Princely Sum to Pay for Old Facts

When Tsar Nicholas II and his family were shot dead in a Yekaterinburg basement in 1918, the secrets of the Romanovs' vast wealth died with them.

Once the richest family in the world, with a fortune of more than $45 billion in today's terms, the Romanovs were rumored to have left behind hidden treasures, the subject of intense speculation for decades. In his book "The Lost Fortune of the Tsars," author William Clarke would seem to be ready to reveal those secrets. Instead, after making the reader plow through hundreds of pages, Clarke finally asserts that the lost fortune never existed.

It is like reading a detective novel only to discover that no crime was committed in the first place: The reader is left wondering why Clarke bothered to write the book. Presumably, Clarke -- a former financial editor of The Times turned merchant banker -- felt that after spending some 20 years researching this book, he had to put something on paper.

Clarke does succeed in uncovering some $750 million worth of jewels, money and investments in financial centers like London, Paris, Berlin and New York. Little of this belonged to the Romanovs, however. The real fate of most of the tsar's wealth was straightforward: It was expropriated, first by the provisional government and subsequently by the Bolsheviks.

After the February 1917 Revolution, all the property of the royal court became state property. The Romanovs' personal accounts -- worth a relatively paltry 12 million rubles ($40 million by today's standards) -- were used to pay for the upkeep of the tsar's family in captivity. The Bolsheviks finally nationalized the tsar's property just days before the Romanovs' execution.

The subsequent sale of royal property by the young Soviet state nearly destroyed Russia's tremendous collections of art and jewelry. In the 15 years after the revolution, Soviet authorities sold off an incredible array of art treasures -- including Faberg? eggs and paintings by masters like Repin and Rembrandt -- amounting to around $15 million in the period 1928-33 alone.

But the Soviets were not the only ones to sell jewels to raise cash in the years after 1917. Romanov jewels worth $30 million in today's terms were sold in London by Grand Duchess Ksenia, the tsar's sister, some of which were bought by Queen Mary and are still worn by Queen Elizabeth II and other members of the British royal family.

The tsarist gold reserves, worth 1.7 billion rubles -- the largest in the world at $823 million in contemporary terms -- had been rumored to have found their way into the Bank of England. Certainly some of them were transferred to London during World War I, but this was done to finance Russia's military efforts, rather than to provide Nicholas II with a nest egg, Clarke shows.

The Civil War also took its toll on Russian gold, financing both the Red and White armies and $160 million in war reparations paid to Germany after the treaty of Brest-Litovsk. A portion was also stolen by the rival White warlords who controlled much of Siberia. By the end of 1921, Russia's gold stocks had been exhausted.

Clarke shows that the enormous costs of financing World War I caused the tsar to repatriate most of his foreign assets and encourage the Russian nobility to follow suit.

Hence the only foreign accounts held by the Romanovs turned out to be 12 million rubles, deposited in the name of Nicholas II's five children in Germany. But rampant postwar inflation ravaged the value of these deposits, which were finally worth just $100,000 when they were shared out among Romanovs' surviving relatives in the early 1930s.

No other personal deposits belonging to the Romanovs have been found, Clarke says.

That there was no hidden hoard of tsarist treasure after all comes as a letdown. Further, what could have been a rather entertaining investigation descends into a rather turgid account of arcane transactions and investigations that lead nowhere.

A large chunk of the book is taken up recounting the well-worn story of the tsar's overthrow and execution and examining those who subsequently claimed to be his children Anastasia and Alexis.

Clarke relies heavily on secondary sources for this, particularly Edvard Radzinsky's "The Last Tsar," and produces little that is new or original.

The reader is left wondering exactly who this book is for. Specialists would not need this type of summary, yet Clarke's own research is far too detailed to be of interest to the general reader.

Particularly irksome are Clarke's fawning monarchist sympathies that lead him to overestimate the importance of his subject.

"The Romanoff massacre at Ekaterinburg has shocked and intrigued the world as no other tragedy this century," he writes in the preface. So where do events like the Holocaust and Stalin's purges fit into Clarke's scheme of things?

A subject that is perhaps more important, relevant and intriguing is the fate of the millions that flowed abroad when the Soviet Union collapsed. Perhaps Clarke would like to tackle this next?

"The Lost Fortune of the Tsars" by William Clarke, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 276 pages, ?18.99 ($28.50).