How Sohlman and 3 white Russian stallions ensured the establishment of the Nobel prizes

Björkborn Manor (photo kkp)

Björkborn Manor (photo k2p)

Yesterday we visited the Nobel Museum at the Björkborn Manor and Estate in Karlskoga. Björkborn was Alfred Nobel’s last “residence” but he never really lived in it except as a sort of guest house. In fact he died at his villa in Italy. But Björkborn was critical in ensuring that the Nobel prizes even exist at all.  A visit I would now strongly recommend to any visitor to Sweden. For me personally it was memorable on many levels, but primarily for teaching me so much new and in such a dramatic fashion. Till this visit, I knew very little about Alfred Nobel’s last will and testament and what a close run thing it was that it was ever implemented.

This quite remarkable, but little known, story of Ragnar Sohlman and the 3 white Russian stallions which ensured that Nobel’s will could be followed and that the Nobel Foundation and its 5 prizes could be established was something quite new for me. Ragnar Sohlman who, at the age of 26 spent five years against formidable opposition in at least 3 countries to establish the Nobel prizes in accordance with Nobel’s wishes, is the real unsung hero of the creation of the brand equity which is today the hallmark of the Nobel prizes.

But more of Ragnar Sohlman later.

Our visit to Björkborn Herrgård started with our group of about 50 being led up by a guide and taking seats in the main salon of the manor in front of a replica of Alfred Nobel seated at his desk.

Alfred Nobel at his desk (photo kkp)

Alfred Nobel at his desk (photo k2p)

But of course it was no wax replica.

It was a living, breathing, gasping Alfred Nobel, reincarnated in the form of actor Peter Sundh. The first gasp of astonishment as the wax figure rises and surveys the room was then followed by a tour-de-force in the form of a 50 minute monologue. As an incarnation he transcends the normal limits of time and existence (fortunately) as he narrates the story of his last will and testament and how it came finally to pass that his fortune was used – as he intended – to establish his 5 Nobel prizes instead of being split up between French taxes and his relatives!

So here then is my narrative (drawn mainly from his monologue but also from the other sources detailed later) of:

The Story of Ragnar Sohlman and the White Russian Stallions

Alfred Nobel was disparagingly called the “vagabond of Europe” or the “first Bohemian”. He spent most of his early life in St. Peterburg and studied in Sweden, Russia, Paris and the US. He was resident in Sweden from 1859 to 1873 but travelled the world. He then spent 18 years in Paris till 1891 and then moved to San Remo in Italy and died there in 1896. He left Paris because he came into conflict with the French authorities who accused him of industrial espionage – presumably because his industrial rivals were getting a little frustrated in not being able to compete. He closed down his laboratory but still maintained his elegant house in Paris. But even in Italy he upset shipping and neighbours by carrying out experimental detonations and shooting seawards.

And so,

AkzoNobel: In 1894, millionaire industrialist Alfred Nobel purchased a small ironworks factory in Karlskoga, Sweden. The Bofors-Gullspång factory, which produced shells, cannons and armor plating for ships, came on a large estate with a manor house called Björkborn.

Nobel, who hadn’t lived in Sweden in 21 years, decided he would like to have a place to stay when he visited Sweden, so he asked his nephew to get the house ready for him. After a short visit, however, he decided that the Swedish winters were too harsh, and he quickly returned to his home in Paris.

The factory in Karlskoga was converted to the manufacture of explosives and arms. He moved his experimental work to Karlskoga. He only actually resided at Björkborn for the duration of his visits and – if truth be told – it was the just a guest house he happened to use during his – albeit extended – works visits.But he did move his 3 white Russian Orlov stallions and his own silent magic coach from Paris to Karlskoga!

(Source: Alfred Nobel And the Nobel Prizes – Professor Björn Jonson)

The Corporate Story: Alfred Nobel founded his international industrial empire during the years 1865-1876, between the ages of 32 and 40. By 1873 he was a partner in 16 dynamite factories in 14 countries. Many of them were in keen competition, not only with other manufacturers, but also with other Nobel companies. Alfred Nobel therefore consolidated them into two holding companies: the Nobel Dynamite Trust Co, which was formed for the British and German companies in 1886, and Société Central de Dynamite, created for the companies in Switzerland, Italy, France and Spain in 1887. Thus the first truly multinational companies in history – companies owning or controlling manufacturing facilities outside the country in which they have their head office – are associated with Nobel.

Nobel traveled and corresponded tirelessly to set up and maintain this empire, which included plants in Ardeer, Turin, Paulilles, Vienna, Hamburg and Stockholm. He spent several hours a day at his desk, and would write on average 20 to 30 letters a day, expressing himself with equal facility in Swedish, Russian, German, French and English. When traveling by train, he wrote with a portable copying machine on his lap.

