Thief of Ruby Slippers thought they were real rubies

The perpetrator of the daring 2005 smash-and-grab theft of a pair of Ruby Sippers from the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, turns out to be surprisingly clueless. Terry Martin managed to steal the iconic shoes, one of only four surviving pairs of the slippers worn by Judy Garland playing Dorothy in 1939 production of The Wizard of Oz, in less than a minute and keep them under wraps for 13 years, even as authorities and fans never stopped searching for them. Despite this appearance of competence, according to a filing made by his lawyer before his sentencing Monday, Terry Martin thought the Ruby Slippers were festooned with actual rubies rather than dyed glass beads and sequins.

It beggars belief, but apparently Mr. Martin, who was 57 years old at the time of the theft and was born nine years after the movie’s initial theatrical release, figured they had to be real rubies to justify the million dollars they were insured for. His cunning plan was to pry the rubies off and sell them piecemeal so nobody would be able to trace their origin. He only realized his mistake when a jewel fence he took one of the beads to broke the news that it was made of glass.

Martin had dealt in stolen jewels and had spent time in prison for burglary, his lawyer said. But he had been out of prison for 10 years at the time of the theft and was living quietly in Grand Rapids, a small city 80 miles northwest of Duluth, when an “old mob associate” contacted him about “a job,” his lawyer wrote.

Martin was initially reluctant to get involved, DeKrey wrote. But “old Terry” beat out “new Terry,” and he gave in to the temptation for “one last score,” his lawyer said. […]

Martin used a hammer to smash two window panes in a door of the Judy Garland Museum and broke open a plexiglass case holding the shoes, leaving behind a single red sequin and no fingerprints, court documents said.

But less than two days later, when the unnamed person who traded in stolen jewels told Martin that the gems were worthless replicas, “Terry angrily decided to simply cut his losses and move on,” DeKrey wrote. “He gave the slippers to the associate who had recruited him for the job and told the man that he never wanted to see them again.”

He was serious about that. Martin was only busted in 2018 when other parties tried to blackmail the insurance company for hundreds of thousands of dollars in return for the shoes. The FBI recovered the slippers in a sting operation, but the blackmailers, who were probably organized crime figures, and the mobster who originally recruited Martin back in 2005 were not arrested. Martin refused to implicate anyone else. He just pled guilty to the theft and is facing his fate alone.

His sentence was gentle. Martin has COPD and is in the last months of his life. He was sentenced to time served, a year of probation and to pay the museum $23,000 in restitution for the theft.

Stolen Picasso and Chagall paintings found in Antwerp basement

Paintings by Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall stolen from a private collection in Tel Aviv 14 years ago have been found in a basement in Antwerp, Belgium. The two paintings, Tête (1971) by Picasso and L’homme en prière (1970) by Chagall, then valued at $900,000, were taken from the villa of the Herzikovich family in February 2010. The thieves disabled the house’s sophisticated alarm system and broke into the safe to steal $680,000 worth of jewelry. They made off with the jewelry and the Picasso and Chagall pieces. There were other important artworks in the house which were not touched.

The case went cold until late 2022, when police in Namur, Belgium, were informed that a 68-year-old Israeli watch dealer residing in Namur was offering the two paintings for sale. The suspect, currently identified by authorities only as Daniel Z, was placed under surveillance in the attempt to confirm the information in the tipoff. Investigators were able to establish that he was indeed in possession of the stolen works.

On January 10, 2024, police raided Daniel Z’s home and detained him and his wife. They found large amounts of cash in the house, but not the paintings. The home of one of his relatives was also searched with nothing found. The suspect soon confessed to police that he had the Picasso and Chagall in his possession, but refused to tell them where they were hidden. Two days later, police searched another location: a building in Antwerp that once housed a sketchy art dealership connected to stolen paintings. There, in the cellar, the paintings were found inside two wooden boxes with screwed down lids. They were in undamaged condition in their original frames.

Daniel Z was arrested and charged with receiving stolen goods.

Lost pieces of Golden Tree of Lucignano found

Pieces of the Golden Tree of Lucignano, a monumental reliquary that is a masterpiece of medieval goldsmithing and widely considered one of the greatest masterpieces of Italian goldsmithing of any era, have been rediscovered 109 years after they were stolen. The pieces were found in a cave in the Arezzo area of central Tuscany after a tip from an elderly man. The region of Tuscany has now funded a full restoration of the Golden Tree to reintegrate the recovered elements into the original.

