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.

Rijksmuseum acquires rare restituted silver salt cellars

The Rijksmuseum has acquired four silver and gilded salt cellars by 17th century Amsterdam silversmith Johannes Lutma after they were returned to the heirs of German Jewish collector Emma Budge.

They are two matched pairs, one pair made in 1639, the other in 1643. The design features a cupid sitting on a dolphin with the marine mammal’s tail draped over his shoulders. The cupid supports a shell-like bowl in his hand. Very few examples of Lutma’s oeuvre have survived, and these salt cellars are masterpieces showcasing his command of classical sculptural form and the auricular or lobate style that dominated the ornamental arts of Northern Europe in the first half of the 17th century. The other Lutma pieces in the Rijksmuseum collection are medallions and reliefs.

Johannes Lutma was born in 1587 and as a teenager was apprenticed under Baroque silversmith Paul van Vianen before opening his own shop in Amsterdam in 1621. He became the city’s premier silversmith, a significant rating seeing as 17th century Amsterdam had more than 300 silver and gold workshops. It was second only to Paris in the size of its silver and goldsmith community. London had fewer than half that number. Poets and writers sang his praises as an artist and craftsman. Rembrandt etched a portrait of him in 1656.

Despite his fame during his lifetime, few of Lutma’s silver pieces have survived the centuries. Before World War II, the salt cellars belonged to Emma and Henry Budge, a wealthy couple from Hamburg who built a large, fine art collection. Emma outlived Henry by almost a decade, and by the time of her death in 1937, Nazis were forcing Jews to sell their belongings with all profits going to the party rather than the heirs. The four salt cellars were bought in the forced sale by a German dealer. They re-emerged at auction in 1960 where they were bought by the City of Amsterdam and the Netherlands. Two went on display at the Rijksmuseum, the other two at the Amsterdam Museum.

In 2013, Amsterdam Museum researchers discovered their salt cellars had a very dubious ownership history. That triggered an investigation by the Rijksmuseum as well, and its researchers also flagged the provenance as suspicious. In 2014, restitution committees from several countries found the Emma Budge estate auction to have been a forced sale and a wide variety of works of art were returned to the Budge heirs by some of the world’s biggest museums. The Netherlands’ Restitution Committee determined the salt cellars were subject to claim in 2018, and in 2022, the committee advised that they should be returned. On May 12, 2023, the salt cellars were restituted to the heirs of Emma Budge. Also on May 12, 2023, the heirs sold all four salt cellars to the Rijksmuseum.

Starting September 6th, the salt cellars will go on display at the Rijksmuseum in a dedicated exhibition that contextualizes the history of the objects as well as the history of Emma Budge as a philanthropist and art collector. Also part of the exhibition will be a pair of portraits of Lutma and his second wife Sara de Bie painted by Jacob Adriaensz.

National Museum of Denmark returns glorious 1600s feather cape to Brazil

The National Museum of Denmark has donated its most exceptional 17th century Brazilian feather cape to the new National Museum of Brazil to help rebuild the museum’s patrimony after its entire ethnographic collection of 20 million irreplaceable artifacts was destroyed in a fire in 2018. Interestingly, the iconic scarlet ibis feather cape was not among them, as the few surviving examples known were all in European museums.

Made by hand-tying scarlet ibis and macaw feathers to a woven cotton net, the cape dates to the early 1600s and was crafted by the Tupinambá people of Brazil. The Tupinambá were the first indigenous people the Portuguese encountered when they reached eastern Brazil in 1500. European chroniclers record that the Tupinambá were adept feather workers and used local bird feathers in jewelry, sashes, headbands, cloaks, even as tattoo needles. Used in important rituals and ceremonies, the scarlet ibis cloaks were revered for their beauty and religious significance.

The Tupinambá were described as taking painstaking care of their feathered items, handling them with kid gloves to prevent deterioration. They were not so gingerly handled by the Portuguese, Spanish and by the functionaries of the Dutch West India Company which occupied parts of northeast Brazil between 1624 and 1654. The striking feathered cloaks made their way into the collections of the European monarchs and other wealthy collectors, but few were able to survive the centuries.

Today only 11 Tupinambá feather capes are known to survive, several of which are also owned by the National Museum of Denmark. The recently-donated cloak is the best preserved of all of them. Compare it to the cloak at the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan to see how much denser the feather coverage is and how pristine each individual feather still looks. It even retains the small hood made of yellow macaw feathers, long since lost from the Ambrosiana example.

The Tupinambá population plummeted after their encounter with European pathogens, but the tradition of feather work never stopped. Today there are around 4,600 recognized Tupinambá in Brazil and their leaders have been working with officials from the National Museum in Rio to negotiate the return of the sacred feather cape from Copenhagen.

Upon receiving the letter from Dr. Rane Willerslev, Director of the National Museum of Denmark, chief Tupinambá Babau said: “For us, the donation of the Tupinambá mantle means the return of an ancestor! It is also the return of hope that never dies: a concrete answer for those who believe in the strength of their people and continue to fight for their culture, secrets and religion. We continue to create other mantles. But now, by a generous donation, our greatest relic will return to Brazil! The bird that symbolizes this mantle, the ibis, which no longer exists in our region, is born and grows gray. When eating crabs, their feathers turn red. It is a sign of transformation that occurs in everything, human beings and their culture. Many thanks to the National Museum of Brazil and Denmark for allowing us to hear the sacred words of our ancestors again. The Cloak is back!”

