Michael Collins and the mystery of the missing jewels

100 years ago, Michael Collins had a showdown with his pal over Russian jewels. PAT POLAND tells the intriguing story
Michael Collins and the mystery of the missing jewels

TREASURE TROVE: A small selection of the Russian Imperial Jewellery Collection, some of which made its way to Ireland after the Bolshevik Revolution there in 1917.

ON January 6, 1922, best friends Michael Collins and Harry Boland sat across a table from one another in Dublin.

Boland reached in his pocket and produced a bag containing four exquisite jewels. He handed them to Collins, the Minister for Finance, for safe-keeping.

However, after a heated argument on the pros and cons of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, agreed just a month previously, Collins, in a foul mood, flung the jewels back across the table, growling: “Take back your damn jewels! They’re blood-stained anyway!”

The jewels in question were part of the Russian Imperial Collection, but how had they ended up in the coffers of Sinn Féin, and why did Collins declare them ‘blood-stained’? Did he know something Boland didn’t?

Sadly, that meeting was the beginning of the end of the great friendship between the two revolutionaries, the first cracks of which had begun to appear over the ‘love triangle’ with Kitty Kiernan (she chose Collins). 

The following day, the Dáil voted in favour of the Treaty, which led to the establishment of the Irish Free State. Boland - who once wrote in his diary that, in Collins, “Ireland has the man of a generation - he stands out as the greatest force of the Movement” - voted against it.

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Four years earlier, in October, 1917, leftist revolutionaries known as Bolsheviks, led by their leader-in-exile, Vladimir Lenin, in an almost bloodless coup, had seized power from the Tsarist regime in Russia.

For a while, Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, Tsarina Alexandra, their Romanov family and retainers were allowed to remain, in relative comfort, at their mansion, Tsarskoye Selo, 24km south of the capital, St Petersburg.

Then, in April, 1918, the decision was made to move them 2,300km east to the city of Ekaterinburg, where Siberia begins. The large house of a merchant, Ipatiev House, was commandeered, the windows were painted out, machine gun nests were put in place, and, chillingly, a new name for the premises was quietly whispered among their captors: ‘The House of Special Purpose’. None had any doubt that this was the end of the road for the Romanovs.

At 1am on July 17, 1918, the royals were woken from their sleep. The Tsar and Tsarina, their four daughters - Anastasia, Tatiana, Olga and Maria - their son, Alexei, and staff, were told to assemble in the basement as the White Army (which supported the Tsar) was fast approaching (it wasn’t). They had to be moved quickly, they were told.

There they stood, quietly, unsure, waiting, almost as if they were posing for a family photograph. Suddenly, ten heavily armed men, obviously the worse for drink, filed into the room…

In 2016, Simon Sebag Montefiore, the noted author and historian, published his history of the Romanov dynasty. Allowed unfettered access to the Kremlin’s archives, he was asked if he had censored anything from the often gruesome records he had unearthed. He confirmed he had omitted only one detail: the more horrific aspects of the Tsar’s family’s slaughter in 1918.

Suffice to say it took 20 minutes for them to die. What had enraged the psyched-up, drunken execution squad was the discovery the women’s corsets were studded with secretly sewn-in precious jewels, causing some of the bullets to ricochet, and wounding some of their number. The jewels may have offered the women some protection from the bullets but not, unfortunately, from the frenzied assault of bayonets and rifle butts that followed.

One guard later described the room as being like ‘a skating rink’, only it was blood and brains that covered the floor.

Some of the assailants tried to spirit away the jewels, but Yakov Yurovsky, the ‘Chief Executioner’, threatened to shoot anyone who touched them.

He carefully documented them and dutifully returned them to his Kremlin bosses in Moscow, now the declared capital of the Bolshevik leadership.

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21st February 1922: Members of the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis from left to right: Harry Boland, Michael Collins (1890 - 1922), Eamon de Valera (1882 - 1975) and Eamon Duggan.  (Photo by Walshe/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
21st February 1922: Members of the Sinn Fein Ard Fheis from left to right: Harry Boland, Michael Collins (1890 - 1922), Eamon de Valera (1882 - 1975) and Eamon Duggan.  (Photo by Walshe/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Five months after the massacre, a seismic event happened in Ireland.

