Wednesday, January 15th, 2014
Some despicable piece of human garbage broke into the Golders Green Columbarium in London and, in an apparent robbery attempt, smashed the antique Greek vase that held the ashes of Sigmund Freud and his wife Martha. This happened on New Year’s Eve. When the Golders Green staff arrived on New Year’s Day, they found pieces of the 4th century B.C. urn on the floor in front of the plinth. There are no further details on the damage done to vase or about the fate of the ashes it contained. I imagine cemetery officials are being circumspect out of consideration for the Freud family.
The urn was on public display in the columbarium along with the cinerary urns of many other luminaries, among them ballet dancer Anna Pavlova, author Enid Blyton, The Who drummer Keith Moon, actor Peter Sellers and Dracula author Bram Stoker. The room is open to visitors who wish to pay their respects. Or rather it was. Golders Green is understandably reviewing its security arrangements after this horror. The severely damaged vase has been removed to a safe place where experts can examine it and hopefully put it back together. These Greek vases are often found in pieces, either through natural processes or because looters deliberately smash them to make them easier to smuggle out of the country, so I’m keeping my fingers and toes crossed that conservators will be able to restore the urn.
The vase was very important to Sigmund Freud. He was an avid collector of antiquities, amassing by the time of his death a collection nearing 2,500 pieces of Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Asian artifacts. He used them in his practice with patients and famously included the mythology in his psychiatric theories. The Freud Museum in Hampstead, London, his former home and study, has his antiques collection, and there are multiple Oedipus themed pieces — vases, sculptures, even a fresco fragment.
The urn which would hold his ashes was a gift from Princess Marie Bonaparte, the extremely wealthy great-grand niece of Napoleon and wife of Prince George of Greece and Denmark. She was a patient of Freud’s starting in the 20s and did her own research on female sexuality with a particular focus on clitoral orgasm. The princess gave her analyst many gifts over the years, including his famous rug-draped sofa, but the southern Italian krater decorated with images of Dionysus, Greek god of wine, ecstasy and madness, and a maenad, was one of his most prized possessions. For years it stood on the windowsill behind his desk in his study in Vienna.
It was in significant part thanks to the financing and influence of Marie Bonaparte that Freud was able to get himself, his wife, his daughter and his antiquities out of Vienna in 1938. The Nazis hated Freud (his books were some of their favorites to burn), but the Nazi Kommissar in charge of his application to leave, Anton Sauerwald, had respect for Freud as a scholar, so he helped the family escape. He hid evidence of their foreign bank accounts to give them a chance to raise the extortionate “flight tax” but with his money out of reach to Freud, it was Marie who stepped in to pay the ransom. The family made it out of Austria on June 4th, 1938, and arrived in London two days later.
Princess Marie Bonaparte also helped him buy the Hampstead home and set up his office. She visited him there at the end of June to plan the escape of his sisters. Unfortunately, she was unable to secure exit visas for the four older women. They would all be murdered in the concentration camps.
They still outlived their brother, however. Freud had been diagnosed with mouth cancer in 1923 and over the next 15 years had dozens of surgical procedures to remove the tumors. By 1939, there was nothing left to operate on and Freud was in constant agony. His personal physician from 1929 on, Dr. Max Schur, had followed him to London. When Freud decided the pain was too great to live with, he reminded Schur that when they first met Freud had made him promise that “when the time comes, you won’t let them torment me unnecessarily.” Schur acquiesced and on September 23rd, 1939, he gave Sigmund Freud a fatal overdose of morphine.
The family decided to place his cremated remains in the vase, a fitting choice given that it was probably used as a cinerary urn in antiquity as well. The black granite plinth the urn stood on was designed by architect Ernst Freud, Sigmund’s middle son and the father of artist Lucien Freud who was almost 17 at the time of his grandfather’s death. When Martha Freud died in 1951, her ashes were added to her husband’s.
The London police have asked that anyone who may have information relevant to the attempted theft call DC Candler at 020 8733 4525 or Crimestoppers at 0800 555 111.