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The robbery of the century

In 1986, the immensely valuable treasure of Loreto was stolen from the City Museum of Klausen: The chronicle of the most sensational art theft of that time in Italy and the return of the treasure to Klausen in stages.

A spring Wednesday night in Klausen, sometime between 2 and 4 a.m., May 27, 1986 is thus only a few hours old. The people of Klausen are in deep sleep. In Frags, the southern district of Klausen where the Capuchin Church and the City Museum are located, the lights go out. The power failure is not noticed by anyone. But when museum keeper Josef Haniger enters the City museum at half past nine in the morning, he imagines himself in a nightmare: the majority of the unique treasure of Loreto is no longer in the display cases. More than 50 works of art such as paintings from the Rubens School, gold and silver chalices, Chinese porcelain from the Ming Dynasty - stolen.

"The perpetrators knew their way around, they even knew about circumstances that were certainly familiar to only two or three people," says Heinrich Gasser, mayor of Klausen at the time. For example, the thieves knew how to cut off the power supply in the district around the museum. They knew about the invisible steel door in the museum, hidden behind a wall. They punched a hole in the wall and welded a circular opening in the door behind it. Just big enough to get into the museum's showroom. "They had deactivated the alarm system with a nail beforehand," says Heinrich Gasser, "The burglars were very careful, they didn't smash any display cases, and a painting that didn't fit through the opening they simply left next to it." A multitude of inconsistencies. A lot of inside knowledge that the thieves have. Speculation is flourishing. The most spectacular art heist of that period in Italy must have been carried out by specialists, commissioned by - who? Perhaps the drug mafia?
The most spectacular art heist of that time in Italy!
9 months later, March 26, 1987.Heinrich Gasser receives a call from the Verona police. They had found four paintings during a routine check on the highway. In the trunk of the 48-year-old Italian C.M. from Padua. Probably a part of the Loreto treasure. The find, a coincidence? "Rumor has it that the fence negotiated the price with a potential buyer in a bar, but they did not agree. A bar patron overheard the conversation and reported it to the police," Heinrich Gasser recounts.

October 9, 1990. Once again, the Gassers' house phone rings. At 11 p.m. Every detail is burned into Heinrich Gasser's memory. The message: A year earlier, 36 works of art from the Loreto Treasure had again been discovered in a locker at the train station in Mendrisio in the Swiss canton of Ticino. Stowed away in sports bags, wrapped in newspaper - on it an address label that led directly to the perpetrator. After prolonged surveillance, the artworks have now been released by Interpol. One third of the Loreto treasure returns to Klausen on October 22, 1990.

April 1998. This time not a call to the mayor, but to the City Museum. The Padua police suspect that they found the Chinese porcelain of the Loreto Treasure during a drug raid near Mestre. However, the artwork would have to be identified. Museum director Christoph Gasser looks closely at the precious cups and bowls. An abbreviation on the bottom of a cup confirms that it is the stolen porcelain. Only one cup is missing. "All the works of art were wrapped in paper from the same newspaper, dated September 23, 1986 - just a few days before the robbery," Heinrich Gasser knows.
27 years after the theft, in the late autumn of 2013. A new search success. The special unit "Carabinieri Nucleo Tutela del Patrimonio Artistico" (Carabinieri Unit for the Protection of Artistic Heritage) recovered one of the most valuable parts of the Loreto treasure. 23 extraordinary pieces such as richly crafted chalice sets, cruets and host containers. This time, the tip came from London, Heinrich Gasser recounts: "An art collector contacted a dealer there to find out whether the pieces offered to him did not come from illegal sources." And the dealer immediately notified the police. Almost all of the Loreto treasure has now been found.

In March 2014, it will return to the City Museum of Klausen, where it can once again be admired. Restored and well secured, of course. "I was pretty sure that the treasure would be discovered one day," says museum director Christoph Gasser, "but I wasn't sure to be still alive when it was found." The art-historical value of the objects is incomparably higher than their material value. It was therefore unlikely that the silver or gold objects would be melted down by the perpetrators.

After an odyssey, the treasure is now finally where it belongs. "The Loreto treasure is inseparably linked to Klausen, it is a landmark of the town," says Christoph Gasser. And who is ultimately responsible for the theft and the spectacular journey through illegal hands? This will probably never be fully clarified....

Text from: VIAE - Guest Magazine
Editing: mertz ideas - studio for visual communication
Year of publication: 2015
The portrait of Queen Maria Anna of Spain in the Klausen City Museum