He was not a great fan of lawyers. Lawyers have to make a living, and can only do so by inducing people to believe that a straight line is crooked.” And so he disdained legal help and wrote his will himself, on plain paper, in Swedish, in November 1895. He signed it at the Swedish Norwegian Club in Paris with four Norwegian and Swedish witnesses. He was always scared of dying alone and kept a revolver under his pillow apparently so that he could fire a shot as a signal for help if he was alone and in distress. But he finally did die alone, except for some servants, at his palatial villa in San Remo, of a stroke, on 10th December 1896. 

His will was read on 2nd January 1897 to the great consternation of his relatives and the general public.

The History BlogWhen his will was read, it shocked his family and the world. Giant bequests for the advancement of science, literature and peace were not exactly common. The international press was positive, especially since Nobel had made a point of saying the awards should be made without considering country of origin. Initial reactions in the Swedish press were positive too, but King Oscar II was horrified. He saw the will as unpatriotic, as bypassing Swedish interests, and the Peace Prize in particular as a major political hornet’s nest since it was to be awarded by the Norwegian parliament while Sweden and Norway were in the process of getting a national divorce.

His relatives expected a more traditional approach to his legacy. …. From a business perspective, there were grave concerns that in order to go through with this crazy prize scheme, they’d be forced to sell Alfred’s stock in Branobel, his brothers’ hugely (successful) oil company in Russia, to outsiders. Not only would this introduce non-family into the ruling structure of the business, but the mass stock sale could depress the company’s worth and ruin its finances. The heirs of Alfred’s brother Robert’s filed suit to contest the will. Robert’s son Ludvig initiated sequestration procedures against Alfred’s properties.

His estate was estimated to be worth a little over 33 million Swedish kronor (at that time larger than the annual Swedish GDP). He left a number of bequests to individuals but only included 6 of his 19 surviving relatives. The bequests added up to a little under 2 million Swedish kronor leaving about 31.5 million kronor ( about 1.5 billion kronor or $250 million in today’s values) towards the awards he wished to establish. He named Ragnar Sohlman, a 26 year old chemical engineer working for him in San Remo and Rudolf Lilljequist, another of his engineers, as the executors of his will. Sohlman was granted 100,000 kronor and Lilljequist 50,000 kronor out of his estate to execute his wishes. At the time of Nobel’s death neither Sohlman nor Lilljequist were aware that they had been named as the executors. But both had enough respect for their former employer to consider it their duty to implement his wishes.

Sohlman and Lilljequist faced some daunting problems:

  1. There was no Nobel Foundation, so the money had been left to no one, to nothing;
  2. The will was imprecise, and it was not determined even in what country the will should be probated;
  3. Some of the family, who were left only a small fraction of the estate, contested the will;
  4. The press and others criticized the will, calling it unpatriotic since it did not single out Swedes for the prizes. They also argued that it should not be used to make a few individuals wealthy, and voiced other objections; 
  5. The assets of the estate were not liquid, and in fact were in risky ventures; 
  6. The institutions chosen to award the prizes weren’t willing to accept the responsibility.

But they had the good sense to engage a lawyer. They chose Carl Lindhagen a very well-known and capable attorney and politician who was later Lord Mayor of Stockholm.

The rest reads like a modern thriller.

They quickly established the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm so as to have a legal entity able and entitled to receive monies from the Nobel estate.

At the request of his relatives a Paris court had ruled that Nobel’s domicile was in Paris. Hearing that two of Nobel’s relatives were on their way to Paris to get the French authorities to sequester Nobel’s assets they had to act quickly.

Nobel’s assets: Most of the assets proved to be linked to Nobel’s holdings in the Russian oil company Baku Petroleum and a hundred or so ammunition and dynamite factories in Europe, North and South America, Australia and South Africa. Nobel also had substantial shareholdings in various mining companies, including gold mines, as well as revenues from his 355 international patents. In addition he owned a yacht – the first in the world with an aluminium keel – a stud farm for riding horses, and three valuable properties: the villa Mio Nido in San Remo, an apartment in Paris, and the villa Björkborn in Karlskoga (where he never took up residence).

A particular problem was that the bulk of Nobel’s securities and cash reserves were deposited in French banks in Paris, which might make it difficult for the estate to gain control of the assets without becoming subject to French inheritance tax.

Sohlman may only have been 26 but he was not shy of direct action. Together with Liljequist and carrying a revolver for security, they simply drove around from one bank to the next in Paris in a horse and carriage. Using their authority as Executors they just removed everything they could find; all monies, shares, bonds, securities and other documents belonging to the Nobel estate. They then proceeded to the office of the Swedish consul general, who had agreed to help them. In a locked room and while Nobel’s relatives were in another room in the same building, they divided and packaged the securities so that each package complied with the insurer’s requirement that no package exceed a specified value.The packages were then “freighted” back to Sweden from the Gare du Nord railway station as registered packages.

