Thief steals 12th c. bishop’s ring; repents just in time

On Monday, June 24th, staff at the museum of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Bremen noticed there was a ring missing from a locked display case. It was a gold and amethyst bishop’s ring made in the 12th century which had been discovered in the cathedral crypt during archaeological excavations under the nave in the 1970s. Authorities were baffled by how the theft was accomplished. The display cases are custom-made, light-proof to preserve the artifacts and secured with an alarm system.

The ring’s monetary value is considerable but insignificant compared to its historical value. It was part of the episcopal regalia found in the graves of eight medieval bishops, a collection of rings, insignia of staff, silver chalices, mitres and vestments from the 11th to the 15th centuries discovered in remarkable condition. The vestments, among them a remarkable 13th century dalmatic (the richly decorated wide-sleeved tunic bishops wear over the robe) with an Arabic inscription on a trim above the seam which translates to “the mighty sultan,” were painstakingly conserved by historical textile specialists in Stockholm, and then the whole collection was put on display when the Cathedral Museum opened in 1987.

Concerned that the ring could be broken up and sold for the materials, the museum offered a 3,000 euro reward for its return, but it was absolution the thief sought. Just two days after the theft, a 47-year-old addict turned himself in for the theft. Remorse at having stolen from the finger of bishop who died almost 1,000 years ago drove him to contact a lawyer and confess to the authorities. He told them he had stolen the ring and sold it to a coin dealer in Bremen. If he told them how stole from a locked display case, that information has not been released.

Police served a search warrant on the coin dealer’s shop and found the ring. In two days it had gone from looking like this:

to looking like this:

Looks like that wave of remorse hit the thief just in time to stop this historical artifact from being sold as a scrap of gold and a light, cloudy amethyst. Obviously there was no plan to sell it intact on the antiquities market.

Police returned the ring to the Cathedral museum on Friday. Museum director Henrike Weyh says “The damage is great, but I think it can be repaired.” Experts will need to examine it further before determining how and when to attempt any restoration. The museum will spend the time wisely, by auditing its security systems.

16 thoughts on “Thief steals 12th c. bishop’s ring; repents just in time

  1. How can you repair that kind of damage? You could never achieve its true value after something like this.

    1. Gold is highly malleable, so it should be possible to bend it back into its original shape. There’s a lot that’s wrong with it, though, so it’s certainly going to be a painstaking process and there may well be parts of it that are never the same.

  2. The thief deserves a slap in the face. The dealer deserves to be punched in the face! Or the crime and punishment equivalents.

  3. The damage was done by the dealer, then? Let’s hope he can be snared in a “receiving stolen goods” net.

  4. I’m with the museum director. It looks like it can be fixed easily enough by a skilled jeweler. It’s not like the gold was melted and the whole ring has to be re-created; just a good bit of beating the gold back into it’s old shape again. Indeed, the crook repented “just in time.” :yes:

    However, it is a sad story. It’s a shame that such a unique ring has had such severe maltreatment. Hopefully something like this doesn’t happen at the museum again anytime soon.

    1. It’s all those dimples that concern me. Smoothing out those tiny dents will be a challenge, I suspect, perhaps more so than untwisting and reshaping the setting.

  5. There is no respect for historical artifacts anymore. I’m happy they found it in time but it makes me wonder how many artifacts are stolen get treated this way.

    1. I can’t think about that too much because it makes me sick. You’d think that thieves would have a vested interested in preserving their ill-gotten gain to maximize market value, but the sad truth is they are very often incredibly callous, even brutal, in their handling of stolen art and artifacts.

  6. A very sad story indeed! I really hope they will manage to restore the ring.

    Here in Sweden, the price of copper increases more and more, and the authorities has started to paint the roofs of churches with some kind of “DNA color”. Even graves are being attacked for their copper details (such as doves, hearts, crosses – you name it). It’s a shame that some places can’t be spared of these kind of actions.

    1. I’ve read about the DNA-like liquids that can be applied to church roofs etc. to identify stolen materials like metal and even stone. (It came up in this story about gravestones stolen from the Brontë Bell Chapel.) Unfortunately, you have to find the stolen things before you can test them for the signature. It’s sad that such a technology is necessary, but people have been stealing building materials since there building materials were invented. I fear there’s no long-term solution. 🙁

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