A world-renowned Berlin museum is reeling from a brazen theft Monday of a 100-kilogram gold coin made in Canada, the biggest heist from a museum in the country since the Second World War.
It's unlikely the disappearance of the coin, nominally valued at $1-million, but actually worth closer to $5-million given the current price of gold, will pose any financial hardships for the Bode museum – the coin was insured, after all.
But curators say the theft delivered a crippling blow to the museum's sense of purpose as an institution preserving ancient and contemporary treasures for the enjoyment of future generations.
"It's an absolute catastrophe for the museum, an absolute catastrophe for us all," said Bernhard Weisser, the director of the Bode Museum's Numismatic Collection, one of the world's premier collections of modern and ancient coins.
"One of our central tasks is to hand over the objects that are entrusted to us to the next generation, in one piece if possible," Mr. Weisser said. "And that's why this theft is such a huge disaster."
The coin, embossed by the Royal Canadian Mint in 2007 and dubbed "Big Maple Leaf" for the relief on the reverse side of the coin, was taken from the Bode Museum on Berlin's iconic Museum Island in the early hours of Monday morning.
Museum directors say the heist is not comparable with any other Berlin has seen in the postwar era. "In order to find a similar scenario, you'd have to look back to historical times, to 1718," Mr. Weisser said.
The Big Maple Leaf came to the Bode Museum in 2010 when it was lent to the museum's coin collection, one of the largest in the world with over 540,000 items, as part of a special exhibition.
"It was a prominent object on loan back then," Mr. Weisser said. "The lender was subsequently persuaded to leave the coin with us on long-term loan for display in our permanent collection so that more visitors could see this piece."
The coin – bearing the portrait of Queen Elizabeth on the obverse side – was originally part of a private collection belonging to Boris Fuchsmann, Mr. Weisser confirmed.
A wealthy art collector, real-estate developer in both Germany and Ukraine, and also vice-president of the World Jewish Congress and president of the Jewish Confederation of the Ukraine, Mr. Fuchsmann had lent it to the museum in 2010 asking that his name be withheld.
After the theft, Mr. Fuchsmann had requested museum curators and investigators respect his privacy while the matter is sorted out, Mr. Weisser said. Multiple attempts to contact Mr. Fuchsmann went unanswered.
The coin is only one of six in the world produced by the Royal Canadian Mint and recognized by Guinness World Records for its massive size and unrivalled purity (999.99/1000 pure gold).
Five of the coins have since been sold, while the sixth remains in a vault in Ottawa, according to the Royal Canadian Mint.
Queen Elizabeth herself owns one of the coins, as does a trading house for precious metals in Spain, according to Berliner Zeitung, a German daily newspaper; the other two coins can be found in the United Arab Emirates.
The theft itself was meticulously organized and reminiscent of the plot of a Hollywood film.
Utilizing a 2 1/2-hour lull in the early hours of the morning when Berlin's public transport shuts down, the burglars walked along the empty light-rail tracks running adjacent to the museum. They proceeded to bridge the four-metre-wide gap between the museum and the tracks using a ladder, jimmying open a window on the museum's top floor.
Police later discovered the ladder discarded on the tracks after they were alerted to the break-in around 4 a.m., only 15 minutes after investigators believe the burglars made off with their loot.
Once inside, the burglars quickly made their way down to the museum's coin collection.
One of the largest in the world, the Bode Museum's collection is home to hundreds of thousands of priceless pieces ranging from seventh-century BC to the modern era. At the exhibition opening in 2006, the collection was hailed as one of the most comprehensive collections of European coinage anywhere.
Once they located the coin, the thieves shattered the bulletproof glass protecting it and exited the museum the way they entered, according to Winfred Wenzel, a spokesman for Berlin's Criminal Investigation Office.
Mr. Wenzel said he suspects the burglars followed the light-rail tracks for 200-300 metres to Berlin's Hackescher Markt, a popular market square, before lowering the coin down from the tracks using a pulley system.
Investigators believe that the entire act occurred within 25 minutes, between the hours of 3:20 a.m. and 3:45 am. A committee specializing in valuable art thefts and high-profile heists has been selected to spearhead the investigation. There are currently no suspects, although authorities suspect that the 100-kilogram coin may be melted down for easier sale and transport.
"It's definitely a case that involved a high amount of criminal energy," commented Mr. Weisser, the director of the exhibition.
Despite the theft, the museum kept normal business hours Tuesday. "It would have been the worst reaction to close the museum," Mr. Weisser said.