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Art theft: 'There is always a risk for museums'

Sabine Peschel lw
December 3, 2019

Stolen art is not alien to Düsseldorf professor Ulli Seegers, who used to run the German branch of the Art Loss Register. How does she assess the chances of recovering the stolen jewels from Dresden's Green Vault?

Juwelengarnituren des Grünen Gewölbes
Image: SKD/Jürgen Karpinski

DW: Treasures of immeasurable proportions were stolen during the burglary of Dresden's famous Green Vault museum. As an art expert, what did you initially think or feel when you heard about the robbery?

Ulli Seegers: I could hardly believe it at first, because not long ago, the Green Vault was beautifully restored at great expense. That was a pearl, a treasure trove of world cultural heritage. I saw it myself only a few months ago. It is really an immense loss, a treasure that is probably irretrievably lost.

Read more: Thieves strike Berlin's Stasi Museum

Do you think the Green Vault was underprotected?

That's hard for me as an art historian to judge. Nevertheless, I am sure that this treasure chamber has met the international safety standards due to the aforementioned restoration. At the same time, the fact is that this standard was not sufficient, otherwise this burglary would not have occurred.

It should not be forgotten that museums are not high-security wings. Museums and treasure chambers such as the Green Vault are there to show people humanity's cultural treasures. People have an interest in getting as close as possible to these treasures. This means that one has to weigh up quite carefully what the public interest is and how one can protect these treasures of irretrievable, and above all, cultural value as much as possible. Compromises have to be found. Wherever you let people in and allow the public to participate, there is always a residual risk.

A reward of €500,000 is being offered to help find the perpetrators or the stolen goods. Can such incentives help to recover the treasure?

The pressure on the initially successful perpetrators is immense, because they now run the risk of being quickly identified through their valuable stolen items. Half a million euros are, I think, incentive enough for one or two of those involved. We still do not know how far these circles are networked and how structured their operation is. It is to be hoped that perhaps there will be at least someone among them who will be ready to serve as a key witness for this reward.

The stolen treasure is now extremely well known. Why are art and cultural goods such coveted stolen goods in the first place?

In this special case, it has to be noted that we are dealing here with historical jewelry — diamonds with a special cut from the 18th century. Even the material value of such jewels is enormously high. This is completely different with paintings, for example. There is a piece of canvas, a bit of paint, but the value is only defined by the cultural and artistic attribution.

In recent years we have observed an increasing tendency for internationally networked gangs to concentrate on objects that have a high material value. Think of the break-in at the Bode Museum in 2017, when this large gold coin was stolen. It had an almost 100% purity value, over 100 kilograms of pure gold were removed at that time. The same now applies to this jewelry, where there is a real fear that the gangsters will destroy this unique cultural treasure and dismantle it into individual parts.

Düsseldorf art historian Ulli Seegers
Düsseldorf art historian Ulli SeegersImage: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Ossinger

So, you think the stolen jewels won't sell in their present form and the thieves probably want to have them changed?

Yes, I'm sure. These objects are recorded in detail in various central registers and documented photographically. This means that no jeweler who is not a criminal wouldn't recognize these objects immediately. Simply because of their historical polish, they differ from common branded goods. In this respect, the objects, as they are, are certainly not freely marketable without the perpetrators being caught immediately.

It is rumored again and again that there are art lovers who simply want to own an art treasure. Do you think this is a realistic perspective?

These are stories we know from Hollywood movies. That there's a mystery client in the background, who, due to his infinite love of art and culture, places the order and then enjoys the loot in his personal chambers.

You yourself were Managing Director of the German division of Art Loss Register from 2001 to 2008. What is the purpose of such a register?

Like other databases, the Art Loss Register has a very important function: It collects worldwide reports on missing art. The disappearance of art can occur through theft, robbery, but also confiscation — think of Nazi looted art. In other words, wherever art is missing, it is included in these central registers.

On the one hand, this has something to do with the fact that inquiries, whether from the police or the market, can quickly provide information about the origin and status of an object. On the other hand, this of course provides an important opportunity to continuously compare the international traded goods with the inventory of the loss database. For example, the registry staff are busy day after day looking through auction catalogs or going to art fairs to see the individual displays and stands to compare the lost items that are registered with the current merchandise.

How often are art thefts solved?

You have to distinguish clearly between the different categories. By far the best way to identify paintings is simply by the fact that they are often well documented by photographs or good descriptions. They are, by definition, mostly unique. There's only one original, and you can recognize it very quickly. But even with paintings, the enlightenment rate is in the low two-digit range. When I was managing director of the German register in Cologne, we were at 11-12%. That's a rather frighteningly low rate. With jewels the ratio is unfortunately even smaller.

How much hope can you still give the people of Dresden that their jewels will reappear?

Of course I would also like to give hope to the colleagues on the ground who are doing an excellent job. But due to my experience in the international art market in the field of art crime, the probability that these jewel sets, as they are, will reappear at some point is rather low.

Ulli Seegers is a professor of art education and art management at the Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, a unique course of study in Germany. She has published, among other things, on "ethics in the art market" and on art of the 20th century. From 2001 to 2008 she was managing director of the German branch of the International Art Loss Register Limited.