On the trail of the Russian crown jewels
She’s navigated the world of Los Angeles’ elite for eight decades -- weekending at Hearst Castle at San Simeon with William Randolph Hearst, riding horses with friends at her family ranch above the boulevard that bears her father’s name, partying at posh gatherings from Newport Beach to Beverly Hills.
She is also a former war correspondent who filed reports from foxholes at Korea’s infamous Pork Chop Hill and is co-author of investigative books about the controversial deaths of Marilyn Monroe and legendary Russian “mad monk” Grigori Rasputin.
Now Patte Barham says she’s ready for the biggest challenge of her life: uncovering the lost crown jewels of the czar of Russia.
It’s a quest some believe is as fanciful as the legend surrounding the artifacts -- but Barham is having none of that.
The diamonds, Faberge eggs, imperial Russian crowns and tiaras, jewel-encrusted gold picture frames and opera-length strands of pearls, rubies, sapphires and diamonds are hidden in seven coffins in a hole 7 feet square and 10 feet deep in the middle of Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, she contends.
That’s where Barham says her stepfather buried them on Oct. 3, 1917.
Onetime Russian prince George Meskhi-Gleboff spoke often of the treasure after he came to the United States and married Barham’s mother, socialite and silver heiress Jessica Gorman Barham.
Shortly before his death in 1960, Barham says, her stepfather handed her a sealed envelope containing a map that showed exactly where the treasure was hidden. Embittered to the end by the Russian royal family’s execution, he asked that she not do anything until the Russian government admitted to the slayings of the Romanovs and recognized them with a state funeral. That occurred in 1998.
But soon after, the hand-drawn map mysteriously disappeared. Although Barham has searched her nine-bedroom, 10,000-square-foot mansion for it without success, she insists she has memorized the jewels’ hiding spot. Now, the energetic dowager is determined to see the trove recovered.
“They should be returned to the Russian people,” Barham says of the czar’s treasure.
There are those who doubt that these priceless jewels still exist and whether Barham has any shot of finding them if they do. Some experts on Russian history, while praising Barham’s passion for the project, question whether she has all her facts right. A few years ago, she tried to get the Discovery Channel interested in partnering with her to search. But the deal fell through when she could not produce the map.
Pointing to a copy of a circa-1916 map of Mongolia, she is certain she can find the treasure.
“It’s there,” she says.
Barham is a petite woman who carefully guards her age. But she readily talks of growing up amid wealth as the daughter of the late Frank Barham, onetime publisher of the L.A. Herald-Express and business partner of newspaper mogul Hearst.
Her family’s close relationship with the powerful Hearst meant they were frequent guests at San Simeon and at a second Julia Morgan-designed Hearst retreat, Wyntoon, near Mt. Shasta.
In the late 1940s, Barham worked as a reporter for the Herald-Express. Hearst himself sent her to Korea in 1951 to report on the war there. Later, she wrote for Hearst’s successor paper, the Herald-Examiner.
After Gleboff married her mother, Barham says, she often heard him recount how had he had been an aide to Russian Czar Nicholas II and his wife, Czarina Alexandra, at the time of the Russian Revolution.
Gleboff served as assistant to the treasurer of the “czar’s purse.” In that role, he was summoned on Feb. 28, 1917, to the czar’s palace south of St. Petersburg and instructed by Alexandra to transport the Romanovs’ personal treasures to the Bank of China in Peking, now known as Beijing.
The valuables were hidden in seven coffins, two of which held the bodies of children being taken to China for burial as a ruse to explain the trip to authorities, Gleboff recorded in his journal. He and his traveling party set out first by train and then by camel caravan for China.
The group was making its way across the Gobi Desert when bandits attacked. After driving off the attackers in a shootout, Gleboff decided to hide the crown jewels by burying them along with the bodies before making his way out of the desert. The next year, he relocated to the U.S.
In the 1930s, during the difficult days of the Great Depression, the topic of the treasure often came up, Barham says.
“Papa George said, ‘I know where it’s buried. I just need to get there.’ We didn’t talk about it with other people because nobody would believe it.”
Barham’s mother was a believer, though. “She said, ‘OK, we’ll make one attempt.’ She put up the money and he went through about $300,000. They got as far as Turkey and the authorities wouldn’t let him go on,” Barham says.
