The 18th-century French desk that once belonged to Ulrich von Hassell, a German diplomat executed on the orders of Adolf Hitler, sat in self-storage in Queens for 12 years.
The desk was passed down through five generations in total, through Mr. von Hassell and finally to Christian Agostino von Hassell, his American grandson, who stored it away with hundreds of other heirlooms, some of them centuries old. Inside were, among other things, about a dozen oil paintings by ancestors; a cabinet, sconces and Persian carpets; and samurai armor from Japan, gifts Mr. von Hassell received while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps.
There were at least 1,000 books, most of them leather-bound and embossed with the Hassell coat of arms. Many came from Mr. von Hassell’s great-grandfather, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, who led the German navy under Kaiser Wilhelm II during the First World War.
The desk — valued at $39,000 but of invaluable 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, Mr. von Hassell sat down at the computer in his studio in Sutton Place, a tidy apartment with the look and feel of an old British library, and saw an unexpected and unread email from the previous day.
It was from Extra Space Storage.
“I’m just sending you a quick message to confirm that you have successfully moved out of your apartment in our Ridgewood store. We can’t wait for you to experience your next big adventure,” the email reads.
“Have a nice rest of the day!” it said.
It took him a moment To the words on the screen. The storage room was empty. The desk was gone.
Mr. von Hassell, 70 – tall and dignified, his eyes blue, his accent a mixture of the eight languages he speaks – was born in Bonn, Germany, and grew up 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 couldn’t talk about some of his missions because they were “still secret.”
He was in Beirut on October 23, 1983, when terrorists drove two trucks loaded with TNT into the Marine barracks, killing 241 U.S. soldiers and 58 French soldiers on a peacekeeping mission. He remembers seeing their bodies scattered across the rubble.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in European history and a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and taught counterterrorism courses at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in his post-military career. He wrote 17 books, most of them on military history, and became a consultant to law firms and major corporations on national security issues. In 2002 he was appointed Knight of Justice of the Sovereign Order of Malta.
Even today, Mr. von Hassell prefers to call himself “Omar,” his old military call sign.
In recent months Mr von Hassell’s health has deteriorated. Neurological problems have affected his motor skills, disc degeneration affected his ability to walk, and an abdominal hernia had resulted in pain that required multiple surgeries and hospitalizations.
But in his refuge, he is surrounded by remnants of his ancestral line, which he has preserved for decades.
The storage room contained far more than his studio in Sutton Place could accommodate. Although he hadn’t seen his desk in twelve years, he had spent tens of thousands of dollars in those years storing it and his other heirlooms. His mother had carefully restored the desk before passing it on to her son. Mr. von Hassell thought perhaps one day his sister or daughter would like to have the piece and the next family member would write about it.
A desk in history
As far as Mr. von Hassell knows, the desk came into his family in the mid-19th century when it was acquired by Gustav A. Lipke, a member of the Reichstag, the German parliament, who, according to tradition, died in 1889 as a result of a blow from a beer truck in Berlin. Mr Lipke then gave it to his daughter and son-in-law von Tirpitz – Mr von Hassell’s great-grandfather and one of the most famous figures in German military history.
Von Tirpitz was appointed State Secretary of the Imperial Naval Office in 1897 under Kaiser Wilhelm II, the last Emperor of Germany and the last member of the House of Hohenzollern to become King of Prussia. The Kaiser credited von Tirpitz with convincing the Reichstag to expand the country’s fleet to rival the British fleet. Germany posed the greatest 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 admiral’s death in 1930 meant that the desk was moved again, this time to Ulrich von Hassell, his private secretary and son-in-law. Ulrich von Hassell later served as the last ambassador to Italy during 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 country’s traditional Prussian military class watched as Hitler, a radical who had been a minor Austrian sergeant in World War I, rose to absolute power. The dictator’s globally ruinous megalomania sparked internal resistance, and Ulrich von Hassell’s involvement in the famous assassination attempt on July 20, 1944 led to him being sent to Plötzensee Prison in Berlin. He was hanged eight weeks later.
The desk remained in Bavaria with Ulrich von Hassell’s wife Ilse, Tirpitz’s daughter, and remained in her possession when she testified about her husband’s execution during the Nuremberg trials.
In Bavaria, Mr. von Hassell remembers the desk for the first time.
As a child, Mr. von Hassell learned during his summer and winter stays there that his grandfather, Ulrich von Hassell, had written in his diary at his desk. Later, Ulrich von Hassell took the pages of this diary, placed them in tea caddies and buried them on the grounds of his 10-acre Bavarian estate. The writings, a war memoir detailing the assassination, were later unearthed and published.
