October 23, 2012

The Art Theft of Cellini's Saliera: Security Scrutiny in a high profile theft

by Catherine Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor

The Kunstahl Rotterdam is not alone.  Almost a decade ago, another famous art heist in Europe captured headlines and museum officials faced charges of inadequate security. Jeffrey Fleishman and Sonya Yee reported for The Los Angeles Times that on May 11, 2003, Benvenuto Cellini's saliera (saltcellar), a rare gold-plated sculpture, was stolen from Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum.

The Cellini Saliera heist set off a three-year "nightmare" for the museum as the Austrian press accused it of "lax security", Richard Bernstein reported for The New York Times ("For Stolen Saltcellar, a Cell Phone is Golden"). 

In January 2006, Robert Mang, a 50-year-old "specialist in security alarms" lead police to "a wooded area 50 miles outside of Vienna where he had buried the legendary 10 inch-high sculpture inside a lead box" (Bernstein):

In September 2006, the BBC reported that Mang was "jailed for four years" for the theft of the Cellini Saliera which Mang called a "prank".

A few days ago, Charley Hill, former Scotland Yard art investigator and now a private investigator, had this to say about the thief:

Robert Mang was almost a teetotaler who lived in Zwettel, 50 miles north of Vienna.  He was a security alarm engineer who, from another source, at his trial was so attractive (like some latter day Rudolph Valentino) to the women of Vienna that some of them sent him their knickers and house keys. He served a short sentence. The guard who turned off the alarm system when it was activated had recently married a Serbian lady. I thought her relatives might be interesting for the police to look at. The cops did a good job catching Mang.


Fascinating comment by Charles Hill. Just a few weeks before Mang was apprehended Mr. Hill most convincingly stated that a Serb gang was behind this theft. The guard did NOT switch off the alarm but did reset it. Resetting takes about one minute, and the idea was - because of the numerous false alarms - that should the alarm return after resetting something really might be wrong. The burglary and theft however took just 56 seconds, so after resetting the alarm did not sound again. Immediately after this burglary, and theft I pleaded that the director of the Kunsthistorische Museum ought to be fired because of negligence. It was outrageous that the museum's € 30 million highlight could be stolen that easily. Hill protested that I went after the director. The director left the museum one year later. The same is happening now after the burglary and theft in the Kunsthal, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. The burglary, and theft of seven paintings, value about € 100 million, took just two minutes, but the director of the Kunsthal claims that the security is 'state of the art'. Another incompetent director who should leave this position ASAP.