But is Sotheby's change of heart enough? What about the actual proceeds of the sale? Now that the Cold War is over, many believe we should bury the hatchet and allow Philby's heirs to have their inheritance in the usual way, without bitterness about what happened 45 years ago.
It may help to recall by what means the things that Sotheby's sold came into Philby's possession. Many of those that raised the highest prices, including elaborate ornaments and richly bound documents, were given him in the Soviet Union as rewards for his services to the KGB. What exactly were these services? To answer this, one must study secret files from the years 1950 and 1951, when Philby was at the height of his career as a double agent at the British embassy in Washington.
The Cold War was on. Real war, many thought, was about to begin. The Soviets had just exploded an atomic bomb. And the secret services of Britain and the United States had embarked on an ambitious project to 'roll back' the frontiers of the new Soviet empire. Kim Philby was one of Britain's key players in this great endeavour.
Agents recruited from emigre communities in Britain were being infiltrated into central and eastern Europe. Former Polish soldiers, nominated by the wartime London government of Poland, were moving secretly in and out of Polish territory under British command. Other Poles piloted the unmarked British aircraft from which Ukrainian emigres were parachuted into the western Ukraine to stir up anti-Soviet rebellion.
Philby was at the heart of these bold efforts and, given the depth of his involvement, it is hardly surprising that they all failed. His knowledge of detail on the Ukrainian operation, for instance, emerges from his book My Silent War: 'Within a month the British had dropped three six-man parties, the aircraft taking off from Cyprus. One party was dropped midway between Lvov and Tarnopol, another near the headwaters of the Prut, near Kolomiya . . .' He ends his record with a typical jibe: 'I do not know what happened to the parties concerned. But I can make an informed guess.'
In other words, his familiarity with MI6's widespread paramilitary efforts in those days included not only politics and overall planning, but also operational detail.
Philby's most murderous activity, however, involved the abortive British and American attempts to remove Enver Hoxha's Communist regime in Albania during the years after 1949. The first British-sponsored teams of Albanian agents were put ashore just as Philby arrived in Washington in October of that year to take up his post, which included joint command of the Albanian operation. He was briefed about it by MI6 before leaving England and we can be sure that he tipped off his KGB friends before embarking for New York. The 20 agents were attacked a few hours after they landed and four were killed.
The Americans then began training Albanians for parachute drops. Selim Daci was one of those dropped on 19 November 1950. 'Very soon we knew that our landing was known to the security forces,' he says today. He was arrested the day after he landed, tortured, put to hard labour and released only in 1990, 40 years after his capture. Today he lives in Tirana, dependent on meagre family charity.
Adem Gjura, another man dropped in November 1950, found that many villagers knew his name as he approached them. Days earlier the police had let it be known that 'Adem Gjura' was about to fall from the skies and that they must all look for him. He was saved only because he landed several miles from the designated zone. After several days on the run, wounded in the leg, he escaped across the border into Yugoslavia and eventually got to America. Furious at having missed him, the dictator's secret police shot or imprisoned more than 40 members of his family.
Halil Nerguti, who was part of that same mission, told me in 1983: 'Philby is responsible for great suffering. Because he betrayed my mission, there are 100 families in jail in Albania even now.'
The 'roll back' experiment was designed by the secret services to lean against the Soviet empire and test its strength. But whereas the missions into Poland, the Baltic and Ukraine were designed for reconnaissance, Albanian agents were fully armed and ready for action then and there. Their orders were not to melt in with the population as spies, but to recruit groups of armed men and use their machine guns as necessary. They were equipped to live for long periods in forests, mountains and caves.
Albania was chosen because it was the weak link in the imperial chain. Stalin's quarrel with Yugoslavia's Marshal Tito meant that Albania was physically cut off from the rest of the Soviet bloc, although still the Soviet Union's ally. In the view of Western intelligence it was capable of being detached from 'the orbit'. This is why big efforts were put into 'invading' this small country and why such an important man as Philby was put in charge. Albania would fall from the Soviet imperial tree like a ripe plum and other fruit would soon follow. The idea was fine, but it did not work.
There is an even nastier aspect to the story. In the early months of 1951, Guy Burgess, Philby's house guest in Washington, was recalled to London. British security officers were about to arrest him, but on 25 May he defected to the Soviet Union. Philby then also fell under suspicion and was recalled from the embassy.
All through that summer he was interrogated and in the end was dismissed from British intelligence. He was not arrested, since the charge of betrayal could not be proved and he refused to confess. But the conclusion was that it was unsafe to keep him on in such a sensitive post.
And yet on 23 July, with the Philby investigation still in progress and two months after Burgess's defection, 12 more young Albanians were parachuted into the field. And the police were waiting for them with open arms. Four were burnt to death in a house, six were shot dead and two - Kacem Shehu and Muhamet Zeqir Hoxha - were captured. One of the CIA organisers says today: 'I realise now that I was playing poker with a mirror behind my head.'
Hoxha, no relation to the former dictator, wrote to me recently: 'About midnight on 23 July 1951, we landed on Vergoi Plain. But instead of finding ourselves in a safe place, we were immediately surrounded by Albanian security forces aided by armed civilians.'
He was caught, tortured and put on public trial in a Tirana cinema in October 1951. He says: 'The trial was very boisterous, designed to show the defeat of the Anglo- Americans and the triumph of the security forces. There were loudspeakers in the cinema and outside in the street.'
He spent decades being starved and beaten in various prison camps. And now, 43 years later, he lives in an old people's home in Gjirokaster.
The rewards heaped on Philby by the KGB were therefore well deserved. He caused sheer mayhem, in return for which he was given 25 years of privileged life in Moscow and many material gifts, some of which came up for auction at Sotheby's on 19 July. This, I think, is the main point at issue. These objects are the ill-gotten gains of the various acts of betrayal, acts which not only destroyed many lives, but also violated English law.
As a small act of atonement, the pounds 150,000 raised should now be given to Muhamet Hoxha, Selim Daci, the family of Adem Gjura and others who suffered from the failure of the West's 'roll back' policy in the Ukraine, the Baltic and Albania. But, most of all, the money should not go to the Philby family. Neither they nor Sotheby's should gain profit from the sale of objects that were acquired by illegal acts that amounted to murder on a massive scale.
Lord Bethell is author of 'The Great Betrayal' (Hodder and Stoughton, pounds 9.95), an account of MI6 and the CIA's secret operations in Albania.
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