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Everything you need to know about the Dresden museum heist

Monday's Green Vault break in was dubbed the largest art theft in Germany since World War II. Here's how it happened, what was stolen, and if there's hope of finding the objects.

Everything you need to know about the Dresden museum heist
Archive photo from April shows the Jewellery Room of the Green Vault. Photo: DPA

Police in Germany were Tuesday hunting robbers who snatched priceless 18th century jewellery from a state museum in Dresden in what local media have called one the biggest art heists of all time.

Authorities across eastern Germany have been put on alert after thieves made off with treasures from the Green Vault at Dresden's Royal Palace in an astonishing smash-and-grab raid early Monday morning.

READ ALSO: Dresden museum burglary 'probably largest art theft since World War II'

Police have called for witnesses to step forward and released images of the stolen items, which were taken from a collection of jewellery of 18th-century Saxony ruler Augustus the Strong.

Here's what you need to know about the incident on Monday.

What happened?

The thieves launched their brazen raid after starting a fire at an electrical panel near the Residential Palace, where the Green Vault is situated, around 5am on Monday morning.

They deactivated its alarm as well as street lighting, said Dresden Chief of Police Volker Lange at a press conference.

Despite the power cut, a surveillance camera kept working and filmed two men breaking in.

A video released by police and now published on YouTube showed one of the men, armed with a torch, using an axe to smash the display case in the Green Vault.

“The whole act lasted only a few minutes,” said police in a statement.

The suspects then fled in an Audi A6 and remain on the run.

The apparent getaway car was found on fire later elsewhere in the city, said police, adding that the vehicle was being examined for clues.

Bild daily said the heist was “probably the biggest art theft since World War Two”.

What did the thieves steal?

One hundred objects from the jewellery sets of Friedrich August II are thought to be among the stolen items. 

They include a sword whose hilt is encrusted with nine large and 770 smaller diamonds, and a diamond bow decorated with 662 brilliants.

The exact number of stolen objects is unclear. However, 11 of the known stolen objects have been published in a photo gallery. 

It is “a state treasure of the 18th century,” said Marion Ackermann, Director General of the State Art Collections.

Founded by Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony in 1723, the Green Vault is one of the oldest museums in Europe.

After the Royal Palace suffered severe damage in World War Two, the Green Vault remained closed for decades before it was restored and re-opened in 2006.

A DPA map shows the location of the Green Vault (Grünes Gewölbe) within the Residential Palace and Dresden's buildings in its Altstadt. Photo: DPA

What are the stolen objects worth?

Bild set the price tag on the stolen items as up to one billion euros. Yet according to General Director Ackermann, the value of the stolen property cannot be quantified.

The special significance lies less in the material, than in the comprehensiveness of the collection, she said. 

READ ALSO: 'Up to a billion euros' of jewels and antiques stolen from Dresden museum

They hope that the stolen property has been removed from the art market because of its “international fame”.

Have there been other art thefts of this magnitude?

Over the past century there have been several museum break-ins around the world. At one point, in 1911, Leonardo de Vinci's famed “Mona Lisa” was stolen from the Louvre Museum in Paris. This chart from Statista looks at other large museum break-ins. 

When will the Green Vault open again?

The Green Vault is no longer open to the public for the time being. Museum director Dirk Syndram told MDR that he expected the collection to remain closed for some time.

However, the other museums in the building will reopen on Wednesday, he added. 

Are the stolen treasures insured?

Cultural objects from public museums are generally not insured, but damages are covered by so-called state liability. This is attractive for public museums as they do not have to pay insurance premiums.

Archive photo shows visitors inside of the Green Vault. Photo: DPA

What is known about the perpetrators?

Investigators assume that there are several perpetrators. According to a police report, two burglars were visible over the cameras in the Green Vault. However, it was assumed that other parties were involved. 

A ten person-strong special commission called “Epaulette” are responsible for searching for the suspects.

How is the collection in Dresden's Residential Palace secured?

Ackermann said the security centre in the building are always staffed by two guards. They had observed the burglars on their monitors in real time and then dialled the emergency number. 

When the police arrived at the scene, however, the thieves had already fled.

What could the perpetrators be up to with the loot?

In an interview with Spiegel Online, the Dutch art detective Arthur Brand stressed that there are two key types of art thieves. On the one hand, there are perpetrators who are convinced that they will find one or more buyers for the stolen goods. 

However, this is usually not the case, because the exhibits are too well-known and therefore quickly recognizable.

“As soon as the thieves realize that they cannot find a buyer, they look for alternatives. For example, they blackmail the insurance company,” says Brand. “These art thieves are comparatively easy to convict.”

