REVIEW - Dresden Museum Heist Unlocks Debate On Whether Such Priceless Jewels Can Be Insured

BRUSSELS (Pakistan Point News / Sputnik - 26th November, 2019) The recent heist in Dresden's Green Vault museum that saw a couple of thieves snatching jewels reportedly estimated at 1 billion Euros ($1.1 billion) in a matter of minutes has once again revived the debate of experts on whether such truly priceless pieces of art could be actually insured, if not kept safe.

Early on Monday, the Dresden museum's jewelry room was raided by a well-organized gang of thieves who snatched jewels from three priceless diamond sets in what has been promptly dubbed in media as the largest art theft in history.

The previous largest theft of art occurred in 1990, when thieves stole $300 million worth of historical artifacts from a Boston museum in the United States. The Dresden museum heist is the second high-profile theft in Germany recently, after a 24-carat giant gold coin weighing 100 kilograms (220 Pounds), was stolen from Berlin's Bode Museum in 2017.

This time, the thieves stole the priceless jewels in diamond and ruby from one of Europe's most famous collections of art treasures in Dresden, the former city of the princes and kings of Saxony.

Dresden was a spectacular capital of the arts until February 1945, when the British and American air forces bombed the city, creating a gigantic fire for days and killing 25,000 civilians in a message to the Nazi regime that their days were counted.

Since World War II, Dresden has rebuilt itself, restoring or fully rebuilding the historical baroque and rococo palaces and churches from the middle of the 18th century along the Elbe promenade, which made the city an attractive Italian-like city in the east of Germany. It was called "the jewel-box" of Germany - a description which is "to the point" today.

The stones could never be cleaned after the fire of 1945 burned them so deep that all these buildings look still covered in soot.

Dresden has some of the most fantastic collections of works of art in Germany, the collections of the kings of Saxony. Tourists have a long list of places and museums to visit. Among these are the Old Masters' Gallery, the Albertinum, the Museum of Decorative Arts and the New Green Vault, which was rocked by the robbery.

In the historic Green Vault, gold, rock crystal and diamonds outshine each other in the treasury of Augustus II the Strong, which he built between 1723 and 1730. The New Green Vault shows selected exhibits, impressively illuminated behind glass.

Among them were several high-quality pieces, including a diamond epaulette that the intruders grabbed.

One of the best known treasures of the museum, the 41-carat Dresden "Green Diamond," the largest green diamond ever found, was fortunately away on loan to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art at the time of the break-in.

THE DARING ROBBERY WAS VERY FAST

It looked like a movie robbery. The two thieves acted very fast, breaking in through a first window (protected by a heavy grille), then a door. They rushed in, checked the display case that they were specifically interested in, smashed the glass with an axe and grabbed the jewels. They were seen on the CCTV by unarmed guards, but it happened so fast that the police arrived minutes late.

The burglar alarms did not function, because the well-organized gang had earlier set fire to an electrical distribution box near the Augustus Bridge to disable the alarm system at the museum.

The heist had a breathtaking speed. At 4:59 a.m. local time, the unarmed guards see the thieves enter on CCTV. At 5:04 a.m. the sends the first patrol car. A minute later the police identifies the car taking the thieves away, a stolen Audi A6. At 5:09 a.m., all 16 police cars available are put to the chase and all motorway exits of Dresden are closed, but the gangsters' car escapes. It was later found burned in an underground car park of the city, a few miles away.

"We have not identified any of the perpetrators, nor have we yet made any arrests. The search continues. The Police Directorate Dresden has set up a special commission which carries the name 'Epaulette;' 20 criminologists are currently working on the clarification of the case ... The criminal police assumes that more perpetrators were involved than the 2 seen on CCTV cameras," Dresden police spokesperson Marko Laske said on Monday lunchtime.

The Saxony authorities, meanwhile, say that "immeasurable wealth" was stolen, describing it as a "black day" for the cultural heritage of the German land.

EXPERT BLAME 'AMATEURISM' OF MUSEUM'S SECURITY SYSTEM

In a comment to Sputnik, an officer of the Brussels police special unit harshly criticized the museum's security system.

"The amateurism of the local Dresden museum is worth noting: there was no emergency charge group, no effective burglar alarm in case the electricity was out. The jewels are held in high-security rooms, but there are some 3,000 items in the historic 17th-century vault. Martin Roth, the late director of the Dresden State Art Collections, said in 2010: 'The Green Vault is as secure as Fort Knox.' Well, in my eyes, whatever they say now, it was not Fort Knox but rather gruyere-style cheese, full of holes," he said.

The officer noted that the thieves would never get 1 billion euros for the stolen items, which cannot be sold intact even on the black market. They will therefore recut and resize the jewels and melt the gold. But once the works of arts are disassembled and melted down, the art is destroyed forever.

The thieves might also demand a ransom for the jewels' safe return, but the fact that they did not choose the biggest stones, but smaller ones, indicates they aim for disassembling the items.

Police were still combing the vault and surroundings on Tuesday, but are believed to have little clue to the identity of those behind the daring robbery, which appears to have been meticulously planned by more than two individuals.

The items that were stolen in Dresden were probably not insured, because the state of Germany, Saxony or even the city of Dresden are their own insurers, and such masterpieces are considered priceless.

"The State is the insurer for any work of art in its museums. The private insurers are only called in if the work of art leaves the museum to be exhibited elsewhere. It is the principle of self-insurance and results from a simple financial calculation. Works as mythical as The Mona Lisa or 'The Origin of the World' by [Gustave] Courbet, are not insured in the sense that we usually understand, precisely because they are priceless," Marc Rome of Axa Art, one of the leading insurers of artwork, told Sputnik.

According to Rome, it is simply impossible to find insurers for such masterpieces because the state-owned works of art are very numerous, in the hundreds of thousands.

In addition, there is no credit for the public authorities to insure all art works. National museums have always considered it more attractive to invest in supervision and security staff and improve passive security.

"Everything can be insured. But can the owner afford the price? It is also often difficult for the insurance company to estimate the value, if it was never sold for example, as is the case for the jewels stolen in Dresden. They are, literally, invaluable," Timothy Broos of leading art insuring firm Hiscox told Sputnik.

The issue of cost of insurance is therefore important, he went on, noting that it depends on the owners of the works of art to be insured as well as the range of risks that the insurance covers.

"Another issue is the celebrity of the work of art : a very famous painting is nearly impossible to sell for the thief, except if it is an order - 'artnapping,' like kidnapping - from a collector who wants for example to complement his collection of a certain artist and is foolish enough to have a work of art stolen for him. That is very rare," the expert noted.

STOLEN JEWELRY CAN BE TRACED EVEN IF MELTED, CUT

Speaking of the Dresden robbery, Broos noted that there were "techniques to trace the stones, and even the gold if it is melted, what the thieves will probably do."

"There are variations in the chemical composition of the gold from 300 years ago, its origin and today's gold. The stones are also identified and recognizable, even if they are cut again. It is only of course a little help for the detectives who are now trying to identify the thieves in Dresden, but it can help, once they arrest suspects," he pointed out.

To sum up, there is no rule in terms of insurance of such masterpieces. Most public museums opt for self-insurance but can for example insure their most important items, depending on their budget. The same is for private collectors.

What is certain is that nothing can compensate or replace a piece of art, which is by essence unique.