Coins of the Celtic treasure are on display at the local Celtic and Roman museum in Manching, Germany, May 31, 2006. A senior official said Wednesday that organized crime groups were likely behind the theft of a huge hoard of ancient gold coins stolen from a museum in southern Germany this week. (Frank Maechler, dpa via AP)
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BERLIN — Thieves who broke into a southern German museum and stole hundreds of ancient gold coins got in and out in nine minutes without raising the alarm, officials said Wednesday, in further evidence that the theft was the work of organized criminals.
Police have launched an international hunt for the thieves and their loot, consisting of 483 Celtic coins and a lump of unwrought gold, which were discovered during an archaeological dig near the present-day town of Manching in 1999.
Guido Limmer, the deputy head of Bavaria’s state criminal police, described how wires at 01:17 (0017 GMT) Tuesday was cut off at a telecommunications hub about a kilometer (less than a mile) from the Celtic and Roman Museum in Manchning, knocking out communications networks in the region.
Security systems at the museum recorded a door being opened at 1:26 a.m. and then the thieves leaving again at 1:35 a.m., Limmer said. It was during those nine minutes that the culprits must have smashed open a display cabinet and scooped out the treasure.
Limmer said there were “parallels” between the robbery in Manching and theft of priceless jewels in Dresden and a large gold coin in Berlin in the last few years. Both have been blamed a Berlin-based crime family.
“Whether there is a link, we cannot say,” he added. “Only this much: We are in contact with colleagues to investigate all possible angles.”
Bavaria’s minister of science and art, Markus Blume, said evidence pointed to the work of professionals.
“Obviously, you don’t just march into a museum and take this treasure with you,” he told public broadcaster BR. “It is highly secured and as such there is a suspicion that we are rather dealing with an organized crime case.”
Obviously, you don’t just march into a museum and take this treasure with you. … It is highly secured and as such there is a suspicion that we are rather dealing with a case of organized crime.
-Bavaria’s Minister of Science and Art, Markus Blume
However, officials acknowledged that there was no guard at the museum overnight.
An alarm system was considered to provide sufficient security, said Rupert Gebhard, who heads the Bavarian state archaeological collection in Munich.
Gebhard said the treasure was of great value both to the local community of Manching and to archaeologists across Europe.
The bowl-shaped coins, dating back to around 100 BC, were made from Bohemian river gold and show how the Celtic settlement at Manching had connections across Europe, he said.
Gebhard estimated the value of the treasure at around 1.6 million euros ($1.65 million).
“The archaeologists hope that the coins remain in their original state and will reappear at some point,” he said, adding that they are well documented and would be difficult to sell.
“The worst option, the meltdown, would mean a total loss for us,” he said, noting that the material value of the gold itself would amount to only about 250,000 euros at current market prices.
Gebhard said the size of the trove suggested it could have been “a tribal chieftain’s war chest.” It was found inside a sack buried under building foundations and was the largest discovery of its kind made during regular archaeological excavations in Germany in the 20th century.
Limmer, the deputy police chief, said Interpol and Europol had already been alerted to the theft of the coins and that a 20-strong special investigation unit, codenamed ‘Oppidum’ after the Latin term for a Celtic settlement, had been set up to track down the culprits. .