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Heist sparks fears German jewels 'lost forever'

By Earle Gale in London | China Daily Global | Updated: 2019-12-03 09:15

The Green Vault museum within the royal palace in Dresden, Germany, has confirmed that a 49-carat white diamond worth around 9 million pounds ($11.6 million) was among treasures stolen in a daring heist there on Nov 25.

Jewellery stolen during a robbery from the Green Vault city palace in Dresden, Germany, November 25, 2019 is seen in an undated photo provided by the Saxony state police. [Photo/Agencies]

The historic museum, which has been open to the public since 1724, says other items taken in the daring raid include a sword with a hilt encrusted with nine large diamonds and 770 smaller stones, a diamond-studded dagger, a pearl necklace and several other glittering artifacts. It said 11 pieces were removed in their entirety, while three other artifacts were broken and had parts taken.

Police believe four people took part in the theft, even though only two are seen in security camera footage.

Dresden police chief Joerg Kubiessa told broadcaster ZDF that a "criminal gang" was likely behind the burglary.

The museum was hit especially hard because it not only lost rare treasures that will be impossible to replace, but the items were uninsured, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The state Finance Ministry for the German state of Saxony, which owns the Green Vault museum, said it did not insure the artifacts because the premiums would have been prohibitive.

Julia Ries, the head of fine art and jewelry at insurer Ergo Group AG, told the paper that public museums usually insure works of art that are loaned to them but do not take out policies on their permanent collections.

"The budgets of public museums are limited," Ries said. "You can't replace such a collection from a monetary or art/historic value. If the jewels aren't recovered, this part of the collection will be lost forever."

The items, collected by Augustus the Strong, ruler of Saxony, in the early 1700s, are so distinctive that experts say the thieves will likely break them down to their component parts.

Christopher Marinello, the founder of Art Recovery International, told the BBC that museums housing artifacts containing precious materials are "under siege by barbarian criminal gangs who melt down gold and carve out precious stones with no regard to the importance of cultural heritage.

"This is a major collection of jewels and intact designs containing gold, diamonds, precious gems and rubies," Marinello said. "I knew exactly what was going to happen once I heard what was taken - that we were not going to see these items remain intact."

He called the heist at the Dresden Green Vault "a theft of epic proportions".

Profiler and author Alex Petermann told the German newspaper Bild, "The perpetrators proceeded meticulously, had technical knowhow and certainly insider knowledge." He also said the collection was likely to be dismantled.

Bild said the collection was worth as much as 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion).

The head of Dresden state museums, Marion Ackermann, told the BBC that the idea of items being lost forever was horrific.

"We are talking here about items of inestimable art/historical and cultural/historical value," she said. "We cannot put an exact value on them because they are priceless." Police believe the thieves got into the former palace by smashing their way through a window after a fire had disabled the power supply and, therefore, the alarm system. The thieves seem to have been selective, taking many items but leaving others.

Saxony's art minister, Eva-Maria Stange, said the items were "to a certain extent the crown jewels of the Saxon kings" and said she wants them returned intact to the German state.

The regional newpaper Saech-sische Zeitung quoted Green Vault director Dirk Syndram as being incredulous that the thieves had been able to circumnavigate the alarm system.

"Our security system was checked four years ago with the result that everything was tiptop," he said. "It was almost like Mission Impossible what they did there."

Saxony's interior minister, Roland Woller, told German media: "This is a bitter day for the cultural heritage of Saxony. The thieves stole cultural treasures of immeasurable worth - that is not only the material worth, but also the intangible worth to the state of Saxony, which is impossible to estimate."

The Guardian newspaper reported that police were at the scene of the heist within minutes but the thieves slipped the net. A burning car that investigators believe they used to make their escape was later found in Dresden.

The Dresden Green Vault is one of the oldest museums in Europe and comprises 10 rooms containing around 3,000 pieces of jewelry and art. Items displayed there included a 64-centimeter-tall figurine studded with emeralds and a 548-carat sapphire that had belonged to Czar Peter I of Russia.

The Dresden museum was not the first in Germany to be subjected to a high-profile theft. In 2017, Berlin's Bode Museum was broken into and thieves made off with a 100-kilogram, 24-karat gold coin.


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