Wolf Ulrich von Hassell, Ulrich’s son, and his wife Christa von Hassell emigrated to America in 1971 with two of their two children; their third child, Mr. von Hassell, moved there a 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 after Ilse von Hassell’s death in 1982 and then sat in the couple’s home in Southampton until Christa died in 2009, a decade after her husband.
Two years later, Mr. von Hassell moved the desk to the storage unit in Queens.
In January, he became ill and lost his $335 monthly payments.
A five minute survey
On Wyckoff Avenue, a commercial area along the Queens-Brooklyn border, a gray and neon green building stands out from other industrial buildings. Across the street is a subway station and El Novillo 2, a Mexican restaurant that sells cemitas and chalupas. Next door are the Blitz Club Studios for recording artists.
The building is one of about 35 facilities around the city operated by Extra Space Storage in New York City, where storage 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. Yet few tenants fully understand the Byzantine treaties or the laws that govern them.
In New York, if self-storage tenants do not pay within 30 days of notice of the lien, companies can sell the contents of a unit. New York law requires businesses to notify tenants by hand-delivered letter; registered or certified mail; or by email, accompanied by a U.S. Postal Service “certificate of mailing” providing evidence that notice was sent.
Mr. von Hassell has an old-fashioned reserve and a reservoir of military determination. When he discovered that his heirlooms were missing, he immediately proceeded with calm but relentless force.
On March 24, the day after the congratulatory move-out email — along with a request to take a five-minute survey for a chance to win a $100 gift card — Mr. von Hassell contacted Extra Space storage. He said his messages were not returned.
Since he was ignored, he turned to his lawyer, James Moschella.
In a letter dated April 3, Mr. Moschella asked the company what happened to the items in Mr. von Hassell’s storage unit. Ten days later, a response came 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 suffered,” wrote Anthony W. Cummins, a claims examiner. “Therefore, Extra Space Storage Inc. cannot assist in resolving the claim.”
“The reason for the denial of the claim is that your client was properly notified of the foreclosure and was called back without contact,” he added.
In an email to The New York Times, McKall Morris, a spokeswoman for Extra Space Storage, said the company “made very thorough attempts to contact Mr. von Hassell.”
Ms. Morris produced a copy of a postal receipt showing that a notice was received at Mr. von Hassell’s address on February 21 and signed by “Carlos M.”, his doorman.
She added that Mr von Hassell received five calls between January 9 and March 21. He says he never received the calls.
On March 16, the company also placed an advertisement in the amNewYork newspaper. At the end of the classified section, the fine print reads: “Notice of Public Sale: Extra Space Storage will be conducting a public auction,” along with a list of units for sale. Mr von Hassell was not named.
Because he hunted methodically, he didn’t realize he was running out of time.
Everything is silence
When companies auction off the contents of a storage unit, smart bidders compete to get good deals.
In-person shoppers only have a few minutes to inspect a unit, meaning most customers don’t know whether the boxes or containers contain treasure or trash. At online auctions, companies like Storage Treasures post a few snapshots of units, many of which are crammed with shoes, clothing, tables or chairs.
In New York, the minimum bid is often around $10; According to online listings, most high bids are around a few hundred.
On April 19, five weeks after Mr. Von Hassell’s desk disappeared, Mr. Moschella learned from Mr. Cummins that a man named Boleslaw Karvay had purchased the device on March 23. Mr. Karvay had paid $2,850.
Mr. von Hassell said he contacted Mr. Karvay by telephone on April 19 to inquire about the purchase. He told Mr. Karvay who he was and asked him if he still had his possessions.
Mr. Karvay, he said, hung up.
Mr. Karvay did not respond to calls or emails from the Times regarding Mr. von Hassell’s missing heirlooms. According to a deed and other public records in the New York City area, there is a man named Boleslaw Karvay who lives in Great Neck, Long Island. No one was home when a reporter knocked on the door.
A lost story
Six months after selling his storage unit, Mr. von Hassell was still no closer to finding his books, his samurai armor or his wooden desk.
He had mostly accepted it. Stoic, with the discipline of a Marine and a scion of the Prussian military class, Mr. von Hassell values his possessions, but only to a point – a lesson learned over generations as his family lived through the tectonic shifts of European history.
As Mr. von Hassell continues to monitor online auction sales in hopes of finding his lost treasures, his health takes priority. Another operation is planned for next week.
On a recent summer evening, after serving guests the lunch he had prepared—a salad of cherry tomatoes and fregola with olives and rosemary—he leaned on his friend’s shoulder and walked to his sofa to sit down. He put his old flip phone on the side table.
The friend asked why he was using such an outdated device. Mr von Hassell said the main function of a telephone should be to make calls, just as “a desk is for writing”.
Then he changed the subject.