Reposted from the Wall Street Journal
German police are investigating what experts are calling one of the most devastating jewelry heists in history after nearly a hundred pieces of 18th-century jewelry were stolen from one of Europe’s most renowned treasure collections early Monday.
Police described a sophisticated predawn burglary at the 500-year-old Royal Castle of Dresden, where an unknown number of thieves broke in through a window, descended to the Grünes Gewölbe gallery, took an ax to a jewelry case and within minutes had captured at least three sets of priceless Baroque-era jewelry before fleeing the scene in an Audi A6.
Authorities have appointed a special task force, named Commission Epaulette, to investigate the crime. As of late Monday, 20 criminologists were working on the case and no arrests had been made.
“It’s certainly one of the greatest art robberies in history,” said Vivienne Becker, a London-based jewelry historian and author, who said it is impossible to calculate the monetary value of the stolen jewels because of their unique historical value to the art of goldsmithing.
“It’s as if someone broke into the Louvre and had taken the Mona Lisa,” she said.
Museum officials said it wasn’t possible to put an exact value on the stolen pieces, which include several diamond brooches, a string of pearls and an epée with a diamond-encrusted hilt.
“We are talking here of objects of immeasurable cultural value,” said Dirk Syndram, a German art historian and director of the Grünes Gewölbe, known in English as the Green Vault.
Police descriptions and security footage offered a detailed account of Monday’s heist. Shortly before 5 a.m. local time, the thieves broke into the Dresden Castle through a window on Sophienstrasse and made their way through the building to the Jewelry Room in the Green Vault.
Following widely practiced protocol, the castle’s unarmed security staff alerted local police upon spotting the burglary in progress on surveillance cameras, which showed at least two suspects wearing dark, hooded clothing, carrying flashlights and repeatedly swinging an ax into a glass showcase until it split open.
The first police car arrived at the museum at 5:04, but by then the criminals had cleared out.
Authorities believe the thieves left the scene in an Audi A6. A vehicle matching that description was found on fire in a nearby garage and seized by police. Criminologists working on the case suspect a link to another fire at an electrical box that cut power to streetlights in the area.
Soaring art prices and systematic security flaws at museums are attracting a new generation of art thieves, many of whom have started taking art by force in broad daylight rather than by stealth like the Dresden thieves, according to the International Council of Museums, a nonprofit organization representing at least 1,900 museums and galleries around the world.
Last week, a burglar tried to walk out of London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery with a pair of Rembrandt van Rijn paintings before being spotted by police. The burglar sprayed a substance on an officer and escaped without arrest, leaving the artworks behind.
Days later, a pair of metal-detector enthusiasts in England were jailed for stealing an ancient group of Viking-era jewelry and coins from a Herefordshire field in 2015 and seeking to sell them rather than report their discovery, as required under British law.
When the international police agency Interpol launched its online database of stolen art world-wide in August, it listed around 34,000 objects. The London-based Art Loss Register also flags and tracks thousands of missing artworks, making it difficult, experts said, for any of the Dresden pieces to be fenced. U.S. residents are the biggest buyers in the estimated $6 billion global black market for art, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Other notorious art heists include the one committed by a pair who impersonated police officers and robbed Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990; the 13 artworks they took, including a painting by Johannes Vermeer, are collectively valued by the FBI at more than $500 million. The works have never been recovered. Neither has Caravaggio’s “Nativity with San Lorenzo and San Francesco,” which was stolen from the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo, Italy, in 1969.
Monday’s heist is the second spectacular burglary in Germany in recent years. Earlier this year, the trial began for four men charged with the 2017 theft of a giant gold coin from Berlin’s Bode Museum.
The coin, weighing some 220 pounds and valued at €3.75 million ($4.1 million), was a commemorative “Big Maple Leaf” coin from the Royal Canadian Mint. It, too, hasn’t been recovered.
Around 90% of museum thefts are linked to someone with ties to the institution, according to the Denver-based International Foundation for Cultural Property, which suggested that German authorities would likely scrutinize the palace staff for clues.
The theft is a devastating blow to the Green Vault, one of Europe’s largest treasure chambers. The gallery of eight lavishly decorated rooms houses the eclectic collection of artworks, jewelry and curiosities amassed by Augustus the Strong, a Saxon ruler who also became king of Poland in the 18th century.
The Baroque-era rooms where the jewels were displayed were damaged during World War II and their content plundered by the Soviet Red Army. But the collection was returned in 1958 and the royal residence that originally housed it was renovated in the early 2000s. The Green Vault eventually reopened in 2006 as a near-perfect replica of the original chamber.
Ms. Becker, the historian, said the Green Vault collection stood alone in the world for the vast breadth of its jewels from the 18th century, an era when European artisans were beginning to use diamonds in high-art jewelry.
Unlike other renowned jewelry collections amassed over many years at museums like the Victoria and Albert in London, the Green Vault collection, Ms. Becker said, was unique for having been assembled contemporaneously by royalty in Saxony.
“There’s nothing like it in the world, in one place,” she said. “It was the symbol of man’s highest achievement at that age. It is very much more than jewelry.”
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