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Blaming the Victim: The Shocking “Green Vault” Assault at Dresden’s Royal Palace (with video)

How could this have happened?

In what seems to have been a “smash-and-grab” theft of major proportions, burglars last week staged a raid, shortly before 5 a.m., on the Historic Green Vault—the repository for treasures of the Dresden Royal Palace—making off with what the Dresden State Art Collections understatedly described as “11 whole items, parts of two others and a group of skirt buttons.”

Here’s one of those “whole items”:

“Breast Star of the Polish White Eagle Order,”
Jean Jacques Pallard, Geneva / Vienna between 1746 & 1749; Diamonds, rubies, gold, silver

Large central stone: 20.189 ct., Height: 15.5 cm; Width 15.5 cm

And here are the “skirt buttons” (some remaining):

Buttons from “the diamond rose set”

In its eyebrow-raising account of this audacious, seemingly well planned caper, the NY Times reported that “at least two thieves broke the special security glass of a display case,” which the museum’s security guards “witnessed…on a live video feed.”

Here’s the surveillance video of the break-in, as posted on the website of the Saxony Police. It’s not for the squeamish: Prepare to cringe at the sight of a perpetrator forcefully pounding a display case containing delicate, precious objects.

According to Melissa Eddy‘s and Christopher Schuetze‘s report in the NY Times:

Ms. [Marion] Ackermann [director of the Dresden State Art Collection] said that it was standard museum procedure for the guards, who are not armed, to alert the police instead of intervening personally [?!?]. The first officers arrived at the museum within 10 minutes [emphasis added] of receiving the call, but by that time, the thieves were already gone, Jörg Kubiesa, chief of Dresden police, said.

The Green Vault’s protectors learned, too late, that 10 minutes is 6 minutes too long. As I wrote in my Oct. 17, 2012 post analyzing a burglary from the Kunsthal Rotterdam of seven Impressionist, modern and contemporary works (on loan to it from the Triton Foundation):

Any burglarized homeowner knows that a five-minute response time isn’t good enough when you’re dealing with grab-and-go criminals. Art museums should not be lured into false complacency with high-tech gadgetry. They are no substitute for the most basic, essential component of art stewardship—human guards. They are indispensable as on-the-ground, rapid-response foot soldiers in the war against thieves and vandals.

In a response that could prove too little, too late, the Saxony Police, in agreement with the public prosecutor, have offered a €500,000 reward for clues aiding in the investigation of the burglary, the capture of perpetrators and/or the discovery of the stolen objects. (Dresden is the capital of the state of Saxony, in eastern Germany.)

The police portal for leads that might help the investigators is here. Although many museum directors have reflexively expressed hope for the return of the jewels, intact, they probably know that this hope is likely to prove illusory. The accomplished criminals are probably savvy enough to know that “it would be difficult for thieves to sell such easily identifiable artworks,” as NY Times reporter Doreen Carvajal had suggested in her analysis of the 2012 Rotterdam heist. She pointed to “underworld finances” as the probable driving force behind the burglar’s assault.

Retired Scotland Yard art detective Charles Hill shared with Carvajal this theory regarding the Rotterdam theft:

I think it’s a form of repayment in kind, a barter—“I don’t have cash, but I have these paintings [emphasis added]…”

…or, in this case, it could be: “I have these jewels”:

Stolen Epaulette (fragment remaining), Christian August Globig & August Gotthelf Globig, Dresden 1782-1789
20 large & 216 small diamonds, silver, gold
Length: 22 cm; Width: 7cm

For a complete list of the stolen objects (with images) see the Dresden State Art Collections’ news release regarding the theft.

One object that was safe from the predators is the Dresden Green Diamond: It’s currently on loan from the Green Vault to the Metropolitan Museum’s sumptuous show (just in time for the heightened interest in pricey baubles during the winter holiday season)—Making Marvels: Science and Splendor at the Courts of Europe, which was brilliantly reviewed by Ed Rothstein in today’s (Monday’s) Wall Street Journal:

The Dresden Green Diamond, now at the Met, usually installed in the Green Vault (but in a different display case from the one that was raided)

Fifteen years ago, I partook in the “truly unique opportunity to view the magnificent treasures of the Dresden Green Vault in New York” (as described by the Met’s then director, Philippe de Montebello). Princely Splendor: The Dresden Court, 1580-1620 (Oct. 26, 2004-Jan. 30, 2005) consisted of some 250 works of art and precious objects loaned by the Dresden State Art Collections. Although some 200 of those pieces came from the Green Vault, none of the now missing items were included, a Met spokesperson told me in response to my query.

In the above-linked press release for that show, de Montebello explained how it came into being and why the New York exhibition was a “truly unique opportunity”:

The eight historical exhibition rooms of the Green Vault were damaged in the bombing of Dresden during World War II. In subsequent years, only part of the collection was exhibited, with the remainder kept in storage.

A major reconstruction project is now underway to restore the exhibition rooms to their former glory. Once these objects are put on view in the restored historic Green Vault in 2006, such a quantity will never be allowed to travel again.

The current Met director, Max Hollein, was among the museum heads who last week extended condolences to the Dresden State Art Collections:

We are devastated to hear of this theft. The Met, and I am sure the entire museum community, is hoping for the immediate and safe return of these most important pieces.

That hope may be in vain. But for all museums, this alarming incident should be a wake-up call for devising a plan for an immediate, forceful response when something suspicious shows up on the security system’s radar.

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