On December 14, 1918, a month after the end of the First World War, a General Election was held. Sinn Féin won 73 of 105 seats, but abstained from taking their seats at the Westminster Parliament. They interpreted the result as a democratic mandate to establish a separate Irish Parliament - Dáil Éireann - and to proclaim a Republic. The Dáil was proscribed by the British authorities, but continued to function, under great duress, as the de jure, albeit underground, government of Ireland.

But governments need funds, and a National Loan was launched under the indefatigable 29-year-old Minister for Finance, Collins. When it closed in July, 1920, over £355,000 (about €13 million in today’s money) had been subscribed.

Even after the Loan officially closed, money continued to pour in, including over £4,000 from Terence MacSwiney in Cork. A further $5 million was raised in a successful Bond Drive by President Éamon de Valera and Harry Boland in the United States, equating to some €60 million today. It is no exaggeration to say the Irish national movement was awash with money.

Not so, apparently, the fledging Soviet Union, then known as the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic.

It was the first government internationally to recognise Dáil Éireann in 1918, and Collins was held in great admiration by the Bolsheviks, due to his revolutionary, anti-imperialist ideals and remarkable fund-raising prowess.

In 1920, Ludwig Martens, a close confidante of Lenin, was on a fund-raising mission in New York, without much success. He approached the Irish delegation with a view to securing a loan of $20,000 (about €250,000 today) from them.

Martens produced a box containing a pendant with a 16-carat diamond and three sapphire ruby brooches. He said it formed part of the Imperial Russian collection, which he was prepared to put up as collateral. He did not elaborate on the provenance of the jewels.

After much soul-searching, the Irish -staunch Catholics, who were, after all, about to do a deal with Godless, Communist Russia - agreed to the terms, and the cash was handed over in exchange for the jewels.

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After the fractious meeting with Collins 100 years ago next week, a despondent Boland returned to his mother’s house at 15, Marino Crescent, Dublin - birthplace of Bram Stoker, author of Dracula.

Not knowing quite what to do with the jewels - with the vote on the Treaty looming, it is safe to assume he had far more important things on his mind - it was decided to hide them in the brick-work of the kitchen fireplace.

Other places they were sequestered included Harry’s old riding boots, kept in plain sight.

Boland was mortally injured in a struggle with National Army troops in Skerries on July 31, 1922, and just over three weeks later, his erstwhile former best friend Michael Collins, was killed in action at Béalnabláth. On his death-bed in St Vincent’s Hospital, Harry requested his family not to hand over the jewels unless de Valera was returned to power. This the family did in 1938.

The Russian jewels were locked away in a safe and promptly forgotten about.

In 1948, during the term of the first Inter-Party Government, Clann na Poblachta co-founder Dr Patrick McCartan, responding to accusations from Fianna Fáil that his party had Communist leanings, revealed de Valera’s deal with the Soviets back in 1920.

This was the first that most people in Ireland had heard of it, and now the government was anxious to be rid of the gems once and for all. After contacts through the Soviet Ambassador in London, they were relieved to hear the Russians were prepared to take them back and repay the full $20,000 - without interest. The Irish agreed, and the transaction was completed on September 13, 1949.

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In 1988, Harry’s niece, 90-year-old Eileen Barrington (her mother Kathleen was his sister) approached the Department of Foreign Affairs, curious to know the whereabouts of the jewels her family had faithfully hidden for so long. Her efforts came to nothing.

At the bidding of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Gerry Collins TD, the Irish Ambassador in Moscow visited the Kremlin Armoury which housed the imperial regalia, but, he reported, he had not seen anything resembling the jewels as described in the official receipts.

To this day, the provenance of the Russian jewels remains a mystery. What were they - and where are they? And why did Collins react like he did - declaring them ‘blood-stained’- when Harry Boland spilled them across the table in front of him?

The ‘Big Fella’, with his supreme network of intelligence agents and spies, not alone in Ireland but also across the UK and the continent, may have been privy to information that he was not prepared to share with Boland at that point in time.

We shall probably never know.

Postscript: The British Royal family possesses some of the Romanov collection, including the fabulous tiara once worn by Grand Duchess Vladimir. Queen Elizabeth wore this, with its priceless emeralds, during the State Banquet at Dublin Castle in 2011.

When Meghan Markle married Prince Harry in 2018, reportedly she had her heart set on wearing the Vladimir tiara. Harry allegedly told his grandmother, the Queen: “What Meghan wants, Meghan gets.”

Liz, however, unimpressed, reportedly told her grandson: “She gets whatever tiara she’s given by me!”

It wasn’t the Vladimir.

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