In 1979, a notorious art heist left East Germany in shock when five old Masters paintings were stolen from Schloss Friedenstein in Gotha. Police interrogated over a thousand people but the case remained unsolved. After 40 years, these paintings have finally been returned to Germany.
The five recovered artworks were displayed at the press conference
A portrait of a moustachioed man by Frans Hals
On 14 December 1979, thieves climbed over a downpipe and broke through the window to the third floor of the Schloss Friedenstein at around 2am. They took away five old master paintings including a portrait of a moustachioed man by Frans Hals, a portrait of St. Catherine by Hans Holbein the Elder, a country landscape by the studio of Jan Brueghel the Elder, a portrait of an old man by Ferdinand Bol and a copy of a self-portrait by Anthony van Dyck. All the paintings date from the mid-16th century to the 17th century, with an insurance value today of €4m.
It was the biggest art heist in East Germany. Police interrogated more than 1,000 people who lived and worked near the scene of the crime, in addition to monitoring some 250 individuals with connections to the Castle Museum. They believed it was a premeditated robbery where the thieves were obviously targeting these five paintings. They didn’t take the most valuable ones nor focus on what hung closest to disappear as quickly as possible. Instead, they stole four oil paintings in the Dutch Hall and went all the way to another exhibition hall for the last one. It was very likely that these thieves were stealing these paintings for an art collector who wished to put them into his/her private collection.
A portrait of St. Catherine by Hans Holbein the Elder
Police also had another assumption that the burglary was aided by a mole who worked in the palace. The perpetrators must have known that in the museum a new alarm system had been installed, but should only be put into operation three days later. So they took advantage of the security loophole and stole the paintings.
It was not the first time that someone wanted to steal paintings from the castle in Gotha. The first three attempts, which had been made within a few months, had failed. The third one on 11 October 1978 was almost successful, but was noticed by a janitor who notified the police to arrest six perpetrators.
A country landscape by the studio of Jan Brueghel the Elder
Five stolen paintings were believed to have been smuggled to West Germany and crossed the most fortified border in the world at the time. They were never recovered and the case went cold until 2018. In 2018, Knut Kreuch, the mayor of Gotha, started getting phone calls and soon received colour photographs of the five paintings from a lawyer, who asked for more than €5m for the paintings. Kreuch had only seen black and white photos of these paintings before.
He negotiated with the seller and requested the paintings to be brought to the research laboratory of the National Museum in Berlin to confirm their authenticity. Upon arriving at the laboratory, a van driver unloaded five bubble-wrapped packages. Yet, he didn’t know that the whole process was observed by undercover Berlin police. The paintings were later confirmed to be originals after comparison with pre-1979 photographs revealed identical cracks in the varnish.
A portrait of an old man by Ferdinand Bol
“We do not give money to thieves,” said Martin Hoernes, an art historian at the Ernst von Siemens Art Foundation who aided Kreuch in the affair, at a press conference. The Siemens Art Foundation covered the legal costs, the research and the transport, which together came to less than €50,000.
The five paintings are confirmed to be originals
A copy of a self-portrait by Anthony van Dyck
Now the paintings have reunited with Schloss Friedenstein. They will be restored in preparation for a comprehensive exhibition about the theft in 2021. Yet, criminal investigations continue. Berlin’s Federal Crime Office is investigating on suspicion of blackmail. The heist is still unsolved as the identity of the original thieves is still unknown.