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MUSEUMS

Dresden museum burglary ‘probably biggest art theft since WWII’

Burglars made off with three priceless diamond sets from a state museum in Dresden, police and museum directors confirmed Monday, in what German media have described as the biggest art heist since World War Two.

Dresden museum burglary 'probably biggest art theft since WWII'
Two employees of the forensic team walk in front of the Residence Palace, home of the Green Vault, behind a barrier tape. Photo: DPA

The thieves broke into the Green Vault at Dresden's Royal Palace — home to around 4,000 precious objects made of ivory, gold, silver and jewels — after a power cut deactivated the alarm at dawn Monday.

READ ALSO: 'Up to a billion euros' of jewels and antiques stolen from Dresden museum

Museum directors had earlier feared much of three sets of diamond jewellery in the collection were snatched, but the loss turned out to be more limited than thought.

“The criminals didn't manage to take everything,” the director of Dresden's state art collections Marion Ackermann told public broadcaster ZDF on Monday evening.

Archive photo shows visitors inside of the Green Vault. Photo: DPA

Nevertheless, the stolen items are “of inestimable art-historical and cultural-historical value,” she said.

“We cannot put an exact value on them because they are priceless,” said Ackermann, adding she was “shocked by the brutality of the break-in.”

The thieves launched their brazen raid after having set off a fire at an electrical panel near the museum in the early hours of Monday, deactivating  its alarm as well as street lighting, police said.

Despite the power cut, a surveillance camera kept working and filmed two
men breaking in.

A video released by police showed one of the men, armed with a torch, using an axe to smash the display case.

“The whole act lasted only a few minutes,” said police in a statement.

The suspects then fled in an Audi A6 and remain on the run.

The apparent getaway car was found on fire later elsewhere in the city, said police, adding that the vehicle was being examined for clues.

Bild daily said the heist was “probably the biggest art theft since World
War Two”.

'Brutality'

At dawn on Monday, a fire had broken out at an electrical panel nearby, deactivating the museum's alarm as well as street lighting, police said, adding the investigations were ongoing to determine if there was a link to the robbery.

Despite the power cut, a surveillance camera kept working and filmed two men breaking in.

The thieves had smashed a window and cut through a fence before “approaching in a targeted manner a showcase, which they destroyed”, head of Dresden police Volker Lange said.

Using an axe, they smashed a window and cut through a grill before making their way to a display case “in a targeted manner” and destroying it, police said.

They then fled in an Audi A6 and remain on the run.

Ackermann said she was “shocked by the brutality of the break-in.”

Founded by Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony in 1723, the Green Vault is one of 12 museums which make up the famous Dresden State Art Collections.

One of the oldest museums in Europe, the Green Vault holds treasures including a 63.8-centimetre figure of a Moor studded with emeralds and a 547.71-carat sapphire gifted by Tsar Peter I of Russia.

The museum is now made up of two sections — a historic part and a new part.

And its historic section, which contains around three-quarters of the museum's treasures, was the one broken into on Monday.

With a strict limit on the number of daily visitors, entrance to the historic vault can only be reserved in advance.

Exhibits are arranged into nine rooms, including an ivory room, a silver gilt room and the central “Hall of Treasures”.

The 'White Silver Room' of the Green Vault, one of its nine rooms, in April. Photo: DPA

One of its most valuable pieces, the green diamond, is currently on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it is a headline attraction in the temporary exhibition “Making Marvels: Science and Splendor at the Courts of Europe”.

After the Royal Palace suffered severe damage in World War Two, the Green Vault remained closed for decades before it was restored and re-opened in 2006.

'Hard-earned' treasures'

For Saxony's state premier, the heist went beyond the value of the artefacts stolen.

“The treasures that are found in the Green Vault and the Dresden Royal  palace were hard-earned by the people of Saxony over many centuries,” Michael Kretschmer said.

“One cannot understand the history of our country, our state without the Green Vault and Saxony's State Art Collections.”

