July 29, 2013

Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht, The Netherlands: "Bling bling" museum theft and religious art

by Jacobiene Kuijpers, ARCA 2013 Student

On 29 January of 2013 at half past two in the afternoon, two young men dressed in black and wearing balaclavas drove on a moped in the city centre of Utrecht in the Netherlands. They stopped in front of the Museum Catharijneconvent, the national museum of religious art housed in a former cloister. One of the men walked towards a glass side door of the museum then smashed the door several times with a hammer until the security glass broke. The flight of stairs towards the ‘treasure room’ was right in front of him and he ran down them, focusing his attention immediately on a gold plated silver beam-monstrance adorned with numerous diamond elements and other precious stones insured at €250,000.[1] The glass case in which the vitrine was placed was not as stable as the thief thought. When trying to smash it with his hammer, he knocked over the entire base. As the entire vitrine including the object hit the floor, the glass shattered and the thief gathered the pieces of the object, putting parts of it in his too small bag and the rest under his arm and ran back up. The thief appeared clumsy, dropping the piece and picking it back up while crouching trough the glass door he smashed on his way in. [2] His conspirator was waiting for him on the same spot so he ran to the moped to take off. Before he could leave the courtyard, museum guards caught up with him and after a short wrestle they managed to confiscate the bag, which held some pieces of the monstrance. The thieves drove away with the rest, it took them less then two minutes to steal (part of) the monstrance.

The police managed to find the moped in the neighbourhood, the thieves must have had a get-away car either parked in the area or picking them up, suggesting the involvement of a third person. The moped turned out to have been stolen in Germany. During the police investigation it became known that the pieces of the monstrance in the bag that was saved by the museum guards were the most valuable, it held all of the precious stones. This was presented in Dutch media on 13 February, together with the CCTV footage. A police spokesman mentioned that the object held by the thieves was as good as worthless on the open market. The piece was incomplete and the value of the gold and silver after melting the object would hardly weigh up to the costs. The insurance company of the museum installed a reward for the tip that would lead to the return of the monstrance. That same evening the police managed to arrest three men of 21, 25 and 35 years old. They were seen placing the monstrance wrapped in plastic in a car, the police followed the car and halted it on the highway towards Belgium. The monstrance was returned to the museum, some of the adornments were missing and it was damaged. After restoration it was back on display in the museum in May. The prosecution of the three men is still in process.

Looking at circumstantial events learns that there was a theft of another monstrance from a Dutch museum a year earlier, which could have served as an example to the thieves in this case.[3] Last year, the thieves in the Museum Gouda got away with their monstrance in 30 seconds and were not prosecuted, suggesting it is an easy and fast way to make money, motivating the Utrecht thieves and giving them a suitable target, the monstrance. After the Museum Gouda theft, the Dutch media mentioned that the monstrance is worth much more than any thief can make by selling the raw materials. This statement claims that the thieves were possibly going to melt the monstrance and sell the gold and precious stones, it provides a motive for thieves.  Harvesting the raw materials of the monstrance would be easy to do for the thieves, and it is not hard or dangerous for them to cash in on, as opposed to trying to sell the object. The media may have instructed thieves on how to do an ‘easy’ crime and should perhaps have been more careful with the information they disclose and the possible consequences.

[1] A detailed description of the object and the ‘schatkamer’; the room in which the piece was exhibited, can be found on the website of the Museum Catharijne Convent.
[2] The review of the theft is made based on newspaper articles and the above cited description on the museum website as well as the footage of the security cameras.