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Theft of German treasures joins ranks of brazen museum heists — from the ‘Mona Lisa’ to a solid gold toilet

Police investigators walk Monday in front of the palace that houses the Green Vault in Dresden. (Sebastian Kahnert/AP)
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German investigators are still scrambling for leads in the theft of “priceless” 18th-century state treasures from a museum in Dresden this week.

As The Washington Post’s Rick Noack reported: “At least two thieves broke into the Green Vault — one of Germany’s most well-known historic museums — breaking down shatterproof glass and specifically targeting a display case holding three sets of jewels dating from the era of Augustus the Strong, a Saxon leader during the 18th century who amassed vast amounts of treasures.”

Heist at museum holding 18th-century state treasures of ‘priceless cultural significance’ shocks Germany

Thieves stole up to 100 pieces of 18th-century jewelry from the Green Vault museum at Dresden’s Royal Palace on Nov. 25. (Video: Saxony Police via Storyful)

The art world is awash in pilfered goods, from the displays in Britain of historical and cultural artifacts looted from the country’s former colonies to the paintings and statues stolen by the Nazis and still circulating in museums and auctions. In other cases, international art markets are reaping the benefits of — and publics are losing their connection to — prized items smuggled from conflict zones, such as Iraq’s looted national museum.

But there’s also something about museum heists — and their glamorized portrayal in Hollywood — that taps into a wider fascination with the workings of the world’s riches.

Here’s a look at some other international museum thefts that have shocked, shaped and surprised the art world.

The theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911

Someone stole the famed Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci on Aug. 21, 1911, from the Louvre Museum in Paris. Only as Terence McArdle of The Post reported, the painting wasn’t actually that famous at the time of the heist.

“The theft changed how the world saw the Mona Lisa,” he wrote.

As McArdle explained: “Da Vinci painted his masterpiece in 1507, but it was only in the 19th century that critics begin to see the work as the pinnacle of Renaissance Florentine painting. In 1911, the Mona Lisa was not yet instantly recognizable. In fact, when The Washington Post first reported the theft and appraised the painting’s value at $5 million, the paper mistakenly ran a picture of the Monna Vanna, a nude charcoal sketch that some believe da Vinci made in preparation to paint the Mona Lisa.”

The Mona Lisa remained missing for two years, during which the allure of the mysterious lady only grew. Investigators finally apprehended the culprit: Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian national and painter with a penchant for petty crimes. Peruggia, who reportedly appeared deranged in court, said he had stolen the painting for nationalist reasons: He wanted to return the Mona Lisa to Italy, where she’d been painted and first brought to life.

Christmas Day downer at Mexico’s Museum of Anthropology in 1985

On Christmas Day 1985, thieves stole 140 Mayan, Aztec and other Mexican Indian artifacts from Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology, in what was the largest theft of pre-Columbian art objects.

The event shocked Mexicans.

“They robbed a piece of our history. How can we put a price on it?” Felipe Solis, a museum curator, told reporters at the time.

But it also embarrassed the museum workers. Just eight security guards were reportedly on duty at the time, and there was no alarm system.

“The guards were reportedly [drunk] or sleeping during the burglary,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “Cookies and glasses with liquor residue were found in the museum.”

The objects were fortunately found three years later.

As The Post reported at the time of the heist: “The museum said in a statement that it believed the thieves were professionals who planned to try to sell the artifacts abroad. But several U.S. experts said the thieves had taken such well-known objects that they would find it difficult to unload them.”

Heist of ‘The Scream’ in 1994 and 2004

There surely was something to scream about in February 1994 when two men climbed a ladder, smashed a window and stole “The Scream,” an 1893 painting by Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, from Oslo’s National Gallery. It all went down on the opening day of the Winter Olympics, which Norway was hosting.

The thieves even left a note: “Thanks for the poor security.”

