Priceless items stolen from palace in France

Thieves make off with 22 historic treasures inside Chinese museum in just seven minutes

Although it took the kings, queens, emperors and empresses of France centuries to accumulate the priceless masterpieces housed in the nearly 900-year-old Fontainebleau palace, it took thieves just seven minutes to seize a treasure trove from it early this month.

A total of 22 items - including a jewel-encrusted crown of gold, silver goblets and Chinese cloisonne statuettes - were stolen, according to France's Ministry of Culture.

The raid on the chateau in the early hours of March 1 was just the latest in a string of burglaries in the country by art thieves.

By the time the alarm went off shortly before 6am, and the moment night guards arrived just seven minutes later, two masked men seen on security camera footage had used chairs and other objects to smash three glass display cabinets in the chateau's Chinese museum - described by French officials as one of the most secure parts of the palace - and made off with their haul.

The thieves covered their tracks by dousing the crime scene with the foam from fire extinguishers.

Gone in a flash was the Phra Maha Mongkut Longya crown , a miniature of the crown of King Mongkut, one of several gifts presented to Napoleon III by a delegation from Thailand when it was still known as Siam in 1861.

Fashioned from gold, the crown was studded with 233 diamonds, 2,298 rubies, 46 emeralds and nine pearls.

Also stolen were a rare Tibetan mandala ornament, a Qianlong- era cloisonne Qilin statuette, a Japanese sword and porcelain vases.

"They were among the most beautiful pieces in the museum," said Mr Jean-Francois Hebert, who runs Fontainebleau, located about 50km south-east of Paris.

Museum officials say the thieves were very focused on what they were looking for and were very professional. One of the vases was perched high up on a ledge and the thieves used a telescopic arm to get it down.

The Fontainebleau became a royal palace in 1137 and was used by monarchs, including Louis VII and Empress Eugenie. Today, it is an Unesco World Heritage site and a popular tourist site. In January, the state launched a 115 million euro (S$172 million) restoration programme that will also involve enhancing security at its four museums.

The Fontainebleau is also famous for housing Chinese artefacts that were given to Napoleon by the commander of the forces that pillaged the Summer Palace in Beijing during the Opium Wars. The seized treasures are a source of unhappiness for the Chinese, who want them back.

The March 1 heist was the second time burglars had raided the Fontainebleau's Chinese museum in 20 years. Most of the objects seized in 1995 have been recovered, including two gem- encrusted coronation swords of King Jerome-Napoleon Bonaparte.

The Louvre in Paris, too, has been hit. In 1976, a diamond-studded sword used for the 1824 coronation of Charles X was stolen from it. The sword is still missing.

But while high-profile targets grab attention, thefts from churches and private residences, which lack sophisticated security systems, are more common and go unreported in the media.

Mr Stephane Gauffeny, head of the French Central Office Against the Traffic of Cultural Goods, said museum burglaries were the work of professionals. "We are talking about very specialised and organised crime here. There is no theft without a reseller."

But, overall, the number of art thefts in France has dropped in the past decade from more than 8,000 per year to less than a thousand annually at present.

In part it is the result of an extensive database of stolen goods created by the French art crime unit. As a result, stolen items can easily be recognised when they are offered for sale at an auction or to an antiques dealer anywhere in the world.

Because they are highly recognisable and well documented, the Fontainebleau objects are unlikely to appear on the market but they could be destined for a private collection. Some of the artefacts could also be broken up for their gems.

France, with its rich history, is a prime target for art thieves and heists on its museums have been romanticised in film as well.

One string of museum burglaries of recent times was the work of a specialist straight out of a crime caper movie, Frenchman Stephane Breitwieser. His first known theft occurred in 1995 from a castle in Switzerland. He also stole paintings in Baden-Baden in Germany and was arrested by Swiss police in Lucerne after another theft in 2001. He spent four years in jail there and then two in France. He was arrested again in France in 2011 and a hoard was found in his house. The ending of Breitwieser's story is far from romantic; he is still in prison.

marcel@m2media.fr