Thieves in the German city of Dresden have broken into one of Europe’s largest collections of art treasures, making off with three priceless sets of 18th-century jewellery in what German media has described as the biggest such theft since the second world war.
The dramatic heist took place at dawn on Monday, after a fire broke out at an electrical distribution point nearby, deactivating the museum’s alarm and plunging the area into darkness.
Despite the power cut, a surveillance camera kept working and filmed two men breaking into the Grüne Gewölbe (Green Vault) at Dresden’s Royal Palace.
Volker Lange, the head of Dresden police, said the thieves smashed a window and cut through a fence before approaching and destroying a display cabinet in the Grüne Gewölbe’s Jewel Room in “a targeted manner”.
Officers were at the scene of the break-in within minutes of being alerted to the robbery shortly before 5am (0300 GMT), but the suspects had escaped. A car found ablaze in Dresden early on Monday may have been the getaway vehicle, police said. They have set up roadblocks on motorway approach roads around the city in an attempt to prevent the suspects from leaving.
German media reported the losses from the burglary could run into the high hundreds of millions of euros, but the director of Dresden’s State Art Collections, Marion Ackermann, said it was impossible to estimate the value of the items.
“We cannot give a value because it is impossible to sell,” she said, appealing to the thieves not to break the ensembles into pieces. “The material value doesn’t reflect the historic meaning.”
This means the Dresden heist will go down in history as one of the biggest in terms of worth in cash and value.
Ackermann confirmed the sets included brilliant-cut diamonds which belonged to an 18th-century collection of jewellery assembled by the museum’s founder.
Founded by Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony in 1723, the Grüne Gewölbe is one of 12 museums which make up the famous Dresden State Art Collections. It got its name because some rooms were decorated with malachite-green paint.
One of the oldest museums in Europe, the Grüne Gewölbe holds treasures including a 63.8-centimetre figure of a Moor studded with emeralds and a 547.71-carat sapphire gifted by Tsar Peter I of Russia.
The museum is now made up of two sections – a historic part and a new part. It was the historic section, which contains around three-quarters of the museum’s treasures, that was broken into on Monday.
With a strict limit on the number of daily visitors, entrance to the historic vault can only be reserved in advance. Exhibits are arranged into nine rooms, including an ivory room, a silver gilt room and the central Hall of Treasures.