An aristocrat's grandson, a precious desk and a storage unit in Queens

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Thursday, May 30, 2024


An aristocrat's grandson, a precious desk and a storage unit in Queens
An intricate family collection of books of Christian Agostino Von Hassell’s family in his home in New York on July 20, 2023. Christian Agostino von Hassell lost a trove of family heirlooms intertwined with European history when he encountered New York’s unforgiving laws governing storage lockers. (Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times)

by Chelsia Rose Marcius



NEW YORK, NY.- The 18th-century French writing desk that once belonged to Ulrich von Hassell, a German diplomat executed on the orders of Adolf Hitler, had sat for 12 years in a self-storage unit in Queens.

The desk had been passed down five generations to Christian Agostino von Hassell, his American grandson, who had stowed it with hundreds of other heirlooms, some dating back centuries. They were tucked away with, among other things, roughly a dozen oil paintings of ancestors; an armoire, wall sconces and Persian rugs; and samurai armor from Japan, gifts Christian von Hassell received during his service in the U.S. Marine Corps.

There were at least 1,000 books, most leather-bound and embossed with the von Hassell coat of arms. Many were from von Hassell’s great-grandfather, Adm. Alfred von Tirpitz, who led the German navy under Emperor Wilhelm II during World War I.

The desk — worth $39,000, but invaluable in emotional and historical significance — was stored with the other items in a unit at Extra Space Storage, a facility on Wyckoff Avenue in Ridgewood, Queens, across from the Bubble House Laundromat.

But on March 24, von Hassell sat down at the computer in his Sutton Place studio, an orderly apartment with the look and feel of an old British library, and saw an unexpected and unread email from the day before.

It was from Extra Space Storage.

“Just sending you a quick note to confirm that you have successfully moved out of your unit at our Ridgewood store. We can’t wait for you to pursue your next big adventure,” read the email.

“Have a wonderful rest of your day!” it said.

It took him a moment to take in the words on the screen. The storage locker was empty. The desk was gone.

International Man

Von Hassell, 70 — tall and dignified, his eyes blue, his accent a medley of the eight languages he speaks — was born in Bonn, Germany, and raised in Rome and Brussels before moving to America with his family. In 1974, at age 21, he joined the Marines. He became a combat correspondent and later an intelligence officer.

His military career took him to dozens of countries, including Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Liberia and Lebanon. He said he could not talk about some of his missions: They are “still classified.”

He was in Beirut on Oct. 23, 1983, when terrorists drove two trucks loaded with TNT into the Marine barracks, killing 241 U.S. service members and 58 French personnel on a peacekeeping mission. He remembers seeing their bodies strewed over the rubble.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in European history and a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University, and in his post-military career, he taught courses on counterterrorism at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He wrote 17 books, most of them on military history, and became a consultant to law firms and major corporations on national security. In 2002, he was made a knight of justice in the Sovereign Order of Malta.

Even now, von Hassell prefers to be called “Omar,” his old military call sign.

In recent months, von Hassell’s health has declined. Neurological problems have affected his motor skills, spinal disc degeneration impaired his ability to walk and an abdominal hernia had brought on bouts of pain, ailments that required several surgeries and hospital stays.

But in his apartment refuge, he is surrounded by vestiges of his ancestral line that he has preserved for decades.

The storage unit had much more than his Sutton Place studio could hold. While he had not seen his writing desk in 12 years, he had paid tens of thousands of dollars over those years to store it and his other heirlooms. His mother had taken great care to restore the desk before passing it on to her son. Von Hassell thought perhaps one day his sister or daughter might want the piece, the next member of the family to write at it.

A Desk in History

As far as von Hassell knows, the desk entered his family in the mid-1800s when it was acquired by Gustav A. Lipke, a member of the Reichstag, the German parliament, who according to one history died in 1889 after being struck by a beer wagon in Berlin. Lipke then gave it to his daughter and son-in-law, von Tirpitz — von Hassell’s great-grandfather and one of the best-known figures in German military history.

Von Tirpitz was appointed state secretary of the Imperial Naval Office in 1897 under Emperor Wilhelm II, the last kaiser of Germany and the final member of the House of Hohenzollern to be king of Prussia. The emperor credited von Tirpitz with persuading the Reichstag to expand the country’s fleet to rival Britain’s. Germany posed the biggest threat to the British Empire and its Royal Navy, then the most powerful in the world, leading to a shipbuilding arms race between the fleets.

The death of the admiral in 1930 meant the writing desk would move once more, this time to Ulrich von Hassell, his private secretary and son-in-law. Ulrich von Hassell later served as the last ambassador to Italy under the Weimar Republic, a brief flourishing of democracy in Germany before Nazi rule in 1933.

Over the next 11 years, he and other members of the nation’s traditional Prussian military class watched as Hitler, a radical who had been a lowly Austrian corporal in World War I, rose to absolute power. The dictator’s globally ruinous megalomania engendered some internal resistance, and Ulrich von Hassell’s part in the famous assassination plot of July 20, 1944, would land him in Plötzensee Prison in Berlin. Eight weeks later, he was hanged.

The desk remained in Bavaria with Ulrich von Hassell’s wife, Ilse, who was von Tirpitz’s daughter, and remained in her possession when she testified during the Nuremberg Trials about the execution of her husband.

It was in Bavaria where Christian von Hassell first remembers the desk.

