The recent theft of priceless jewels from an important collection in Dresden has cast light on the problem facing many museums today: security. Did the Grüne Gewölbe make the thieves’ job too easy? And what is likely to happen to the looted treasures? By DER SPIEGEL Staff
It’s almost as if the people in charge saw the calamity coming. In early May of this year, the members of the German Museums Association met, in Dresden of all places, to found a new working group focusing on security. The group’s website seemed to hint at the coming disaster, with separate subject headings for “object-security management,” “employees (safety)” and “risk analysis and emergency management.”
All of these measures might have been helpful early on Monday morning, when unknown perpetrators smashed a display case in an area of the Royal Palace in Dresden known as the Grüne Gewölbe, or Green Vault, and stole works of art as well as jewels of inestimable value.
The working group was, by all appearances, not yet up and running. An “initial founding meeting” had taken place in late October, and a spokesperson had been named: Michael John, the head of the construction, technology and security division of the Dresden State Art Collections — the man responsible for the security of the Green Vault. At the time of the break-in, he was in London attending a conference about museum security.
Years ago, the then director general of the collections, Martin Roth, said the Green Vault was “as secure as Fort Knox.” And even after the incident, Dirk Syndram, the director of the Green Vault and the Dresden Armory, told the S ächsische Zeitung newspaper, “Our security system got reviewed four years ago, and the conclusion was that everything was fine with it.” He claimed nothing could stop perpetrators like the ones who broke into the vault. “What they did there was almost like ‘Mission Impossible.'”
Whatever movie Syndram saw, it can’t have been “Mission Impossible.” In that film, Tom Cruise’s character, Ethan Hunt, had to overcome a series of high-tech traps. The perpetrators in Dresden, on the other hand, took a simple, old-fashioned approach more reminiscent of Bob the Builder: They cut through the grate in front of a window and broke through the display case with an axe.
In fact, they might have had it too easy. They can’t have had problems orienting themselves in the vault: the museum’s website offers a virtual tour showing important locations within the institution. And even security-relevant, sensitive details are publicly accessible.
Anyone doing a basic online search can find the manufacturer of the display cases, which advertises its work and gives precise details about the type of glass it used for the cases (“laminated safety glass 5-5-2 extra-white,” and, more specifically, “laminated safety glass made of ESG 8-8-4 extra-white.”) Anyone reading that will know which axe would be necessary to destroy the cases.
Skepticism About Security Measures
The first doubts about the quality of the Green Vault’s security system emerged the day after the break-in, when the police released video footage of the crime. The hazy images of the thieves were so indiscernible, German social media soon turned to ridicule. The police seemed annoyed: “Do something constructive and support the museum, i.e. through the friends of the museum organization, for example, instead of gettting work up online about the bad security cameras.”
The problem can’t have been a lack of funds. According to Dresden State Art Collections Director General Marion Ackermann, the museums spent 8 million euros ($ 8.8 million) a year on security measures. Surveillance cameras with infrared capabilities or residual light amplifiers that would have delivered better footage are available from specialized vendors for about 100 euros.
Although the investigators seem to know very little about the perpetrators, the events of the break-in have been reconstructed in detail. Sometime after 4 a.m., the criminals began cutting through a 19th-century forged grate on the vault’s western tower. The massive piece of metal was cleanly cut in eight places. In most cases, workers would complete such a job this by angle-grinding the metal, which would have resulted in an impressive shower of sparks and resulted in considerable noise.
The perpetrators thus took a big risk right at the beginning of their break-in. There is a surveillance camera installed above the window, as well as one on the nearby south tower. These must have captured the criminals’ activity. The window is also visible from many of the rooms of the nearby hotel.
But the grate-cutting didn’t set off any alarms. In an interview, the director of the Green Vault vaguely mentioned the use of “special technology.” The police are also not saying anything on the subject, citing it as evidence in the case. The burglars could have used a “nibbler,” an electric tool that stamps its way through the metal. As a guidebook for handymen explains, it doesn’t generate any sparks.
The thieves triggered the first alarm when they jolted the window behind it, which is made of triple security glass, and tore it from its fixture without breaking it.
The security office noticed the break-in at 4:56 a.m., according to police records. Just three minutes later, at 4:59 a.m., an emergency call was placed from that office to the police. Because the police directorate is located only 600 meters (2,000 feet) from the site of the break-in, the authorities arrived at 5:04 a.m. This meant there were 8 minutes to carry out the crime.
During that time, the perpetrators had to force themselves through the small hole in the grate, cross a room known as the Hall of Precious Objects, walk to the right through another space called the Coat of Arms Room and into the Jewel Room behind it. There, they set upon the object case with the axe.
It was dark in the building, but not because the criminals had apparently set a power distributor on the street on fire, shutting down streetlights. The area where the treasures are stored in the Green Vault has its own electrical circuit and an emergency generator.
The window alarm went off, as did the movement detector in the vault and the alarm in the case that was destroyed by the axe. The cameras were also working. It’s the security team’s fault that so little is visible on the surveillance footage. The guards didn’t turn on the light.
Dirk Burghardt, the managing director of the Dresden State Art Collections, told the S ächsische Zeitung that this was a stroke of luck. “If the light had been on,” he said, “other objects would also have been taken.” He didn’t mention that at least one of the perpetrators was wearing a headlight.
