The Green Vault heist

As you might have heard in the news, there was a robbery in the famous Green Vault in Dresden on the 25 November 2019. The Green Vault, or Grünes Gewölbe as we Germans say, is a museum hosting the largest collection of treasures in Europe.


Augustus the Strong
Augustus the Strong

The Green Vault dates back to 1547, as Elector Moritz of Saxony decided to add a new wing to Dresden’s Residenzschloss, the Royal Palace of the Electors. A set of rooms, with thick walls and barred windows, in this new wing was lavishly decorated and received molded plaster ceilings supported by columns. The bases and capitals of those columns were painted Malachite green, which made people call this place the Green Vault. It was officially called the Geheime Verwahrung, which means as much as privy repository, and hosted important documents and precious items not meant to be displayed.

It was used as such until Augustus the Strong, who was Elector of Saxony and King of Poland from 1697 to 1706 and then again from 1709 to 1733, transformed the rooms into a public exhibition place between 1723 and 1729. Augustus ordered the creation of new rooms, decorated in the German Baroque style, to display his private collection and also that of his predecessors. A suite of splendidly decorated rooms allowed the visitor to behold bronze statues, precious objects of gold, silver, amber, ivory, porcelain as well as all sorts of jewellery.

Augustus exhibition remained pretty much unchanged over the next two centuries and is one of the first public museums. During World War II, the precious items were taken to the Fortress of Königstein. Dresden was bombed in four raids between 13 and 15 February 1945, during which three of the nine Green Vault rooms were destroyed along with most of the Residenzschloss. The collection, consisting of over 4000 pieces, was confiscated by the Red Army and transported to the Soviet Union in 1945, where it remained until 1958 as the Soviet Union returned the items to the German Democratic Republic.

Since the Residenzschloss was in ruins, the collection was brought to the Albertinum, a modern art museum in the city, and a part of the collection was displayed there. The collection moved from the Albertinum back to the restored Residenzschloss in the early 2000s and today, there are two Green Vaults. The New Green Vault, focusing on art in a modern style of display, is located on the first floor of the Residenzschloss and hosts 1100 pieces. The Historic Green Vault, featuring around 3000 pieces, is located on the ground-floor and has been reconstructed as it was at the time of Augustus death in 1733. (Which is absolutely amazing, if you ask me.)

The Dresden Green

The collection is invaluable and consists of so many great pieces, it is impossible to name them all. Among the items displayed in the New Green Vault are ivory micro-carvings, crystals and Venetian glass, email miniatures, goblets of precious metals, jewels and the famous Dresden Green, a 41 carat green diamond on a hat ornament. There is also a coffee set made of gold, silver, email, ivory and decorated with over 5000 diamonds and the “Der Thron des Großmoguls Aureng-Zeb“, which is a extremely elaborate and detailed table top, decorated with 5,223 diamonds, 189 rubies, 175 emeralds, a sapphire and 53 pearls.

The Historic Green Vault hosts, among many other things, the Luther-Cabinet, with art of the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, featuring the drinking bowl of Ivan the Terrible, a cup and signet ring of Martin Luther, a pocket-size Bible of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. Then there is the Amber Cabinet, full of amber items like bowls, jewel caskets, goblets, amber decorated cutlery and puttos. The Ivory room, full with ivory sculptures. The Silver Cabinet, with silver figurines. The Silver-Gilt Cabinet hosts works of gold from the from the 16th to the 18th century. The highlights there are probably the “Mohr mit Smaragdstufe“, a richly decorated sculpture dating to 1724, the “Obeliscus Augustalis“, a elaborately crafted cartouche with an oval image of Augustus the Strong, and the so-called “Juwelen-Garnituren“.

Which brings us to the actual topic of the heist, because items from those “Juwelen-Garnituren” were stolen. The term means several sets of jewellery, which were to that point the largest complete sets of royal jewellery in Europe. The oldest of those items were made for Augustus the Strong and worn by him.

(Please keep in mind that I write this one day after the heist, thus many things are still unclear/unknown to the public. If you read this in a couple of weeks time, facts might have changed by then. The sources I use is the local news outlet MDR and the Police of Saxony.)

On the morning of 25 November 2019, a robbery took place in the historic Green Vault and it is very much Ocean’s Eleven. Just before 5 o’clock in the morning, a electrical box in the catacombs under the Augustusbrücke was on fire and this fire cut the power-supply to the streetlamps in the area. The police is currently not sure, if this had to do with the heist, but as this electrical box was burning and the streets dark, two individuals cut through the bars of a window and gained access to the Historic Green Vault this way. The two individuals entered the room hosting the jewellery sets and headed for one of the display areas, smashed the security glass with a axe, grabbed what they could, returned to the window, slipped out and headed off in a car. This car was shortly later found aflame in a underground-garage with all doors open and the items used in the robbery were found in the car. Currently, the police talks of two individuals plus x, which means it is unclear how many people were involved apart from those two.

The robbery only took moments, you can see the security footage here, and by the time the police was there, the individuals were gone. It takes about 5 minutes from the Green Vault to reach the nearest motorway, so the thieves could have vanished in every direction and since they appear to have changed cars, the police was looking for a different kind of car at that moment. The police was informed at once by the security of the Green Vault, which had orders not to interfere with the robbery for their own safety. According to the police, it is very likely that this heist was done with the help of an insider.

The 10 stolen items. Image: Police of Saxony.

In first, there were reports of up to 90 items stolen. By now the Police of Saxony made a statement that “just” 10 items were stolen, thanks to the fact that the items were sewn to their display and thus difficult to remove.

The items stolen are: A brilliant palmette made in 1746; a hat ornament made of silver, gold and diamonds, the two largest having 24,98 and 16,5 carats; a sun-shaped aigrette for the hair; a epaulette featuring 236 diamonds; a pearl necklace of 177 pearls; a ribbon shaped brooch with 662 brilliants once owned by Queen Amalie Auguste von Bayern; a rapier featuring 779 diamonds; a moon-shaped brooch of the late 18th century; a breast-star of the Polish White Eagle Order; as well as a medal of the Polish White Eagle Order with 225 diamonds.

Since the items are very well known and documented, they are in their current state pretty much unsellable. It is thus feared, that they will be taken apart, the precious metals molten and the stones re-polished to make them unrecognisable and therefore able to be sold. This is the worst case scenario. The worth of these items can not be judged. They are all unique invaluable pieces from a art-historic point of view and losing them forever would be truly devastating.

A other possibility that the museum might be blackmailed, since the historic worth of the items is so much more compared to the worth of the materials used, which is the best scenario at the moment. Or the items could vanish in a private collection for many years to come and then be maybe at some point discovered… or not. There is speculation that the heist might have been arranged for such a purpose….

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