On at least two occasions, the famous Trojan gold nearly found a home in the United States.
On May 31, 1873, Schliemann uncovered what he later described as Priam’s Treasure. Within days he had smuggled the entire lot out of Turkey to Athens—where he set the finds on shelves, had them photographed and welcomed visitors to his house to view the “treasure of Priam.” That Christmas, he had his Greek wife, Sophia, photographed wearing the headdress and earrings (see this issue’s
For a year and a half, controversy raged over the ownership of Priam’s Treasure. While fending off a lawsuit from the Ottoman government, Schliemann strung along various governments of Europe and the United States, giving each the impression that it might one day be home to Priam’s gold.
Schliemann’s spiriting the treasure out of Turkey was customary practice, entirely consistent with European and American bias against the Turks. During a nine-month period in 1871 and 1872, when there was no minister at the U.S. legation to the Ottoman Empire, the U.S. Chargé d’Affaires, career diplomat John P. Brown, gave Schliemann advice reflecting sentiments all too common at the time.1 On March 19, 1872, he wrote, “When you find any small objects, put them in your pocket The Imperial Museum, here, is a dead letter like anything else which does not make money. Money is the first question of the day, in that you must not find any large amount of Gold or Silver in your diggings.” His letter also indicated that he believed the Turkish pasha was not interested in ancient objects. “I carry them off for all they can earn!” Brown wrote.
A month later, Brown died, and Schliemann’s correspondence shifted to Philadelphia playwright George Henry Boker, who had become U.S. Minister to the Sublime Porte, a post he would fill until 1875. Schliemann first opened communication with Boker by presenting the minister with gifts from his excavations—then a common practice among archaeologists, who lobbied influential diplomats with the fruits of their labors.
Schliemann wrote to Boker for advice concerning the Trojan treasure trove on June 10, 1873. Boker responded on June 28 in a letter marked Personal and Confidential. “If you intend to continue your excavations,” Boker wrote, “it would be the height of imprudence to give publicity to your recent discoveries.” After quoting the Ottoman Law on Antiquities, Boker continued:
It would be worse than throwing away the articles which you have discovered to permit any part of them to go into the absurd collection of rubbish which the Turks call their “Museum.” My advice to you therefore is to give no publicity to your discoveries until you have finished your labors in Turkey, and given up this field of exploration forever. As sure as you do, you will be prevented from continuing the work, as you will be obliged to turn over to ignorant barbarians objects which in your hands may become precious archaeological illustrations.
At this point, Boker made the first reference to a possible home in America for Priam’s Treasure:
Of course, if you once get your treasures to America, they will be safe from Turkish pursuit, as I have little doubt that they are in Athens I therefore advise you to keep quiet, and let no man know the facts and discoveries of your recent researches.
You must understand that all which I have written above is unofficial and personal. If I wrote you as Minister of the U.S., I should be obliged to use very different language, and to advise you to conform yourself to Turkish law [e]tc. But in my sympathy with you as a man of science, I cannot be guilty of the hypocrisy of giving you such advice, knowing that it would be better for the world of letters that you should re-bury the objects than to turn them over to the Turks.
Boker also requested that Schliemann send him one of the owl-headed idols (pendants on the headdress worn by Sophia in the famous photo). To his credit, Schliemann refused, saying that “the head veils of gold” were constructed in such a way that “the chains and idols cannot be separated one from the other.”
Schliemann had anticipated problems with the Ottoman government. On September 16, 1873, he pleaded with Boker to intercede on his behalf, reminding the minister of the remarks he had made in his July 28 letter. But by April 5, 1874, the Ottomans had launched a lawsuit against Schliemann in Athens. A fierce court battle ensued, in which the Ottoman government, represented by Philipp Déthier, Director of the Imperial Ottoman Museum, sought to regain their half of the treasure. Initially, the tribunal supported Schliemann, who talked of leaving his collection to Greece. When the Royal Court reversed the decision and ordered a precautionary seizure of the treasure, Schliemann tried to suborn the Greek courts by issuing a proclamation to the 029Athenians that he had made them heirs of Priam’s Treasure. He then appealed the case to the Areopagus (Supreme Court). But once it became known through foreign newspapers that Schliemann had been conducting secret negotiations—now in London, now in Paris—to sell the treasure, he sought to remove it from the jurisdiction of the court and looked for protection from a foreign embassy.
On April 16, 1874, he wrote to Boker: “Mr. Wait the consul called on me when the danger appeared greatest and offered me to put the U.S. seal on my collection in order to save it.” Schliemann asked Boker if the Americans could protect the treasure from “any attack”:
Would it be possibly safe if I put on it the U.S. seal and I donate it to the U.S.? I have to think for the Turks would always find plenty of unscrupulous lawyers in the U.S. who love money and who would do anything to get all of the Trojan antiquities back to Turkey.