The security guards let the burglars continue their work in darkness and called the police. According to the museum’s management, it was never an option for the security team to intervene on its own, because it was only armed with batons and not allowed to put itself in mortal danger. Syndram explained that there had once been an armed guard in the Green Vault, “as was tradition in East Germany.” After a long debate, he said, the guards had been disarmed.
Ultimately, the simple fishing line fastening the gems and diamonds to the silk bottom of the case kept the thieves from stealing more of the treasure.
When the police arrived at the Green Vault, the perpetrators had already fled. One minute later, the officers received a clue about the escape vehicle, that was later found burned-out in an underground Dresden parking garage. The vehicle, which came from the neighboring state of Saxony-Anhalt, had been de-registered in 2017.
The perpetrators have disappeared, along with the spoils. After some back and forth, at least, it became clear what was missing. The missing items included pieces set with diamonds, most of which had been acquired by Saxon monarchs Augustus the Strong and Augustus III. Most of the gemstones had been cut between 1782 and 1789.
Experts disagree about whether this very unconventional loot can be sold, and if yes, how and to whom.
Heide Rezepa-Zabel, an art historian and consultant who evaluates jewelry on the German public television version of “Antiques Roadshow,” doesn’t believe it will be possible to find a buyer for all or any of the stolen items. She argues that the older diamonds no longer reflect contemporary tastes. “The gemstones have an outer luster. They twinkle when illuminated by candlelight or a flashlight. But they don’t have the depth of today’s diamonds.” She says today’s technique for cutting diamonds is different from that of the 18th century, that people expect a higher quality of precious stone, and that color and purity are now at a premium. A precious stone, she says, needs to be as white as possible, have an excellent polish and an exacting cut. But perhaps the thieves will simply recut the stolen gems?
Different Paths for Stolen Loot
“It would entail the loss of too much stone,” says Rezepa-Zabel, who warns that, in the worst case scenario, it could turn a 20-carat diamond into a one-carat one. “That would be horrible.” And on top of this, recutting a diamond is expensive. Depending on the work involved, it could cost between 1,000 and 10,000 euros per diamond. Beate Kalisch, an adviser to Neumeister, a Munich auction house, told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily that recutting the diamonds is the “most likely option.” She argued that “the diamonds would of course become smaller — one loses between 10 and 30 percent — but then the cut would be perfect. They would bring in lots and lots of money.”
Peter Zingler agrees. He knows his stuff, too. The 75-year-old was a thief for almost 30 years. He stole jewelry and cars, paintings and furs with an adjusted current value of several million euros. As a result, he spent 12 years of his life in jail. Since being let out about three decades ago, he has earned his money as a screenwriter for crime shows and various films.
Zingler knows from experience that there is a market even for illegal items: clients are drawn to the notion of owning a former queen’s crown, and some people like objects that have great symbolic value. They admire them within their own homes, and not just in hidden rooms. “Some people,” says Zingler, “exhibit even illegally procured items in their homes.”
Zingler wears a ruby the size of a berry in his right ear, and on some days wears another gem as well. “What’s most important is that it’s big,” he says. “It should get people’s attention, it should glitter.” He points out that these items were acquired legally. “I bought them for a lot of money in the store, with a receipt and everything else.” But he says that stolen jewelry is also easy to sell. “That was the case, is the case, and will continue to be the case.”
The stolen Dresden jewels, Zingler believes, will be taken apart and recut. “But who knows: there are also fans of old cuts. There are all different kinds of customers, and nothing that cannot be sold.” Not all jewels with older cuts will immediately look like they were stolen. “If you have them cut and then wear them, nobody will ask questions,” he says. Many families still own these kinds of individually prepared gems, he says, inheritances from a grandmother and her ancestors.
He says it’s not difficult to have stolen goods recut. The thief would retain at most 20 percent of the item’s value. Though when it comes to the Dresden theft, it could be hard to determine how much that is. Since the break-in, people have been using the phrase “inestimable value,” with some justification.
Grüne Gewölbe Director Syndram said that the stolen items are “a kind of world cultural heritage.” He argued that much of their value is historical, since they are represent the paragon of late-Baroque jewelry composition. And Managing General Ackerman said the “the completeness” of the collection is more important than its material value.
For Peter Raue, a lawyer who specializes in art and art dealing in Berlin, “the real catastrophe” would be if the items are dismantled and broken down. Raue sees parallels to the theft of a 100-kilogram (220-pound) gold coin from Berlin’s Bode Museum in March of 2017. “The fast, simple, brutal manner of the execution, all that points to commonalities between the Dresden perpetrators and the Berlin gang,” he says.
Dresden’s police chief also sees “connections pointing toward Berlin.” Members of the Rammo gang, originally from Lebanon, have been charged in connection with the coin theft in the capital. There are supposedly also similarities with two break-ins at the KaDeWe, Berlin’s famous luxury department store, in 2013 and 2017. In both cases, the perpetrators destroyed display cases with axes.
For Raue, the involvement of violent gangsters would be the worst-case scenario. His hope is that the thieves only want to “extort” the state and will ultimately return the loot intact in exchange for a ransom.
By Dietmar Hipp, Gunther Latsch, Katja Thimm, Steffen Winter and Jean-Pierre Ziegler