Updated at 3:55 p.m. ET
Police are searching for the bold thieves who made off with priceless diamonds and other historic treasures from the Grünes Gewölbe, or “Green Vault,” state museum in Dresden, Germany, early Monday.
The museum has a large collection of jewels, Baroque artifacts and intricately crafted golden tableaux amassed between 1723 and 1730 by August the Strong, the Saxon elector and arts patron who later became king of Poland.
Early reports of the heist sparked incredulity and worries about how much was taken, since the historic Green Vault collection includes thousands of rare and irreplaceable items. The loot’s material value seems to have fallen short of the $1 billion initially reported by some German news outlets, but Marion Ackermann, general director of the Dresden State Art Collections, said the pilfered items have priceless cultural value.
Police in Dresden say that the heist took just minutes and that the thieves targeted three vitrines, or display cases, in the museum’s Jewel Room. Surveillance video shows two black-clad people rushing into the room and using what looks to be a hatchet or small ax to smash the glass displays, viciously forcing their way into the finely crafted cases. The scene takes place in darkness, with the room’s ornate walls and polished checkerboard floor illuminated only by the infiltrators’ flashlights.
“We are shocked by the brutality of the burglary,” Ackermann said, according to Deutsche Welle.
The criminals got into the Green Vault by breaking a security grill and window in the historic royal palace that houses the museum, police said at a news conference held around 1 p.m. local time.
Saxony’s art minister, Eva-Maria Stange, said on Monday that the stolen jewelry pieces are essentially the crown jewels of Saxon kings. “They belong to Saxony,” she said.
Police and museum officials released new details about the stolen jewelry Monday evening local time, listing items that include a diamond-laden breast star of the Polish Order of the White Eagle; a hat clasp containing a 16-carat diamond and 14 other large stones, along with 103 smaller diamonds; and a diamond-studded sword hilt that contains nine large and 770 smaller diamonds, along with a matching scabbard.
The thieves also made off with a diamond epaulet that the museum says is one of the most beautifully designed pieces in its collection. The police say that they’ve set up a special commission to investigate the crime and that the panel is also named Epaulette.
As NPR’s Rob Schmitz reports from Berlin, one of the museum’s most prized possessions is safe.
“One of the museum’s best-known treasures, the 41-carat Dresden Green Diamond, happened to be away on loan to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art at the time of the break-in,” Schmitz says. “Other exhibits include a table-sized sculpture of the Indian royal court made of gold, silver and precious stones, as well as a golden coffee service by an 18th-century court jeweler.”
Details of the heist are still emerging as police investigate and look for the perpetrators. Saxony’s police say that they believe the thieves fled the scene in an Audi A6 sedan — and that an identical vehicle was later found on fire in an underground parking lot.
Laying out a timeline on its Twitter feed, the museum’s parent organization, the Dresden State Art Collections, says the first police car was called to the building at 5:04 a.m. local time. Within a minute, a report emerged of an escape vehicle, setting off an intense search in the city. Around the same time, officials realized there had been a power failure in the museum’s section of Dresden.
Soon afterward, an electrical control box nearby was found to be disabled — and authorities are still working to determine whether that might have been the result of sabotage. While initial reports suggested the power might have been cut to the museum’s security systems, police later said that the outage had affected street lights in the area of the crime scene.
News of the heist was startling given the museum’s status as one of Europe’s largest collections of jewels and European artistry. And the break-in triggered strong personal feelings in Saxony, where the museum serves as a repository of a cultural identity that goes back centuries.
In response to the intrusion, Saxony Prime Minister Michael Kretschmer said, “Not only the state art collections were robbed, but we Saxons!”
Referring to the wider significance of the valuable treasures held in the museum, Kretschmer said the history of Saxony cannot be understood without the Green Vault.
Saxony Interior Minister Roland Wöller said it’s a “bitter day” for the state’s heritage, adding that the criminals had stolen “treasures of unimaginable value.” As of now, he added, officials are assuming the burglars knew precisely what they wanted to take and how to get it.
The police acknowledged that the theft is an emotional topic for many Saxons, but they also urged people not to speculate about details of the crime or who might be to blame.
The treasures of the Green Vault have been part of Dresden’s and Saxony’s resurgence from the ravages of World War II and the Cold War. The pieces survived the Allies’ relentless bombing of Dresden, only to be seized by the Soviet Union. They were later returned to East Germany, but the full breadth of the collection’s thousands of pieces wasn’t put on public display until around 15 years ago, the museum says on its website.
The Green Vault theft comes two years after another German museum was the victim of a shocking high-profile heist: In March 2017, thieves crept into an upper window of the Bode Museum in Berlin before smashing a bulletproof case and grabbing a 220-pound solid gold coin worth an estimated $4.3 million. Four suspects in that case went on trial in January in a process that is still ongoing.