Frederick the Great
Murphy lived in an area near the Zeldendorf subway station and transacted a number of purchases and barters in the area. Throughout the ruins of Berlin in 1945, motley and hungry German peddlers traded valuables to the Americans for such things as cigarettes, candy bars, and food. Murphy came by a document in this manner. He spoke no German and claimed that a peddler had come to his flat one night with a bound manuscript explaining in broken English that it was very valuable. It was signed by Frederick the Great and was written in French at Sans Souci, Potsdam. Murphy gave the peddler a footlocker full of canned food and 25 packs of vegetable seeds for the 50-page manuscript. At a time when a carton of cigarettes was worth $100, the contents of Murphy's footlocker may have been worth more than $500.
Shortly after the purchase, Murphy returned to Frankfurt and accepted military leave back to the United States. On the pretext of returning to Europe he only carried two small travel bags. One of them contained the manuscript. During his leave, Murphy contacted several old friends in Washington and as a result was released from his assignment in Europe and reassigned to Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Because he was not returning to Europe, Murphy had to acquire a full military and civilian wardrobe. His belongings in Europe were eventually sent to his parents' home in Baltimore. By the time of their arrival, Murphy was attached to the Embassy staff in Argentina, where he remained for three years. After his return in 1950, Murphy married and purchased a home near Maxwell Air Base, in Montgomery, Alabama. With his new home, Murphy had space for his acquisitions from Berlin and when they arrived, he displayed his etchings, prints, Meissen china and books, but tossed his unauthenticated manuscript back into the attic.
Then in 1951, John Murphy read an article in Life magazine about a New Jersey housewife who had brought a New York appraiser six confidential letters written by Abraham Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. Sigmond Rothschild had appraised the letters as worth more than $100,000. The same article disclosed that a watercolor painting by Hitler had been appraised at $1,500. An American soldier had taken the painting in Germany. After reading the article, Murphy went to his attic and removed the rummaged document. Through the mail he made several offers for the sale of an original manuscript of King Frederick II.
Murphy found out that the manuscript was worth at least $6,000. This was more than he had paid for his new house. The appraiser, Rothschild, wrote back that there was a question of ownership and as a result obtained Murphy's permission to contact the Department of State. Murphy had contacted several antique dealers in the New York market and the discovery created quite a stir, with several dealers contacting the German Embassy and various U.S. Government agencies. One of the offers of the manuscript was sent to Mr. Walter Schatzki, a renowned book dealer in New York. Schatzki notified the Department of State of the offer and asked for their assistance in the matter. The publicity created by the discovery caused Murphy to write the following letter to Dr. Ernst Pozen, Professor American University in Washington, on August 19, 1951. Possibly as a protest, the complete letter does not contain a single capital letter.
i have been advised that you have acted as an informer to the state department. ... i classed it [the manuscript] in the same category as the numerous art treasures passed off on other service personnel during the war years by the ungrateful populace of europe. ... are we prepared to say definitely that it wasn't stolen by an unscrupulous underling of the german archive establishment? ...i have nothing to hide. except that i do not wish to part with it for nothing without full justification.[i]
Murphy filed a petition on August 18, 1951, with the Supervisor of Customs, Washington D.C., for remission of forfeiture and penalties as delineated by the Tariff Act of 1930. Murphy wrote that he was unaware that antiques dated before 1800 had to be declared before being offered for public sale. Intriguing as the story is, there is unfortunately no clear disposition as to the final fate of Frederick the Great's manuscript.
[i] John Henry Murphy, Letter to Dr. Ernest Pozener, August 15, 1951.