The Golden Tree is 8’10” high and more than three feet wide at its widest point. It was crafted of gilded copper, silver and enamel, and its branches decorated with corals, rock crystals and miniature illuminations on parchment. It was inspired by the Lignum Vitae (“wood of life”), a treatise written by Saint Bonaventure in the 1260s to aid Franciscans in devoting themselves to Christ by contemplating his life, passion and glorification. The structure of the tree served as a mnemonic device for monks to pursue the works of Christ in their daily meditation. Like Christ “nailed to a tree,” the Tree of Life ultimately bore the fruit of salvation. The lignum vitae concept took root (pun intended) in Franciscan communities and among lay readers, and it became a popular motif in medieval art.

It was created for the church of Saint Francis in Lucignano in two distinct phases, first in 1350 by an unknown goldsmith which recent studies suggest was from Arezzo, then expanded and completed in 1471 by the pre-eminent goldsmith of 15th century Siena, Gabriello D’Antonio, famed as the creator of the gilded silver reliquary containing the right arm of John the Baptist.

Medieval aesthetics privileged symbolic expressions of the divine. Precious materials — gold, silver, gemstones — were seen as expressions of God’s hand in creation. Their beauty mirrored the supreme beauty of God; the way they reflected light mirrored God’s radiance; they were closer to the divine, pure and incorruptible, unlike humble materials. Vivid colors and the shine of metal were considered lit by the incorporeal light of God. That’s why the gold-painted decorations in Bibles and liturgical books are called illuminations.

Ecclesiastic tradition held that objects of religious veneration like reliquaries and the Communion chalice and plate should be made of precious metals as metaphors for the divine. From the Carmina Ecclesiastica by the 7th century English abbot Aldhelm of Malmesbury:

The gold chalice covered with gems glitters, just as heaven set with burning stars glows, and the broad paten fashioned from silver matches: those which carry the divine remedies of our life.
(Song 3, Lines 72-5)

The Golden Tree took the metaphors of divinity in the precious materials even further. The entire tree was a metaphor for Christ. Its roots represented his birth, the trunk his Passion and the branches his resurrection. Its tripartite design was also symbolic of the Trinity. At the top of the tree is a depiction of Christ crucified on a branching tree that is a small version of the whole reliquary. Above the cross is a figure of a pelican in piety, also symbolic of Christ’s sacrifice.

It was Lucignano’s greatest treasure, and for centuries residents took their vows of marriage in front of it. In 1914, the Golden Tree was stolen and broken into pieces by the thieves for ease of transport and, presumably, resale, since the huge and iconic reliquary was obviously highly recognizable when intact. The pieces were cached in various hiding spots in the country around Sarteano, near Siena. A number of them were found and recovered between 1927 and 1929, but several of the most important elements — the crucifix, the pelican, a whole branch, four circular medallions, five silver plaques, three miniatures, several sprigs of coral — were not among them.

The recovered elements were reintegrated into the Golden Tree. The Royal Superintendence of Florence entrusted the complex restoration to the Opificio delle Pietre Dure. More than 100 fragments had to be reattached, and replicas of the parts that were still missing were made based on old photographs taken in the 19th century. The illuminated parchment miniatures were unreproducible and were replaced with empty parchment rounds. The restoration was completed in 1933 and the reconstituted Golden Tree has been on display ever since.

After they were tipped off to the possible location of pieces of the Golden Tree earlier this year, the Carabinieri Art Squad recovered:

  • Five plaques of gilded copper and silver, engraved and enameled, that were originally mounted on the back of branch medallions. They depict saints and angels. Much of the enamel is lost, unfortunately, with only a few traces remaining.
  • One parchment illuminated with portrait of a prophet, about half of the portrait remaining.
  • One polished rock crystal with traces of gold and pigment that once covered a miniature. Its convex shape enlarged the portrait, functioning like a magnifying glass.
  • 16 figures of saints in silver foil made in the 17th century that decorated the base.

The Opificio delle Pietre Dure has again been tasked with the challenge of reintegrating the newly-rediscovered pieces. The Golden Tree will be dismantled in batches so that the main part of the reliquary can remain on display throughout the process. If all goes well, Opificio restorers hope the work will be completed by the end of next spring.

