BERLIN • Police in Germany were on a manhunt yesterday for the thieves who snatched priceless 18th century jewellery from a state museum in Dresden in what the local media has called the biggest art heist of all time.
The authorities across eastern Germany have been put on alert after the thieves made off with treasures from the Green Vault at Dresden's Royal Palace - home to around 4,000 precious objects - in an astonishing smash-and-grab raid early on Monday morning.
Police have called for witnesses to step forward and released images of the stolen items, which included brilliant-cut diamonds that were taken from a collection of jewellery of 18th century Saxony ruler Augustus the Strong.
"We are talking here about items of inestimable art-historical and cultural-historical value," the director of Dresden's state art collections Marion Ackermann told reporters at a press conference.
"We cannot put an exact value on them because they are priceless," said Ms Ackermann, adding she was "shocked by the brutality of the break-in".
One estimate pegged the value of the stolen jewellery at around 1 billion euros (S$1.5 billion).
The thieves launched their brazen raid after having set off a fire at an electrical panel near the museum in the early hours of Monday, deactivating its alarm as well as street lighting, the police said.
Despite the power cut, a surveillance camera kept working and filmed two men breaking in.
Using an axe, they smashed a window and cut through a grille before making their way to a display case "in a targeted manner" and destroying it, the police said. They then fled in an Audi A6 and remain on the run.
Mr Dirk Syndram, director of the Green Vault itself, said the museum's jewellery sets amounted to "a kind of world heritage", totalling about 100 items.
He explained that the stolen sets were part of a 10-set collection which includes not only diamonds but also sapphires, rubies and emeralds.
Founded by Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony in 1723, the Green Vault is one of 12 museums which make up the famous Dresden State Art Collections.
One of the oldest museums in Europe, the Green Vault holds treasures including a 63.8cm figure of a Moor studded with emeralds and a 547.71 carat sapphire gifted by Czar Peter I of Russia.
The museum is now made up of two sections - a historic part and a new area.
Monday's break-in targeted the historic section, which contains around three-quarters of the museum's treasures and has a strict limit on the number of daily visitors.
Exhibits are arranged in nine rooms, including an ivory room, a silver gilt room and the central "Hall of Treasures".
One of its most valuable pieces, the green diamond, is currently on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it is a headline attraction in the temporary exhibition "Making Marvels: Science and Splendour at the Courts of Europe".
After the Royal Palace suffered severe damage in World War II, the Green Vault remained closed for decades before it was restored and re-opened in 2006.
Saxony's state premier said the heist went beyond the value of the artefacts stolen. "The treasures found in the Green Vault and the Dresden Royal Palace were hard-earned by the people of Saxony over many centuries," Mr Michael Kretschmer said.
"One cannot understand the history of our country, our state, without the Green Vault and Saxony's State Art Collections."
In 2010, the museum hosted a meeting between Chancellor Angela Merkel and then US President Barack Obama on his first state visit to Germany.
The museum was closed and sealed off by the police on Monday.
The theft is the second high-profile heist in Germany in recent years, after a 100kg, 24 karat giant gold coin was stolen from Berlin's Bode Museum in 2017.
Dresden police said they were in contact with colleagues in Berlin to examine "if there are any connections and if there are similar patterns in the crimes".
German Culture Minister Monika Gruetters said that protection of museums and cultural institutions was now of "the highest priority".
"The theft of items which make up our identity as a nation of culture strikes at our hearts," she said.