Thieves steal $2.3m worth of ancient gold coins in German museum heist

The empty showcase where a hoard of Celtic coins used to be on display, which were stolen from the Celtic and Roman museum. PHOTO: AFP
The Celtic and Roman Museum is a small archaeological museum built around the coins. PHOTO: AFP

BERLIN – When museum staff arrived to work at the Celtic and Roman Museum in the little town of Manching in Bavaria on Tuesday morning, they realised that thieves had stolen the most valuable item in the building: a cache of 483 ancient gold coins.

The coins, believed to date back to roughly 100 years before the birth of Jesus, look like little buttons and, together with a chunk of gold that was apparently the source of the coins, weigh nearly 4kg. One official said the artefacts could be worth US$1.7 million (S$2.34 million).

In a town known for its rich archaeological history, the missing coins represent far more than just money.

“The loss of the Celtic treasure is a disaster – the gold coins as witnesses of our history are irreplaceable,” said Mr Markus Blume, Bavaria’s state minister for science and art.

On Wednesday, police confirmed that thieves cut a cable in a telecommunications room in the town, disabling some 1,300 local connections. A technician alerted the police at 4am on Tuesday that the systems had been knocked out. But the police were worried that banks were the target, so they sent patrol cars to watch the banks and not the museum.

The police only found out about the break-in when museum staff reported it just before 10am.

In 2019, thieves broke into the famed Green Vault museum in Dresden, Germany, getting away with more than 100 million euros (S$143 million) worth of jewels. In 2017, thieves stole a giant Canadian gold coin worth several million euros from the Bode museum in Berlin, rolled it out in a wheelbarrow and used the elevated city railway to get away.

In both of those cases, the thieves were eventually caught, but the loot was never recovered.

Those heists took place in well-known city museums, which in the wake of the break-ins were revealed to have shocking security flaws.

The Celtic and Roman Museum, in contrast, is a small archaeological museum built around the coins and other artefacts unearthed during continuing digs in the region.

Policemen fix a barrier tape in the exhibition room of the Celtic and Roman museum in Manching, Germany, on Nov 23, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

The stolen coins were first found in 1999 during a dig at an ancient Celtic settlement known as the Oppidum of Manching. The trove is still considered the biggest cache of ancient Celtic gold discovered in the 20th century, and it remains a mystery why so much gold was stored in one spot and how it ended up at the site.

Mr Rupert Gebhard, director of the Bavarian State Archaeological Collection in Munich, said the coins and the chunk of gold could be worth roughly 1.6 million euros if they could be sold to dealers.

The gold used in making the coins is worth an estimated 250,000 euros, Mr Gebhard said, noting that if the coins were melted down, it would be the worst outcome. NYTIMES

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