He also speculated, in the same letter, about giving the treasure to the Louvre. A month later, he wrote again: “If the Turks bombard Piraeus and take the Trojan Collection by force, would not the American fleet intervene?”
Warned that if he lost the court case he would have to pay reparations for half the treasure’s estimated value, Schliemann secretly hid the objects at the Ecole française d’Athènes. When the authorities came to confiscate the collection, they found nothing. Schliemann wrote Boker that the treasure had “disappeared.”
On October 14, 1874, Schliemann finally asked Boker to protect him and the treasure—suggesting that he and Sophia might like to live “on the shores of Massachusetts, or perhaps Boston; of course we take the Trojan collection along.”
But Schliemann was still carrying on secret negotiations with various European countries. On December 3, 1874, he wrote to French traveler and collector Eugène Piot, “I can sell it to the United States for 200,000 dollars.” Two days later, Boker promised Schliemann that he would “cover [him] with the American eagle’s powerful protection” and asked if Schliemann had ever heard “the American eagle scream?” Schliemann, Boker observed, was making “a great mistake in not at once carrying your collection and your household gods to the land of your adoption and giving our country all the credit and the advantages of your disinterested labors. In Europe you have been paid with sneers and ingratitude.”
Schliemann responded cautiously, on December 16, 1874, thanking Boker for his promises of protection. But something was in the air:
I shall leave [Greece] forever even if I could gain here tons of gold and the glory of Achilles. But I cannot think of leaving before the arrangement is made with Turkey, for until then I cannot bring out anything of my Trojan collection from its hiding places. It is my firm intention to settle down in the U.S. and I am sure it will please there Mrs. Schliemann, for that is the earthly paradise of the ladies. Besides the result of my excavations has excited in the U.S. an immense enthusiasm [W]e want to live in a society where we are not tortured to death by the libels of our so called friends. I think it will be wise if we leave the Trojan collection here until we have chosen our abode in the U.S., for the objects are too fragile. I think Boston is the place for us I am sure we shall not be sneered and laughed at and nobody will libel us in the U.S.
On April 18, 1875, Schliemann wrote Boker that the ordeal was finally over. The Ottoman government had terminated its lawsuit on April 12 after Schliemann paid 50,000 francs as compensation for the treasure. In return, he got to keep the Trojan collection intact. Schliemann removed the objects from their hiding places and secured the treasure in Athenian bank vaults. At that point, he expected Boker to help him finagle another excavation season at Hisarlik. In May, however, Boker left Constantinople for a new post at St. Petersburg. With Boker’s departure, Schliemann’s excavation hopes, and Boker’s hopes of bringing Priam’s Treasure to the United States, were dashed. Schliemann now shelved his plan to dispose of the hoard in Boston.
In 1877, four months after the Trojan collection went on display in London’s South Kensington Museum, Schliemann again considered the U.S. Seeking to become U.S. consul for Athens, he used the prominent American journalist Kate Field as a conduit to the American government. On March 29, 1878, Schliemann made a not-so-veiled promise to reward “the Smithsonian Hall in Washington by gifts of antiquities” in exchange for the position. On December 20, 1878, Field recommended him to the government, noting that “he can be of great assistance to American art museums now in process of formation.”
Six months later, Schliemann again wrote to Field that the U.S. government probably did not understand how helpful 060he could be to U.S. museums: “I possess the richest and most wonderful collection in the world, which is not for sale and which I do not think to take with me to the grave.” In August 1879, Schliemann learned that the U.S. secretary of state had rejected his bid for the Athens consulship. He abandoned his plan of buying a consulship and, within a month, secretly willed his Trojan collection to the German people.
On December 11, 1880, in a letter to Crown Prince Bernhard of Saxe Meiningen, Schliemann offered the Trojan collection to the people of Berlin—on the condition “that all the rooms in which it is exhibited bear my name.” This sealed the fate of Priam’s Treasure, which then went to Germany.
Schliemann explained his actions to Field in a letter dated January 15, 1881:
Pray do not think ill of me that I donated my Trojan collection to the German nation. I could not do otherwise since the U.S. government refused to appoint me as their consul; had they done so the collection would have long ago been in the Smithsonian. Troy being entirely excavated that collection is unique and of immeasurable value. It has been received in Germany with immense enthusiasm and for all ages to come it will attract to Berlin thousands of people from all parts of the world.
Thus the United States lost its chance to own one of archaeology’s most celebrated finds. Priam’s Treasure, had history unfolded differently, might have resided on the banks of the Charles or the Potomac.
On at least two occasions, the famous Trojan gold nearly found a home in the United States.