American fortune hunter’s deadly Cold War battle with Soviet spies to recover ancient shrine that ‘contains St John the Baptist’s bones’

Stunning: The shrine is of 'incalculable value' and the Beaufort-Spontin's had hoped to sell it to a museum in Belgium and repatriate it from the Communist regime to the country where it was made

Revealed, the real-life Indiana Jones and the Lost Ark: Untold story of American fortune hunter’s deadly Cold War battle with Soviet spies to recover ancient shrine that ‘contains St John the Baptist’s bones’

  • Shrine of St Maurus was hidden under floor of castle chapel at end of WWII after family were driven from Czechoslovakia for being Nazi collaborators 
  • American fortune hunter Danny Douglas teamed up with the noble family to recover it from under the noses of Soviet spies during height of Cold War
  • Led to tense game of cat and mouse in which spies threatened to kidnap him or blackmail him by seducing him with good-looking female agent
  • In the end, a slip of the tongue led to Czech secret police finding the ark
  • Douglas tells his amazing story here for the first time ever 

It’s a tale of mystery and intrigue, which includes an American fortune hunter, a hidden sacred holy treasure, Cold War spies and the Nazis. If it were fiction it could even pass as the plot of a new Indiana Jones movie. But the discovery of the lost Shrine of St Maurus in the Czech Republic is a true story. The shrine said to contain the bones of St John the Baptist and three others of Christianity’s holiest figures – disappeared without trace as World War II was in its final throes.

Priceless: The gold-covered, jewel-encrusted Shrine of St Maurus was made in 1220 to hold the remains of four saints, including bones of St John the Baptist

Painstakingly crafted in silver plate and encrusted with jewels, it was made around 1225 to house sacred relics, and although officially listed as belonging to Belgium, it had been taken secretly to Castle Becov in Bohemia in the 1880s. There it lay under custodianship of the noble Beaufort-Spontin family, the guardians and protectors of the Ark until the end of the war when it was carefully hidden under the chapel floor to prevent it being looted by Soviet forces. The family who had been its guardians for centuries were forced out of the country after being branded Nazi sympathizers. For years the family, who knew where the ancient relic was buried, plotted to regain one of Belgium’s most priceless historical treasures. It was in 1984, when U.S. president Ronald Reagan was railing against the Red Scare and the Kremlin had tightened its grip on Eastern Europe even further, that Danny Douglas, an American with a sense of adventure, became a central character of this intrigue.

Douglas, a well-connected businessman in Viennese society, would eventually team up with a member of the Beaufort-Spontin family to mount a secret mission to recover the Ark. In the following months Douglas was to be plunged into a tense game of cat-and-mouse with the Czech authorities.  And as we shall see, it was a game that he lost to Frantisek Maryska, Czechoslovakia’s head of the secret police, by only a whisker. Douglas was born in Berlin in 1939 to a Jewish mother and an American father. As war broke out, his family managed to escape to London – but Douglas’ father and entire extended Jewish family died during the war. Nine years later, he lost his mother in a plane crash and was left orphaned and alone at age 11. He was taken in by an Austrian nanny and friend of his mother’s, who brought him with her back to poor post-war Vienna, a young, lonely boy who fitted in poorly and dreamed of larger things in life. Those dreams took him first to America, and then back to Europe as an enlisted man with the U.S. Army based in Berlin. It was here, while working as an interpreter, that he incidentally stumbled upon an antique chaffron in the house of a priest.

Secrets: The Beaufort-Spontin family were hounded out of the castle, above, and stripped of their possessions at the end of World War Two after they were accused of being Nazi collaborators

Thriller: The months-long game of cat-and-mouse with the Czech secret service ended with the treasure being pulled from under the floorboards in 1985

The chaffron – an antique head-protection for horses in battle – turned out to be a rare piece that had been looted from a French museum during the war, but Douglas did not know this when he accepted it as a present. Years later, the chaffron would sell for a stunningly large amount of money, which helped Douglas fund other antiquity deals and, eventually, catapulted him into the heart of the hunt for the fabled golden shrine. The Shrine of St Maurus was made between the years 1225 and 1230 on order from Gerard de Rumigni, bishop in the Belgian town of Florennes. It was built to contain the bones of four Catholic saints, St Timotheus, St Apollinaris, St Maurus and most notably John the Baptist. It was named after St Maurus because it is said to contain his entire skeleton, while only some bones from the other three saints are said to be inside. The Ark is described as a ‘Romansque relic of incalculable cultural, historic, religious and artic value’. Yet when the monastery in Florennes was dissolved in the wake of the French Revolution, the stunning relic was later left in a nearby church.

