On the night of Friday, April 13th, thieves broke in through a window of the Musée Dobrée in Nantes, western France, and stole the gold reliquary made to contain the heart of one of my favorite historic personages, Anne of Brittany. The alarm did sound, but it was insufficient to stop the thieves.
The only woman ever to be queen of France two separate times (both entirely against her will), Anne struggled her whole life to keep Brittany independent and after her sadly premature death in 1514 at the age of 37 was a revered symbol of Brittany’s unique history and culture. The reliquary that contained her heart was created shortly after her death and is inscribed “In this little vessel of fine gold, pure and clean, rests a heart greater than any lady in the world ever had. Anne was her name, twice queen in France, Duchess of the Bretons, royal and sovereign.”
That dedication may have been part of the attraction for the thieves who may have been hoping to make big bucks by melting it, but the 6-inch reliquary and its lovely crown of nine fleurs-de-lis together total only 100 grams of gold. This is not the first time the gold reliquary and crown had a brush with the crucible. It was confiscated during the French Revolution and Anne’s heart thrown in the trash, a fate suffered by so many royal remains. The container was ordered melted down, but the order was never followed and the reliquary was kept intact in the Bibliothèque Nationale until 1819 when it was returned to Nantes. It has been part of the collection of the Musée Dobrée since the 1880s.
There were murmurs that Breton nationalists might have been behind the theft, but the authorities thought it more likely to have been the work of petty thieves. Councilors of the Loire-Atlantique department accordingly appealed in the press for the return of the precious artifact, pointing out that it has far more historical value than monetary.
A week later, Nantes police found the reliquary, a figurine and some gold coins, all stolen from the museum, at an undisclosed location near the museum.
Two men in their early twenties have been arrested and charged with “association with criminals” and “theft of cultural assets”. One is known to authorities. They both deny involvement. Two other suspects are at large.
According to Pierre Sennes, the Nantes prosecutor, the prized gold case “seems to be in good shape”.
The museum reopened to visitors last week, sans reliquary for the time being, but on Wednesday, May 2nd, the government of the Loire-Atlantique department announced that the Voyage in the Collections exhibition would be closed permanently because of the thefts and the damage inflicted on the display. It was supposed to run through September 30th.