Suspects in Celtic gold heist arrested; melted gold lumps found

Four suspects in the shocking theft of a Celtic gold coin hoard from the Celtic-Roman Museum in Manching, Bavaria, have been arrested. The bad news is one of the suspects was carrying 18 gold lumps in a plastic bag at the time of his arrest. Micro-X-ray fluorescence analysis of the composition of the nuggets found they match that of the Celtic coins. Each lump amounts to four of the coins. So yes, these rats stole a historically priceless hoard of 483 Celtic coins from 100 B.C. and melted at least 70 of them down. There is no good news, but some small consolation can be found in authorities’ hope that most of the coins are still out there, hidden by the thieves to minimize chance of arousing suspicion while the heat was still on the investigation.

The estimated market value of the coins if they had been sold commercially was approximately $1.8 million. The gold value alone of the 3.7 kilos (8 lbs) of coins at the time of the heist was around $278,000. Both figures pale in comparison to the archaeological significance of the hoard, of course. Discovered in 1999 at the site of a Celtic settlement in what is now Manching, the hoard had been buried in a sack under the foundations of an ancient building. Analysis of the coins found the source of the metal was not local; it was Bohemian river gold. The hoard was the largest find of Celtic gold in the 20th century. It went on display at the museum in 2006 and was its signature attraction.

The theft was meticulously planned and executed in just nine minutes from break-in to getaway. At 1:17 AM on November 22, 2022, fiber optic lines were cut at the telecom hub nearest the museum, knocking out internet and phone service to the museum (and 13,000 other customers). With the museum’s security system disabled, thieves broke in through an emergency exit at 1:26 AM, busted the bulletproof safety glass encasing the hoard and were out the door with the loot at 1:33 AM.

Investigators from the Bavarian State Criminal Police Office (BLKA) searched the area around the museum thoroughly, recovering two crowbars, a pair of pruning shears, a wire cutter and a radio antenna. DNA traces on the tools of the crime connected the theft to eight similar ones in Germany and Austria. Months of dogged pursuit traced the suspects to northern Germany and the Ingolstadt public prosecutor’s office issued arrest warrants for them. Searches of 28 apartments, businesses, garden plots, a boathouse and vehicles found a panoply of burglary equipment.

One of the members of the gang is a telecommunications engineer, hence the fiber optic angle. The other three are an accountant, a shop manager and a demolition firm employee. Evidence ties the four suspects to 11 other thefts targeting supermarkets, a casino, gas stations and an ATM, but this was the first to target cultural heritage. Looks like they developed a taste for it, because investigators found that vehicles rented by the suspects this year had stopped near museums in Frankfurt, Idar-Oberstein, Trier and Pforzheim.

The suspects have not given over any information since their arrest. Authorities are searching for any surviving coins in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania where three of the four were arrested. The search will target other areas that have come up in this extensive investigation as well.

Italy returns looted funerary stele to Turkey

Italian authorities have returned a 2nd century A.D. funerary stele looted from the ancient city of Zeugma to Turkey. The stele, deemed by archaeologists to be of extraordinary historical and artistic significance, was given to officials of the Turkish embassy in Rome at the end of April, and this week it was welcomed home in a ceremony at the Gaziantep Zeugma Mosaic Museum.

The stele is carved from a solid block of limestone of a type found in the Gaziantep region. It was the primary stone used for statues and headstones in Roman-era Zeugma. It is a rectangle with a deeply inset arch. Inside the arched niche is the bust of a woman dressed in the traditional chiton of a Roman bride, her right hand over heart holding her veil, her left hand holding a spindle. An inscription in Greek on the base reads “Satornila, the wife who loves her husband, goodbye.”

It was seized from a house in Florence in an investigation by the Carabinieri for the Protection of Cultural Heritage of Venice last year. The suspect had purchased it in France then filed a fraudulent request for a temporary entry certificate, claiming the stele had originated in Italy. Had the certificate been granted, he would have been able to export the artifact without being bound by national cultural heritage protections for five years. Before they would grant the license, the Florence Export Office asked him for proof of legal ownership prior to 1909 (the year Italy’s protection of archaeological assets law came into effect) and legal documents proving its original removal from Italy was legitimate.

The suspect hastily withdrew his application, but his shadiness was in the cross-hairs now. The Carabinieri undertook to reconstruct the real transit history of the stele, with the aid of Turkey’s Culture Ministry, Zeugma archaeologists, Interpol and the Italian Culture Ministry’s database of illicitly stolen cultural assets. Meticulous research into the iconography, style, size, materials and soil traces found on the stele confirmed that it was from Zeugma, not Italy.

The stele is an outstanding example of artistic style of Zeugma in the Antonine Period, and archaeologists believe its inscription will shed new light on the history of the ancient city, especially the local families that adopted Latin names after becoming Roman citizens.