It was found there in 1838 by Alfred, the 2nd Duke of Beaufort-Spontin, who purchased it for the price of 2,500 Francs and restored it to previous glory. His family became its guardians, and it remained in their hands for generations. In 1888 the then duke, the head of a famous and important old Belgian noble family, brought the shrine to Castle Becov, the family’s Czech estate. Along with other Sudeten-Germans, the then 65-year old and recently widowed Friedrich the 4th Duke of Beaufort-Spontin was expelled from Czechoslovakia in August 1945, accused of being a Nazi collaborator. With only a suitcase in hand, the duke was sent across the border to Germany on foot, and Castle Becov and the family’s Czech belongings were seized by the Czechoslovak state.

But the shrine had disappeared and the family had taken its secrets with them. And there it lay under the chapel floorboards for 40 years until Douglas was approached at a party in 1984 in Vienna – at that time a hotbed of spying activity – by Christian Beaufort-Spontin, art historian and the younger brother of the current 6th Duke of Beaufort-Spontin, also called Friedrich. ‘Christian approached me, and together we agreed that we would work together to get the shrine out of Czechoslovakia,’ says Douglas. Christian never gave up on the family inheritance, but it wasn’t about personal ownership to him. He passionately wanted to liberate what he considered important cultural heritage and family history from the Soviet-Communist territory. ‘To be honest I have suppressed all memory of the ordeal as much as was possible,’ said Christian. He was reluctant to talk about the shrine at first, but eventually relinquished the secret that he kept for 30 years.

Stunning: The shrine is of 'incalculable value' and the Beaufort-Spontin's had hoped to sell it to a museum in Belgium and repatriate it from the Communist regime to the country where it was made

Pride: The family had bought the relic in 1838 after it was found abandoned in a church in Florennes (above), Belgium, following the French Revolution

‘My father gave me power of attorney that covered efforts and negotiations to recover our Czech belongings. I told him: ‘Maybe it will work out. Maybe we will manage to get the shrine out,’ but he didn’t believe in it. He didn’t want to know anything about it himself. To him the case had been closed in 1945,’ he said. It wasn’t the first time the Beaufort-Spontin family had attempted to win back some of the things that were lost after the war. They had previously filed a formal request to have furniture and art works returned from Castle Becov, but the request never went anywhere. So with Douglas, Christian proposed a desperate last attempt to recover the Shrine of St Maurus.

Douglas had set up a dog food import and sales firm in Vienna, and his many trips to visit customers and factories in the region gave him access to travel inconspicuously in and out of Soviet era Eastern Europe, including Czechoslovakia. He was comfortable dealing with the authorities, and the two partners decided to pursue a formal approval for the project. The plan was for Danny Douglas to approach the Czechoslovak authorities in Vienna with an offer to pay $500,000 for a search and export permit covering an unidentified object at an unspecified location. He was asked to guarantee that the item wasn’t of Czechoslovak origin or of CSSR-cultural significance, and negotiations seemed to progress without major stumbling blocks.

‘I had absolutely no idea what would follow. Otherwise I wouldn’t have done it. No treasure in the world is worth losing your life over,’ he said. The deal appeared to be on track, but getting the details in place kept dragging out. He kept travelling to meetings in Czechoslovakia, long meetings where he was quizzed by different people at each meeting. ‘Every time I went to Prague it was just me on one side of the table and ten officials on the other. They said they were historians, but I later found out three quarters of them were spies.

‘Imagine sitting in meetings 3-4 hours at the time with a room full of spies and actually not say anything at all, because anything that I did say might give the game away. It was extremely risky and stressful.’ That meetings were, however, the least of it. The secret police managed to piece the little information they got together and figure out what Douglas was after and where. While Douglas kept coming back for meetings, the secret police were frantically digging holes at many different locations at the Becov estate, getting increasingly frustrated every time they came up empty-handed. Frantisek Maryska, head of Czechoslovakia’s Federal bureau of investigation and the country’s spy chief, led the efforts personally. He put a tail on Douglas and tapped his telephone. His detectives paid visits to and questioned friends and acquaintances, including the older Beaufort-Spontin brother. Two men that were quite obviously from the Czech secret police turned up at Friedrich Beaufort-Spontin’s house and asked him about the shrine, allegedly because a Czech museum was looking to build a replica of the lost relic. Douglas was forced to cancel planned meetings and stopped travelling to Czechoslovakia out of fear that he would never return. He was convinced that his Czechoslovak opponents would stop at nothing to secure the shrine, that indeed his life was on the line – and rightly so documents from the archives of the Czech Interior and Foreign Ministries have revealed.