The Museu Nacional is in the process of rebuilding its ethnographic archives and physical collections in close collaboration with the country’s indigenous peoples and museums outside Brazil. The National Museum of Denmark and a number of other European museums are already supporting the reconstruction by creating digital catalogues that will make Brazilian artefacts and archive material located in European museums available. […]

“The feather cape has had a prominent place in our collection, but it has greater significance for the Brazilian population as a cultural symbol, as a material heritage of the Tupinambá and as evidence of Brazilian-European historical, colonial encounters. In Brazil, it will be available to the indigenous peoples who have a strong historical and cultural connection to it,” says Christian Sune Pedersen, head of research.

The cape will remain in Copenhagen long enough to be photographed in high resolution and analyzed to determine its age, origin and exact composition. Meanwhile, the National Museum of Brazil will focus on creating an ideal setting for the long-term conservation and display of the cape.

Kallerup Hoard exhibited in new local museum

The hoard of unique Bronze Age artifacts discovered in Kallerup, outside of Thisted, Denmark, in 2019 is heading back home in a landmark exhibition for the opening of the new Thisted Museum.

The Kallerup Hoard is a grouping of four bronze figurines of exceptional craftsmanship and quality discovered during an archaeological survey at a site slated for development. The bronze figure of a double-faced man wearing a horned helmet on each head was first discovered in a field by a metal detectorist working with archaeologists from the Museum Thy. The top of a large ceremonial axe, also bronze, emerged next. A foot in diameter with spiral ends, the axe was removed in a soil block for excavation in laboratory conditions. A CT scan of the block revealed two more double figurines with heads of horses and serpentine bodies.

Thorough excavation and conservation of the grouping took months. The cleaned-up Kallerup Hoard made its debut at Denmark’s National Museum in January 2020. The exhibition emphasized the motif of dualism in the religious art of Bronze Age Denmark, as seen in the double-headed horned helmeted man and the serpentine double horses.

The hoard is owned by the National Museum, but it will be on long-term loan to the Thisted Museum. The loan will have to be renewed every five years, but the expectation is that the renewals will repeat indefinitely so that the hoard can remain within a stone’s throw of its original context. The new museum is much larger than its predecessor with more than 17,000 square feet of exhibition space over three buildings. Seven permanent exhibitions will showcase the area’s history and prehistory going back to the Stone Age with archaeological materials found in the area.

The grand opening is on June 24th, and the Kallerup Hoard will be sharing space with other spectacular local finds, like the Ydby runestone, a gold six-ring bracelet, amber jewelry and grave goods from an Iron Age warrior’s burial, including a wooden pot spoon that is the certainly best-preserved and perhaps the only Iron Age pot spoon found in Denmark. (The other possibilities are too damaged to be conclusively identified as pot spoons.)

15th c. altar panel returned to museum 44 years after theft

A 15th century altar panel stolen on November 13, 1979, from the York Art Gallery has been returned after turning up at auction. It was Duke’s Auctions’ experts who spotted the possible connection to the long-lost York panel and pulled it from the auction. They asked the Art Loss Register to look into its history, and they concluded that it was indeed the panel stolen 44 years ago.

Duke’s had come to auction off the panel after examining the contents of a house in the Southampton area, but the vendor knew nothing of the panel’s background, having inherited it from her father. Schwinge believes the original collector most likely bought it at a market or an auction house without knowing its provenance.

“We told the daughter that the painting was stolen 50 years ago and she was quite happy that it was simply returned to the museum,” Schwinge said. “No money changed hands at all. We are so grateful to her for being so straightforward about it.

The gold-ground double-sided painting of the Nuremberg School was one of a pair donated to the museum by Francis Dennis Lycett Green in 1957. He had acquired them from a London art gallery in 1956 and donated them to the York museum. He was its most important benefactor, having given the York Art Gallery his entire painting collection of 150 pieces in 1955.

The front on the altarpiece depicts three saint bishops against a gold background. The figure on the left is St. Nicholas. He is holding a book with three gold balls, representing Santa’s throwing gold into the windows of three impoverished women for their dowries. In the middle is St. James of Tarentaise. On the right is St. Germanus of Paris, holding the key given to him by St. Peter in a prophetic dream.

On the verso side is St. Lawrence holding a gridiron (representing his martyrdom by roasting) on the left. In the middle is St. Sebald, patron saint of Nuremberg, holding a model of the church that bears his name. On the right side is the Archangel Gabriel holding a furled banner with part of his greeting to the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation (Ave Maria Gratia Plena).

The panel’s pair, which is still in the York Art Gallery, depicts Dominican saints. Against the gold background are St. Catherine of Alexandria on the left, St. Barbara in the middle and St. Dominic on the right. On the other side are St. Catherine of Siena on the left, St. Ursula in the middle and St. Thomas Aquinas on the right.

There is no ownership information about the panels before 1930 when they first appeared at auction in London. German scholars attribute the panels to the workshop of Hans Pleydenwurff, one of the pre-eminent artists working in Nuremberg in the late 15th century. The York panels began as the wings of a larger altarpiece, perhaps the Catherine of Siena altarpiece made by Pleydenwurff’s workshop for the Dominican convent in Nuremberg.

The panel is now undergoing examination and conservation at the York Art Gallery. When the work is complete, the prodigal panel will be reunited on display with its sibling.