“My mother was so upset that she’d lost all the money.”
Hearst was preparing to bankroll a second attempt to find the czar’s jewels in 1951. But the eccentric publisher died before the expedition could be mounted.
For her part, Barham was motivated to pursue the treasure after she co-wrote a cookbook and a book about Rasputin with his daughter, Maria Grigorevna Rasputin. Maria Rasputin revealed that as a child she had been in the room when Alexandra asked Gleboff to pack up the treasure and take it to the Peking bank.
“I got to know Maria very well,” Barham says. “She said Papa George had been very close to the czarina and she trusted him. Crazy as it sounds, the story was all true.”
Barham waited a year “out of respect for the state funeral of the czar and his family” before attempting to mount a 1999 expedition to recover the jewels, said Chris Harris, a Beverly Hills public relations consultant she hired to help organize the search.
Hopes for the recovery expedition to the Gobi Desert evaporated when the cable network backed out and Barham balked at a Texas university’s request for a $500,000 “donation” to help train Mongolian judges in exchange for smoothing the way with Mongolian officials for her to enter the Gobi.
Harris remains confident that the crown jewels are still buried beneath the sands.
“There’s no doubt whatsoever it’s there. I’ve talked to people who know what happened back then. This is not a Hollywood story. This is real history,” he says.
Others, however, aren’t so sure. Russian history expert J. Arch Getty, a UCLA professor, wonders why the czarina would have sent the crown jewels to China by way of the Gobi Desert instead of to Europe. “I can’t imagine anything less secure than the Bank of Peking in 1917,” he says.
But “what a great story, complete with buried treasure and disappearing maps. I’ve never heard anything like this. You can’t exclude it. A lot of valuable coins and jewels were changing hands under dubious circumstances.”
Barham, a widow, lives in Fremont Place, a gated community near Hancock Park long known as a bastion of L.A.’s old money. For years, she was a boldface name in the society columns.
Her 93-year-old mansion is one of the grandest of Fremont Place’s 72 estates. Said to be modeled after a Hawaiian hotel, it was once owned by razor-blade baron King Gillette and for decades was the official residence of the heads of the Los Angeles Roman Catholic archdiocese: Archbishop John J. Cantwell and, later, Cardinal James Francis McIntyre.
The place was where high-ranking church officials stayed when visiting Los Angeles and was the focal point of private meetings and high-profile weddings. During Barham’s tenure, the mansion has been a center of her social life.
These days, the drawing room at the nine-bedroom, seven-bath estate is the setting for a long-lost 350-year-old chandelier that marks the culmination of Barham’s last adventure.
Originally hanging in the medieval St. Donat’s Castle in Wales, it was acquired in 1922 by Hearst, who had it converted to electricity and installed at San Simeon. Later, Hearst gave it as a gift to Frank Barham to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles Evening Herald.
But instead of shipping the chandelier to Barham in Los Angeles, San Simeon employees boxed it up and sent it to a ranch owned by Barham in Los Alamos, near Santa Barbara. The box was found there after Patte Barham sold the ranch in 1970 and had the unopened crate shipped to the family’s Louisiana estate. An inventory done there this year uncovered the historic lighting fixture that had disappeared nearly 70 years ago.
Recently, she welcomed TV news crews to the mansion to announce the chandelier’s return.
Now she’s moved on to the missing czarist treasure map.
Rumors about the map’s whereabouts have swirled in recent years. A manuscript by a now-deceased author on the life of Barham’s stepfather suggested that it is hidden in Gleboff’s coffin at the Hollywood Forever cemetery.
“If it was buried with him, we’d dig the old boy up,” Barham laughs as she sits in her drawing room, which brims with other Hearst-era treasures in addition to the chandelier.
Though the map may have been stolen, it is also possible that it was caught up with other papers in the Barham family archives that have been donated over the years to colleges and universities, she says.
Barham says her stepfather’s map corresponded precisely with a 1912 cartographic survey of Mongolia. Because of that, she says, she remembers the location of the treasure and is confident she would recognize the spot from the air.
“We want to do a flyover so we can record the exact GPS coordinates,” she says. Then she plans to go in with authorities and retrieve the treasure.
And after 90 years, Barham pledges, the czar’s crown jewels can return to Russia.
latimes.com /columnone Previous Column One articles are available online.
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