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Thieves steal ancient gold coins in German museum heist
The theft played out like the plot of a movie. The artifacts could be worth $1.7 million if sold to dealers — or $260,000 if melted down.

by Christopher F. Schuetze

BERLIN.- When museum staff arrived to work at the Celtic and Roman Museum in the little town of Manching in Bavaria on Tuesday morning, they realized that thieves had stolen the most valuable item in the building: a cache of 483 ancient gold coins.

The coins, which are believed to date back to roughly 100 years before the birth of Jesus, look like little buttons and, together with a chunk of gold that was apparently the source of the coins, weigh nearly 9 pounds. One official said the artifacts could be worth $1.7 million.

“It’s a complete catastrophe,” said Herbert Nerb, the town’s mayor. “It’s like in a bad movie.”

In a town known for its rich archaeological history, the missing coins represent far more than just money.

“The loss of the Celtic treasure is a disaster — the gold coins as witnesses of our history are irreplaceable,” said Markus Blume, Bavaria’s state minister for science and art.

On Wednesday, police confirmed that thieves cut a cable in a telecommunications room in the town, disabling some 1,300 local connections. A technician alerted the police in nearby Ingolstadt at 4 a.m. Tuesday that the systems had been knocked out, but the police were worried that banks were the target, so they sent patrol cars to watch the banks and not the museum. The police only found out about the break-in once museum staff reported it just before 10 a.m.

In 2019, thieves broke into the famed Green Vault museum in Dresden, Germany, getting away with more than 100 million euros worth of jewels ($104 million at today’s exchange rate). In 2017, thieves stole a giant Canadian gold coin worth several million euros from the Bode museum in Berlin, rolled it out in a wheelbarrow and used the elevated city railway to get away. In both of those cases, the thieves were eventually caught but the loot was never recovered.

Those heists took place in well-known city museums, which in the wake of the break-ins were revealed to have shocking security flaws. The Celtic and Roman Museum, in contrast, is a small archaeological museum built around the coins and other artifacts unearthed during continuing digs in the region.

Still, on Wednesday, investigators confirmed that they were in touch with colleagues in both Dresden and Berlin to compare notes. “We don’t know if these are connected or not,” said Guido Limmer, one of the state police officers in charge of the investigation.

The stolen coins were first found in 1999 during a dig at an ancient Celtic settlement known as the Oppidum of Manching. The trove is still considered the biggest cache of ancient Celtic gold discovered in the 20th century, and it remains a mystery why so much gold was stored in one spot and how it ended up at the site.

First explored in the 19th century and then studied more systematically starting in the middle of the 20th century, the site is especially scientifically valuable because of the sheer number of artifacts that have been found and the breadth of physical evidence about the ancient city’s layout and structure that has been unearthed over the years, said Walter Irlinger, who works for the state’s monument preservation body.

The prospect of historical treasures still hidden below ground has attracted more than just archaeologists: In May, unknown criminals jumped over a fence and dug 140 holes in a dig site, apparently looking for valuables. Police do not know whether there is any connection between that episode and this week’s heist.

Rupert Gebhard, the director of the Bavarian State Archaeological Collection in Munich, said Wednesday that the coins and the chunk of gold could be worth roughly 1.6 million euros if they could be sold to dealers. The gold used in making the coins is worth an estimated 250,000 euros, Gebhard said, noting that if the coins were melted down, it would be the “worst” outcome.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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