Passersby stand in front of the windows of the Green Vault on Tuesday morning. Photo: DPA

Much worse, he said, “are really professional thieves who re-melt the gold and silver or carve out the diamonds and sell them separately.”

These perpetrators are aware that most works of art as a whole are not for sale, but can be turned into money when broken down into their components. But once melted down or dismantled, the art remains gone forever, he said.

How did politicians react to the theft?

Saxony's head of government, Michael Kretschmer (CDU), was appalled. “The values that can be found in the Green Vault and the Residence Palace have been hard earned by the people in the state of Saxony over many centuries,” he said.

“It’s not possible to understand Saxony’s history without the Green Vault and the State Art Collections of Saxony”.

Minister of Culture Monika Grütters described the break-in as shocking. The theft “of pieces that make up our identity as a cultural nation hits us in the heart,” said the CDU politician.

She thanked those responsible for setting up a special commission and hoped that the search would be successful quickly.

“In light of the fact that the perpetrators of these crimes are getting better organized, we need to prioritize a stronger protection of our museums and cultural institutions,” Grütters said.

“We have recently tightened up the security measures at our museums and cultural institutions in various places.”

With reporting from AFP

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Spain’s scrap cathedral: A monk’s 60-year self-build labour of faith and devotion

About 20 km east of Madrid, in the small town of Mejorada del Campo, stands a building that testifies to a former monk's lifetime of devotion to the Catholic faith. Paul Burge explores the Don Justo Cathedral, a religious edifice like no other.

Spain's scrap cathedral: A monk's 60-year self-build labour of faith and devotion
Don Justo's Cathedral in Mejorada del Campo, Madrid. Photos: Paul Burge

The structure has been built by 95-year-old former monk, Don Justo Gallego Martinez, using nothing but recycled, scavenged and donated materials giving the building chaotic, eclectic and perplexing, if not impressive style.

Don Justo pictured here at the age of 73 in August 1999. Archive photo: AFP

Visitors are free to explore, stepping over bags of cement, buckets and tools which are strewn across the two-floor monument. Downstairs there is a shrine to Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. Chillingly Don Justo has already also dug his own grave in the basement, where he will finally be laid to rest at the heart of his labour of faith and devotion.

Don Justo, as he is known, is 95 years old. The cathedral still needs at least ten years' work, years that its creator simply doesn’t have. Yet, such is his devotion that he still works on its construction every day, except on Sundays of course. You may catch a glimpse of him in his dusty blue overalls, white shirt and trademark red beret. But as the notices pinned to the wall advise, he is not open to speaking to members of the public.

What inspired Don Justo to build it?

After eight years in a Trappist order at Soria‘s Santa Maria de la Huerta monastery, Don Justo Gallego Martinez was ordered to leave, for fear of infecting the other monks with tuberculosis that he had been diagnosed with.

When his mother died in 1963 and bequeathed to him a large plot of land, including an olive grove in the center of the town, Gallego had an idea. If he would never again be allowed to enter a Catholic church as an ordained member of the faith, then he would express his devotion in a magnificent way. He would build his own church. In fact he would build his own Cathedral from scratch and make a shrine to “Our Lady of the Pillar”, or Nuestra Señora del Pilar.

The future of the cathedral

Set amongst monotonous 1960s apartment blocks, the frame of the huge structure, with its 50-meter-tall dome modeled on St. Peter’s in Rome, towers over the town of Mejorada del Campo. Like the cathedrals of old, it will not reach completion during Don Justo’s lifetime.

What will happen to the building after Gallego’s death remains an open question and its future is uncertain. No one has yet stepped up to take over the project, nor is his cathedral recognized by the Catholic Church. What is more, Don Justo never applied for planning permission to build the cathedral and the structure does not conform to any building regulations.

There are rumous that it could be pulled down after Don Justo passes away but there is a concerted campaign to preserve it.

How to get there

Catedral de Justo is located in Mejorada del Campo, a small town just 20km from Madrid. To get there, there are two public buses from the centre: Avenida de América (line 282) and Conde de Casal (line 341). 

The bus stop in Mejorada del Campo is called Calle de Arquitecto Antoni Gaudí and is located right in front of the cathedral. However, going by car is a better option, so you can continue your day-trip to Alcalá de Heneres, Cervantes’ hometown, which is about half an hour away.

Listen to the When in Spain podcast episode for an audio tour around the cathedral with Paul Burge. HERE

Paul Burge is a former BBC journalist who moved from Oxford, UK to Madrid in 2013 where he now hosts the highly entertaining When in Spain a weekly podcast show about life in Madrid and beyond.  Follow Paul's observations and advice about living in Spain on FacebookInstagram, Twitter and his new YouTube channel.