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The BBC's Sanchia Berg
"The owners were friendly with the diplomats"
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Tuesday, 23 January, 2001, 16:51 GMT
Records expose diplomatic 'smuggling'

By the BBC's Sanchia Berg

An intriguing tale of how British officials used the diplomatic bag to smuggle gold out of Romania during the Cold War has been revealed for the first time.

Documents from the 1950s, just released by the Public Record Office, show how officials broke both British and Romanian law by bringing gold and jewellery back to London.

The valuables belonged to a number of rich Romanians who persuaded diplomats to take them for safe-keeping before they were arrested by the Communists.

Unlocking secrets

Eleven of the 15 bags belonged to Eleonore Bunea. Born the Princess De Wied zu Isenburg, a German aristocrat, she had worked in the Legation's Press and Information department after the war.

A mile of shelf space is filled each year at the Public Record Office
In early 1950 she married a Romanian, Ion Bunea, and with the help of a British diplomat, they planned to leave the country. But the Communists found out about the plot. They arrested both Buneas in the summer of 1950 and insisted the diplomat be recalled to London.

The lists of contents now open in the Public Record Office show some of Mrs Bunea's property was extremely valuable.

"Package number five" contained "one gold bracelet with a brown diamond surrounded by white diamonds; one gold bracelet with three diamonds; a gold locket with inset horse shoe of sapphires; a diamond brooch...", as well as pearl necklaces and earrings and gold coins.

However other packages were full of silver cutlery: number seven contained 22 silver salt spoons, salt cellars, and other miscellaneous silverware.

Bags returned

Three of the bags belonged to Annie Samuelli, who had also worked in the Legation's press department, but had been arrested as a Western sympathiser.

One bag belonged to a Mrs Ottolescu. Her husband Emil was a leading barrister. His cousin Vassil, now 96 and still living in Bucharest, remembers Emil as a key figure in the anti communist National Peasants' Party. He recalls Emil being arrested as part of a clampdown on opponents in 1950.

Before his arrest, Emil Ottolescu had frightened the diplomats by asking for his wife's jewellery back. He believed the valuables were still in Bucharest and had no idea they had been sent to London. The Communists had confiscated all his other property and, like the Buneas, he needed cash to try to escape.

Officials in the legation were worried their actions would be uncovered. The bag had to be sent back to Bucharest in November 1950, and was returned to Ottolescu via intermediaries.

RG Watts in the Legation reassured the Southern Department at the Foreign Office in London that other hitches were unlikely:

"In the case of the other deposits ... the owners are as you know serving long prison sentences and we need not anticipate any similar complications for some time," he wrote.

But there was a problem with the bags.

Secrets remain

In late 1950, the Foreign Office in London warned Bucharest the bags might be stopped because they were too heavy. The guideline for each diplomatic bag was 11 pounds - one of the shipments weighed 18.5 pounds.

Now the valuables were all in the Foreign Office - and there was nowhere safe to store them. The Bank of England was asked, and refused.

In October 1950 one official wrote that "Mr Reilly's friends" had agreed to store the jewellery "indefinitely".

"Friends" was the euphemism for the secret services. And this is where the 'open' trail ends. The secret intelligence service records remain closed.

But Gill Bennett, chief historian at the Foreign Office, has established that the valuables were returned many years later:

  • Annie Samuelli: Served 11 years in a labour camp. She managed to leave Romania and arrived in London in 1963, to claim her three bags.

  • Eleonore Bunea: Died in prison in 1956. But her husband, Ion Bunea, survived and turned up at the Foreign Office in 1968. He signed a receipt for his wife's possessions.

    This episode has remained secret until now - and so far it is unique. But Ms Bennett is convinced more cases will emerge as the files are opened.

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    01 Jan 01 | UK Confidential
    Unlocking the secrets of government
    25 Oct 00 | UK Politics
    Whitehall's culture of secrecy
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