In 2010, the museum hosted a meeting between Chancellor Angela Merkel and  then president of the United States Barack Obama, on the latter's first state visit to Germany.

Monday's theft is the second high-profile heist in Germany in recent years,  after a 100-kilogramme, 24-carat giant gold coin was stolen from Berlin's Bode Museum in 2017.

Germany's culture minister Monika Gruetters said that protection of museums and cultural institutions was now of “the highest priority”.

“The theft of items which make up our identity as a nation of culture
strikes at our hearts,” she said.

By Kit Holden

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TRAVEL

Spain’s scrap cathedral: A monk’s 60-year self-build labour of faith and devotion

About 20 km east of Madrid, in the small town of Mejorada del Campo, stands a building that testifies to a former monk's lifetime of devotion to the Catholic faith. Paul Burge explores the Don Justo Cathedral, a religious edifice like no other.

Spain's scrap cathedral: A monk's 60-year self-build labour of faith and devotion
Don Justo's Cathedral in Mejorada del Campo, Madrid. Photos: Paul Burge

The structure has been built by 95-year-old former monk, Don Justo Gallego Martinez, using nothing but recycled, scavenged and donated materials giving the building chaotic, eclectic and perplexing, if not impressive style.


Don Justo pictured here at the age of 73 in August 1999. Archive photo: AFP

Visitors are free to explore, stepping over bags of cement, buckets and tools which are strewn across the two-floor monument. Downstairs there is a shrine to Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. Chillingly Don Justo has already also dug his own grave in the basement, where he will finally be laid to rest at the heart of his labour of faith and devotion.

Don Justo, as he is known, is 95 years old. The cathedral still needs at least ten years' work, years that its creator simply doesn’t have. Yet, such is his devotion that he still works on its construction every day, except on Sundays of course. You may catch a glimpse of him in his dusty blue overalls, white shirt and trademark red beret. But as the notices pinned to the wall advise, he is not open to speaking to members of the public.

What inspired Don Justo to build it?

After eight years in a Trappist order at Soria‘s Santa Maria de la Huerta monastery, Don Justo Gallego Martinez was ordered to leave, for fear of infecting the other monks with tuberculosis that he had been diagnosed with.

When his mother died in 1963 and bequeathed to him a large plot of land, including an olive grove in the center of the town, Gallego had an idea. If he would never again be allowed to enter a Catholic church as an ordained member of the faith, then he would express his devotion in a magnificent way. He would build his own church. In fact he would build his own Cathedral from scratch and make a shrine to “Our Lady of the Pillar”, or Nuestra Señora del Pilar.

The future of the cathedral

Set amongst monotonous 1960s apartment blocks, the frame of the huge structure, with its 50-meter-tall dome modeled on St. Peter’s in Rome, towers over the town of Mejorada del Campo. Like the cathedrals of old, it will not reach completion during Don Justo’s lifetime.

What will happen to the building after Gallego’s death remains an open question and its future is uncertain. No one has yet stepped up to take over the project, nor is his cathedral recognized by the Catholic Church. What is more, Don Justo never applied for planning permission to build the cathedral and the structure does not conform to any building regulations.

There are rumous that it could be pulled down after Don Justo passes away but there is a concerted campaign to preserve it.

How to get there

Catedral de Justo is located in Mejorada del Campo, a small town just 20km from Madrid. To get there, there are two public buses from the centre: Avenida de América (line 282) and Conde de Casal (line 341). 

The bus stop in Mejorada del Campo is called Calle de Arquitecto Antoni Gaudí and is located right in front of the cathedral. However, going by car is a better option, so you can continue your day-trip to Alcalá de Heneres, Cervantes’ hometown, which is about half an hour away.

Listen to the When in Spain podcast episode for an audio tour around the cathedral with Paul Burge. HERE

Paul Burge is a former BBC journalist who moved from Oxford, UK to Madrid in 2013 where he now hosts the highly entertaining When in Spain a weekly podcast show about life in Madrid and beyond.  Follow Paul's observations and advice about living in Spain on FacebookInstagram, Twitter and his new YouTube channel.

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