As William Drozdiak reported for The Post at the time, “The brazen theft, which transpired in less than a minute, was recorded by video cameras while half the nation’s police force was mobilized to protect dignitaries for the Olympic opening ceremony in Lillehammer, 115 miles north of the capital.”

Three months later, investigators located the undamaged masterpiece.

The second heist, however, brought screams of terror from visitors to the Munch Museum in Oslo, where “The Scream” was on display in August 2004.

In that heist, two armed gunmen burst into the museum in the middle of the day, threatened a guard with a handgun and, while shouting in Norwegian, stole “The Scream” as well as another painting, “Madonna.” The duo then escaped in a black Audi A6 driven by a third man, The Post reported at the time.

The paintings were recovered two years later.

‘Spider man’ strikes Paris’ Modern Art Museum in 2010

In February 2017, a Paris criminal court sentenced Vjeran Tomic — nicknamed “Spider man” for his notorious agility — to eight years in prison for stealing five masterpieces, including works by Picasso and Matisse, from the city’s Modern Art Museum in May 2010.

At the time of the heist, Tomic had already established a buyer: antiques dealer Jean Michel Corvez, who was sentenced to seven years in jail for helping to orchestrate the crime.

In a 2019 New Yorker profile, Tomic described passing the museum by chance and realizing that one window had no camera coverage and was the same make as a window he’d previously, relatively easily, disassembled. Testing out the museum on a tour, he noticed that some of the motion detectors were broken.

“The discovery delighted Tomic, who has described robbery as, ultimately, an act of imagination,” wrote Jake Halpern of The New Yorker. “He wrote to me, ‘I sometimes think for a while, then as if by magic — but without the magic wand — I have the formula to overcome an obstacle.’ ”

The 2017 theft of $3.9 million golden coin the size of a manhole

Thieves in Germany steal gold coin worth $1 million (Video: Reuters)

It may seem improbable to steal a gargantuan golden coin — 1.2 inches thick and 20.9 inches in diameter, or about the size of a manhole cover — from a guarded museum. But with a ladder, a wheelbarrow and allegedly a man on the inside, thieves did just that in a nighttime heist in March 2017.

The coin, made by the Royal Canadian Mint and adorned with the head of Queen Elizabeth II, was housed at Berlin’s Bode Museum.

At the time, Guinness World Records named it as the world’s largest coin. Made of 99.999 percent gold, it was valued at $3.9 million in U.S. dollars in 2017.

“Why did the Royal Canadian Mint make the world’s purest and largest gold bullion coin?” the mint’s website asks. “Because we can.”

The same laissez-faire attitude hasn’t worked as well for the alleged culprits.

“Four men are currently on trial in the case — three accused of the break-in and a fourth, a security guard at the museum, on allegations he helped with their plan,” the Associated Press reported. “They deny the charges.”

An 18-karat gold toilet remains on the run

A gold toilet was reported stolen Sept. 14 from Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, England. Video posted to social media shows what it looks like as it flushes. (Video: Tim Hughes, The Oxford Times via Storyful)

Sometimes the theft of a piece of art captures the public’s eye for less refined reasons.

Such was perhaps the case when an 18-karat golden toilet — valued at $6 million and said to have been used more than 100,000 times in recent years — was stolen from the museum at Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill, in September.

“The toilet, designed by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, is called ‘America.’ Critics have described it both as a reflection of American obsession with luxury and consumerism and as a depiction of the American Dream,” The Post’s Siobhán O’Grady reported. “It was previously on display in a public bathroom on the fifth-floor of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where museum-goers queued for hours for the chance to pop a squat — and staffers diligently cleaned it at 15-minute intervals.”

Before the toilet’s travels to Britain, the Guggenheim first offered the golden-sanitary-throne-of-sorts to President Trump in 2018. The offer came after the president had asked to borrow a Vincent Van Gogh painting, a request the museum denied.

Police have yet to recover the toilet. This month, they arrested a sixth suspect.

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