Ambition: Douglas's love of buying and selling antiquities was born when he enlisted in the US Army in Berlin

Nemesis: Frantisek Maryska, the former head of the Czech FBI, stands alongside the 'lost ark' triumphantly after he beat Douglas to the prize

Frustration: Maryska's men had dug numerous holes on the castle grounds in their desperate hunt for the treasure. It was only when Douglas mistakenly gave them a clue as to its whereabouts did they win the race

According to the documents, Frantisek Maryska filed a number of requests to his superiors in Prague asking for permission to initiate a number of extraordinary measures to make Douglas reveal the location of the shrine. The measures, which were to be implemented by spies based at the Czechoslovakian embassy in Vienna, included abduction, torture and injection with truth serum.

The most exotic plan was to have a female agent seduce Danny Douglas and put him in a compromising situation that would allow her to blackmail him, the documents show. Fortunately for Douglas, the requests were all turned down in Prague, not by Maryska’s immediate superiors, however, but by the Soviet advisors to the government. No reasons were given for the rejections, but it seems safe to assume that Danny Douglas’ American citizenship played an important role. They didn’t want to risk a diplomatic crisis. Maryska almost gave up. But thanks to a slip of the tongue he eventually got the information he needed from Douglas. It happened by pure coincidence and he revealed how it happened to Douglas when the two foes finally met face to face years later.

‘He told me that I had almost won. He said they had searched everywhere and had given up and decided to sign the contract and let me find the shrine. But a small remark that I made at the very end gave the game away.’ Douglas explained: ‘They called to say they were ready to sign the contract. The plan was that after the signing we would locate the object together and I would then be able to take it away after it had been established that it fullfilled the specifications of the contracts. ‘They asked me what tools they should bring, and when I said we wouldn’t need any tools, they knew. They knew it was inside as it was winter and it meant there was no need to dig outside.’ A frantic 15-months-long game of cat and mouse had reached its conclusion.

On November 5, 1985, Maryska and his men discovered the shrine and precious wines under the floorboards of Castle Becov’s chapel. Maryska was declared a national hero and given 1,000 Czech Koruna and six wine glasses as a reward for his efforts. Douglas, on the other hand wasn’t mentioned with a word. Eighteen years later, in 2003, he received a letter from Czech Minister of Culture, Pavel Dostal, acknowledging his role in recovering the shrine, but also emphasizing that he could not be publicly credited with the discovery. ‘Considering the fact that you were suppressing information about what object it was, you cannot be labeled as the finder,’ the minister wrote.

It took Czech authorities 11 years to properly restore the Shrine of St Maurus. It has since returned to Castle Becov, where it can be viewed in the castle museum’s permanent exhibition. One of the people who have visited Castle Becov and admired the shrine is Christian Beaufort-Spontin. ‘It was my intention and hope to be able to sell it to a museum. I was hoping it could be sold to a Belgian museum so that it could return home where it belongs. It’s part of my family’s past and history,’ he said.

Good loser: Douglas with a letter from a Czech minister formally acknowledging his role in finding the treasure. But because of the nature of the hunt, he has never been publicly thanked

He never did tell his older brother of the failed recovery-attempt. It remained the secret of him, his father and Douglas. And the way it ended was and is to this day a source of embarrassment, he said. ‘I’m extremely tired and ashamed of the whole thing. It was done in such a stupid way. I was too young back then – today I would never have gone along with such a stupid plan,’ he said with an audible sigh.

Meanwhile, Maryska died shortly before Christmas last year in a hospital in Prague from heart and kidney failure. He was 68-years-old.In Vienna, Douglas privately raised a glass in honor of his old adversary.’When we met I told him ‘you won because you had the entire government behind you and all the resources. I lost, but there was only me’. We didn’t part as enemies. At the end of the day, he was only doing his job, even if that did mean his agents tried to kill me.’

Source: Daily Mail


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