst looking up something on the Battenbergs. When I saw Hilda of baden, my nose twitched and I thought Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh connection (as you probably already know). the Baden title passed to maximilian and his son berthold married a Battenberg! (the B’s anglicised their name and became Mountbatten. I also saw Queen Ena and 2 other people you are looking at. Ena has both Battenberg and Victoria’s blood in her as one of the other 2 ladies you are looking at. Berthold Baden married Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark, Ena is Prince P’s great aunt – small world :). I have to say I’ve thoroughly enjoyed what I’ve read so far and look forward to reading more.

    1. Author

      Hi Rosemary,
      Thanks so much for commenting! Glad to have you here. 🙂 Yes – I’ve done a tiny bit of research on Max so far, since he was German Chancellor in late 1918 as World War I was ending and the German revolution was breaking out. It’s also interesting that Max’s mom, Maria Maximilianovna of Leuchtenberg, was the oldest daughter of Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna of Russia (Tsar Nicholas I’s daughter, sister of Olga and Adini, cousin of Lilli). That means he’s connected to two of the ladies I’m looking into! I don’t have much info on her, but one of Max’s daughters, Marie Alexandra, was killed in an air raid during World War II. So sad.

      I’m glad you’re enjoying the site so far! Check back late next week – I’m finalizing an in-depth post on the Yusupov black pearl necklace. There’s only a teensy Battenberg connection, but it’s there. Enjoy!

      -Jenni 🙂

      1. Hi Jenni,

        The Black pearl necklace sounds amazing. I’ve seen pics of Zenaida Yusupov wearing it and it’s lovely. Is he the Yusupov that helped kill Rasputin?

        R

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