As a child, during his summer and winter stays there, von Hassell learned that his grandfather, Ulrich von Hassell, had written in his diary at the desk. Ulrich von Hassell later took the pages of that journal, placed them into tea tins and buried them on the grounds of his 10-acre Bavarian estate. The writings, a wartime memoir detailing the assassination plot, were later unearthed and published.

Wolf Ulrich von Hassell, Ulrich’s son, and his wife, Christa von Hassell, immigrated to America in 1971 with two of their children; their third child, Christian von Hassell, moved there one year later. Wolf was a West German ambassador to the United Nations and Christa was an art historian and critic.

The desk was shipped to them in Manhattan upon Ilse von Hassell’s death in 1982, and then went to the couple’s Southhampton home until Christa died in 2009, a decade after her husband.

Two years later, Christian von Hassell moved the desk to the storage unit in Queens.

In January, he fell ill and the $335 monthly payments slipped his mind.




A Five-Minute Survey

On Wyckoff Avenue, a commercial stretch along the Queens-Brooklyn border, a gray and neon-green building stands out from other industrial structures. Across the avenue is a subway station and El Novillo 2, a Mexican restaurant that sells cemitas and chalupas. Next door is Blitz Club Studios for recording artists.

The building is one of about 35 facilities in the city operated by Extra Space Storage in New York City, where closet space is a scarce resource. There are about 31,100 self-storage units in 286 facilities across the five boroughs, according to StorageCafe, which compiles industry data. Still, few renters fully understand the byzantine contracts or the laws that govern them.

In New York, when self-storage renters do not pay within 30 days of a notice of lien, companies can sell the contents of a unit. According to New York law, companies must notify renters by a hand-delivered letter; registered or certified mail; or by an email paired with a U.S. Postal Service “certificate of mailing,” which provides proof a notice has been sent.

Von Hassell possesses an old world reserve and a reservoir of military determination. When he discovered his heirlooms were gone, he proceeded at once with quiet but implacable force.

On March 24, a day after the congratulatory move-out email — along with a request to complete a five-minute survey and a chance to win a $100 gift card — von Hassell contacted Extra Space Storage. He said his messages were not returned.

Ignored, he turned to his lawyer, James Moschella.

In an April 3 letter, Moschella asked the company what had happened to the items in von Hassell’s storage unit. A reply came 10 days later from Sedgwick Claims Management Services, an insurance adjuster for Extra Space Storage.

“We find no fault on the part of Extra Space Storage Inc. for the loss received,” wrote Anthony Cummins, a claims examiner. “Therefore, Extra Space Storage Inc. will not be able to assist with any settlements of the claim.”

“The reason for the claim denial is that your client was properly notified about the foreclosure, and was called with no contact back,” he added.

In an email to The New York Times, McKall Morris, a spokesperson for Extra Space Storage, said the company made “very thorough attempts to contact” von Hassell.

Morris provided a copy of a postal receipt showing that a notice was received at von Hassell’s address Feb. 21 and signed by “Carlos M.,” his doorman.

She added that five calls were made to von Hassell between Jan. 9 and March 21. He says he never received the calls.

The company also ran an advertisement in the newspaper amNewYork on March 16. At the bottom of the classified section it says in fine print: “Notice of public sale: Extra Space Storage will hold a public auction,” with a list of units for sale. von Hassell was not mentioned by name.

As he hunted methodically, he did not know that he was out of time.

All Is Silence

When companies auction off a storage unit’s contents, savvy bidders vie for good deals.

In-person buyers only have a few minutes to inspect a unit, meaning most customers do not know if the boxes or bins contain treasure or trash. In online auctions, companies like Storage Treasures post a few snapshots of units, many crammed with shoes, clothing, tables or chairs.

In New York, the minimum bid is often around $10; most high bids come in at around a few hundred, according to online listings.

On April 19, five weeks after von Hassell’s writing desk went missing, Moschella learned from Cummins that a man named Boleslaw Karvay had bought the contents of the unit on March 23. Karvay had paid $2,850.

Von Hassell said he reached Karvay by phone on April 19 to inquire about the purchase. He told Karvay who he was, and asked him whether he still had his possessions.

Karvay, he said, hung up on him.

Karvay did not return calls or emails from the Times regarding von Hassell’s missing heirlooms. There is one man named Boleslaw Karvay in the New York City area who lives in Great Neck, Long Island, according to a deed and other public records. No one came to the door when a reporter knocked.

A History Lost

Six months after his storage unit sold, von Hassell was still no closer to finding his books, his samurai armor or his wooden writing desk.

He had, for the most part, accepted it. Stoic, with the discipline of a Marine and a scion of the Prussian military class, von Hassell values his possessions, but only to a point — a lesson learned over generations as his family navigated the tectonic shifts of European history.

While von Hassell continues to monitor online auction sales in hopes of finding his lost treasures, his health has taken precedence. He has another surgery scheduled for next week.

On a recent summer evening, after serving guests the lunch he had prepared — a salad with cherry tomatoes, and fregola with olives and rosemary — he leaned on his friend’s shoulder as he walked to his sofa to sit. He placed his old flip phone on the side table.

The friend asked why he used such an outdated device. Von Hassell said a phone’s primary function should be to make phone calls, just as “a writing desk is made for writing.”

Then he changed the subject.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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