Burglars target Nazi memorabilia in museums across Europe

Broken glass and ransacked shelves are seen in the Eyewitness War Museum in Beek, the Netherlands, following a burglary on Aug 4, 2020. PHOTO: EYEWITNESS MUSEUM VIA THE NEW YORK TIMES
The aftermath of an Aug 4 burglary at the Eyewitness War Museum in Beek, Netherlands. PHOTO: NYTIMES

LONDON (NYTIMES) - It was 2am on a Tuesday when the raid began at the Eyewitness War Museum in the town of Beek, the Netherlands.

First, a group of thieves teased open the museum's front gate.

"You can see it on our cameras," said Mr Wim Seelen, the museum's director.

But then, they disappeared.

An hour later, the burglars returned in several estate cars. In a scene reminiscent of a heist movie, they spread out tyres across the highway that runs past the museum to create a roadblock and parked a fake police car beside it, so it looked official.

Over the next five minutes, the group - maybe 12 people in total, Mr Seelen said - battered down the museum's front door, broke display cabinets and took what they had come for: nine mannequins wearing rare Nazi uniforms. The outfits included one worn by Hitler's personal chef and another by a high-ranking member of the SS.

The burglars took other items of World War II memorabilia, Mr Seelen said, with the haul worth about US$1.5 million (S$2 million) in total.

"It was done with military precision," he added.

The museum's alarms went off, but the police - held up by the roadblock - arrived too late to catch anyone.

The Overloon War Museum in Overloon, Netherlands. PHOTO: NYTIMES

"Of course, I'm terrified it will happen again," Mr Seelen said.

The Aug 4 raid in Beek was only the most dramatic in a string of recent burglaries from World War II museums in Europe and the burglaries are spreading panic among similar institutions.

Since March, four museums in the Netherlands and Denmark have been broken into and memorabilia, including Nazi uniforms, has been stolen.

The most recent raid took place on Nov 3, when burglars broke through a window at the German Museum North Schleswig, in southern Denmark, and made off with three mannequins in Nazi outfits.

Administrators from all four of the burglarised institutions said they believed the thieves were acting on the orders of collectors looking to get their hands on rare Nazi memorabilia.

But they were uncertain whether the burglaries were carried out by the same group or were simply part of a worrying trend.

Officers of the Dutch and Danish police said in telephone interviews that they had no suspects in any of the burglaries, but were looking for patterns.

Mr Richard Bronswijk of the Dutch police's art crime unit said his team had two theories: that wealthy collectors in Russia or Eastern Europe had ordered the burglaries, or that they were undertaken by supporters of the far right.

A diorama at the Eyewitness Museum in Beek, Netherlands, featuring mannequins in military uniforms and 1940s costumes. PHOTO: NYTIMES

The second theory was less likely, he added, "as those guys don't have much money and like to buy replicas". The raid at the Eyewitness War Museum was incredibly professional, he said.

"They were really like Ocean's Twelve," he added, referring to the 2004 Hollywood heist movie.

The Netherlands and Denmark, which were both occupied by Nazi Germany during World War II, have numerous small, private and state-funded museums devoted to the history of that conflict.

Many have glass display cases filled with memorabilia, including weapons, and dioramas depicting scenes from the war, with mannequins in original uniforms. There are around 100 in the Netherlands alone, Mr Seelen estimated.

Many Dutch museums have taken rare items off display or improved their security systems in response to the recent burglaries. The Arnhem War Museum has installed anti-tank barriers at its entrance, "so people can't come with a big truck", said Ms Marina Moens, one of its owners.

Concern is growing in Denmark too.

"I'm sure every museum's taking precautions," said Mr Henrik Skov Kristensen, director of the Froslev Camp Museum. "But if someone's determined to do something like this, they will."

Mr Kristensen's museum, set in a former prison camp in Denmark, was broken into in March. The burglars also took SS uniforms. After finding no leads, Danish police closed the investigation in April, he said.

Mr Giel van Wassenhove, a Belgian dealer in military memorabilia, said the value of Nazi items had been rising for years.

"The stuff that's being stolen is all very desirable and the prices are going crazy," he said. "Everyone knows if it's got a Nazi emblem on it, its price is high."

An SS uniform could fetch anywhere from US$3,500 to US$35,000, he said.

In the two Dutch burglaries, thieves stole a special rifle, the "FG 42", which was used by Nazi paratroopers, Mr van Wassenhove said.

A decade ago, he said, that gun was worth about US$60,000. Today, it is worth more than US$175,000.

But he played down suggestions that a boom in far-right collectors was driving the soaring prices. Most buyers were investors simply chasing a profit, he said.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.