Even in the era of cybercrime, methods more familiar to black-and-white heist movies never fall out of fashion.
On Monday morning, thieves in Berlin used a rope, a foldout ladder and a wheelbarrow to steal the world’s second-largest gold coin from a museum, all within earshot of Angela Merkel’s inner-city apartment.
Bearing the head of Queen Elizabeth II, the “Big Maple Leaf” coin is one of only five one-off, pure gold commemorative pieces issued by the Royal Canadian Mint in 2007. Weighing 100kg, with a diameter of 53cm and a thickness of 3cm, its value is estimated at almost €3.8m (£3.3m).
On loan to the Bode Museum from the private collection of a German property investor, the coin used to be the heaviest in the world until it was superseded by the “Australian Kangaroo One Tonne” gold coin in 2011.
Since December 2010, the Big Maple Leaf has been displayed in a bulletproof cabinet at the museum on Berlin’s museum island, located in the part of the Spree river running through the Mitte district.
Posters on the outside of the neo-baroque building currently advertise a show called Muse macht Moneten (roughly: “Be creative and get rich”), which may well have served as inspiration for Monday’s spectacular heist.
According to the Berlin police, at least two thieves entered the museum via a third-floor window at the rear of the 113-year-old building between 3.20am and 3.45am.
They accessed the window by propping up a ladder on the elevated tracks of the S1 railway between Hackescher Markt and Friedrichstrasse stations, making use of a three-hour window between the last train of the Sunday service at 1.21am and the first for Monday at 4.13am.
The window led the thieves into the security guards’ changing room, from where they walked about 100 metres to a corner of the building, smashed through the bulletproof cabinet with a heavy-duty tool, possibly a sledgehammer, and made their way back via the same route with the heavy gold coin in tow – all without being noticed by security personnel or activating the alarm system.
Having left the museum, the thieves used a wheelbarrow to push their loot 100 metres down the tracks and across a bridge over the river to nearby Monbijou Park, where they dropped and most likely damaged the coin while abseiling from the elevated tracks to the ground.
A getaway car was used to escape from the site. Police cannot yet confirm whether a burnt-out Mercedes found in a multi-storey carpark in the Steglitz district on Tuesday evening is related to the theft.
A member of the Bode Museum’s security staff raised alarm at 4am on Monday after finding the smashed, empty cabinet.
The museum will not confirm the number of security guards on duty on the night of the theft.
Police said it was hard to imagine anyone executing a heist so smoothly without inside information: “Some elements of this story raise questions, and we are currently asking those questions,” the spokesperson Winfried Wenzel said.
Even though Angela Merkel’s apartment lies only a stone’s throw from where the thieves entered the museum, police said they had decided against interviewing the chancellor, her husband or their security guards since their view would have been obscured by a railway bridge.
While CCTV cameras inside the museum may have been disabled along with the building’s alarm system, police said they were analysing footage from security cameras at nearby stations and municipal buildings.
The chances of the Giant Maple Leaf ever returning to the Bode Museum are slim. The coin’s material value is likely to be higher than any price a collector would pay for the piece. “An art historian would certainly have picked something different,” said Wenzel.
It is therefore feasible that the thieves have already melted down the coin, a challenge which police say is “hardly insurmountable in technical and logistical terms”.
Professional goldsmiths use ovens with a temperature of at least 1,063C to melt gold, but amateurs can potentially do the same with a humble propane torch.