What happens to lost or stolen art? | Culture | Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 19.11.2020

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What happens to lost or stolen art?

In light of the arrests related to jewelry stolen from a Dresden museum, experts discuss what might have happened to the jewels — and why museums often lack insurance.

In November 2019, thieves made away with precious jewels from the opulent Green Vault museum in Dresden's Royal Palace in an ambitious and brazen heist. Now, authorities are closer than ever to cracking the case. On November 17, 2020, police announced they had arrested three suspects, all part of a Berlin-based criminal clan. Yet, the question of what happened to the diamond, ruby and emerald-encrusted pieces like swords, shoe buckles and hair ornaments that once belonged to Saxony's royalty looms large.  

Could the thieves have even turned the valuable jewels into money? Art expert Amelie Ebbinghaus of Art Loss Register, the world's largest database of stolen art, with headquarters in London, is skeptical. Her organization logged the numerous items stolen in the theft nearly a year ago, but she says finding the objects in circulation is no easy task.

Police taking suspect in connection with Green Vault heist taken into custody, walking across parking lot

Suspect in connection with Green Vault heist taken into custody on Nov. 17, 2020

Art Loss Register's database now lists around 700,000 stolen objects, including Nazi-looted art, jewelry, art, watches and other items. "We are actively looking for these items, especially in the art market," she told DW. "That means we check items that are offered in auction houses and at art and jewelry fairs." When it comes to jewelry and watches, the organization also works with pawnshop owners and second-hand and vintage jewelry dealers to review the objects that are offered to them. "But we don't look proactively and investigate like the police," she added.  "In this respect, we have the Dresden items in our database, but the police are more likely to find them than us, since such pieces will hardly reach the market in the foreseeable future."

Woman wearing white gloves holding precious golden ring

The value of a piece is not just material, but also historical

Gems and metals transformed?

The Dresden jewelry sets and pieces, mostly hailing from the 17th century, may have been dismantled and their individual parts sold. Yet, even this is not as easy to do as one might think, says Ebbinghaus. The gems could be dismantled and recut to disguise their shape, and the metals melted, but precious other material would be lost in the process, the art expert points out.

Then there's the issue of authenticity: "Usually, such stones are traded with certificates of authenticity, which also state where they come from. You can't just create something like that for a stone that has no history."

Insuring valuable art is difficult

Initially, German media said the monetary loss of the Dresden jewels was in the millions, but authorities refused to confirm a specific amount, citing that the items represent a cultural and historical loss over a purely financial one — especially due to difficulty of them being sold and not recognized. As such, insuring such items would have been difficult, explains art historian and insurance expert Stephan Zilkens.

When it comes to estimating the actual value of the items, there are a lot of "ifs" involved. "It's very difficult to say (the exact value) because it is antique jewelry. But I would guess that if you were to offer it at auction and not in a private sale, and if the jewelry could be sold without restriction, I would see an auction outcome of between 150 and 200 million euros ($177.4 million and 236.4 million)," he told DW.

Green Vault in Dresden's Royal Palace

Dresden's Green Vault

Insuring such pieces is a mighty endeavor for other reasons, too. "The initial step is risk assessment," Zilkens stresses. "You look at the building, all the security measures. You ask about the training level of the employees. How often does the security staff rehearse certain situations? How often is the alarm system checked? How often are fire inspections carried out? Do fire drills occur? All that, as well as the awareness of the dangers on the part of the museum management, flow into assessing the risks."

Artworks in many museums are not insured because premiums to cover such valuable items over a long period of time are considered too high and could exceed the potential losses from theft and damge.

Hope for recovery

Amelie Ebbinghaus, of the Art Loss Register, smiling

Amelie Ebbinghaus, of the Art Loss Register, is hopeful items will be discovered

Whether or not future visitors to the Green Vault — home to one of the largest collection of Baroque treasures in Europe — will have the chance to some day see all or part of the stolen goods depends on the investigators. Yet Ebbinghaus points out that precious historic jewels have been returned in the past. Swedish crown jewels, which were stolen from a Stockholm cathedral, reappeared in a garbage can. "Things like this happen again and again: the culprits realize that they cannot use or sell the objects and try to get rid of them so that they are not left with the best evidence against themselves. So I don't want to give up all hope for Dresden yet."

Quotes in this article were translated from German by Sarah Hucal. 

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