Where there’s a will….: Sohlman takes no chances. Thieves may make a direct attack or arrange a collision with another vehicle. So in his horse drawn cab, both on the way from the bank to the consulate and from there to the Gare de Nord, Sohlman sits with Nobel’s millions, his revolver at the ready. 

At the Gare de Nord he dispatches some of the securities to London to be sold, others directly to Stockholm. The total net worth of the estate is more than 31 million Swedish crowns, almost nine million dollars at the time. 

To counter the Paris court’s finding of domicile, the executors – once all the securities and documents had arrived in Sweden – got the Karlskoga District Court to declare Björkborn to have been Nobel’s domicile. But this was just a stalemate for the time being with two courts each claiming the right to probate the will. But a stalemate was not enough. They needed Paris to give up its claim to having any jurisdiction over the probate.

Björn Jonson:  …. there was an attempt from the French authorities to get the money back since they considered Alfred’s home to be in Paris. A French lawyer, working for Sohlman, solved this problem: He found a paragraph in the French law that stated ‘’a man’s home is where he has his horses’’… 

Nobel MuseumIt was now that Karlskoga and Björkborn Manor were to play an important role in Nobel’s Will. Much importance was placed upon the question of where Alfred Nobel had legally had his home. At the time of his death, he still owned his grand apartment in Paris plus a huge house in San Remo, Italy. Which property could actually be called his home? In the end, the courts decided that his legal home was in Karlskoga. Traditionally, it is said that this ruling was based upon the fact that Alfred’s three much-loved Russian Orlov horses were stabled in Karlskoga. In French law, a person’s home was where his or her horses were stabled. As a direct result of this ruling in the French courts, the execution of Alfred’s Will became subject to Swedish law. Had Alfred’s Will been subject to French law it is doubtful it would have met the strict, formal requirements necessary for it to be executed under France’s legal system.

But just being subject to Swedish Law did not resolve all the executors’ difficulties. They still had the relatives, the reluctance of the scientific institutions and the King to contend with. Just to complicate matters Ragnar Sohlman was “drafted into the Swedish army in 1898. He served as an officer and was able to get use of a telephone (a rarity in those days) by purchasing a phone line for the Officers’ Club and leaving it there when he left”!

However, Lilljequist and Sohlman did not have an easy task ahead of them. Ragnar Sohlman was the most active of the two executors. He fought against a multitude of unforeseen problems. Nobel’s Will was somewhat vague in its instructions, plus the foundation which Nobel wanted to create in order to award the prizes was not sufficiently answerable to anyone for its actions. Norway’s Supreme Court stood alone in supporting Nobel’s Will right from the beginning. Sohlman travelled tirelessly round Europe, negotiating with Alfred Nobel’s relatives, banks, courts and not-least the Swedish Institutions which would award the prizes themselves. Against all the odds, and with the faithful support of Alfred Nobel’s nephew, Emanuel Nobel, Ragnar Sohlman succeeded in enacting the Will. Alfred Nobel’s last wishes became a reality with the awarding of the first Nobel Prize in 1901.

But the critical victory came when the Paris courts accepted that Alfred Nobel lived where his horses did – even though he did not!

VanderbiltThe will was written and dated 27 November 1895, in Paris. Nobel died 10 December 1896, in San Remo, and the will was probated on 9 November 1897, in Stockholm. The statutes of the Nobel Foundation were established by Royal Ordinance on 29 June 1900, three and one-half years after Alfred Nobel died. The first Nobel Prizes were awarded on the 10th of December, 1901, the fifth anniversary of Nobel’s death. Ragnar Sohlman served as the Executive Director of the Nobel Foundation for the period 1929-1946.

Whether Sohlman’s moving of the securities to Sweden was tax evasion was probably moot once the French courts dropped their claim that Nobel was domiciled in Paris. But if the Russian horses had not come to Björkborn there would probably be no Nobel prizes today.

An Orlov trotter stallion (image classic-equine)



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2 Responses to “How Sohlman and 3 white Russian stallions ensured the establishment of the Nobel prizes”

  1. Alan Jensen Says:

    Thanks for the great historical information! You continue to be a multi-dimensional thinker.

    • ktwop Says:

      So often it is not the telling of a tale but the manner of the telling which is critical.
      In this case it was the actor playing Alfred Nobel, Peter Sundh, who told the tale – but in such a riveting manner that I will never again hear the name of Alfred Nobel without seeing him in my mind.
      I recall my first ever visit to Atlanta where an actor playing General Lee brought the whole history of the Civil War to life for me.
      have a great summer.

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