Photo Gallery: The Art Heist from Gotha

Foto: Sven Döring/ DER SPIEGEL

Four Decades Later East German Art Heist Mystery Nears Resolution

Forty years ago, thieves swiped five valuable paintings from an East German museum. Now, they have finally been returned, thanks largely to the mayor of the town from which they were taken. But the mystery hasn't yet been solved.

Knut Kreuch can still remember exactly what he was thinking so many years ago when the staircase he was on was suddenly plunged into darkness. He was 13 at the time and his mother's favorite Friday evening show was on TV. Even though they lived in the town of Gotha in East Germany, they were able to tune into the West German equivalent of "Unsolved Mysteries," about crimes that hadn't yet been solved.

After the show ended that night, it was Knut's job to head down to the cellar from the sixth floor in the housing block where they lived to turn off the washing machine. And when the lights went out, leaving young Knut to feel his way along the stairs in the pitch black, he found himself thinking: Thank God you live in walled-in East Germany. All the robbers and murderers from the West can't get you here.

But then, on a Friday morning in December 1979, a rumor suddenly began spreading through the city. His mother, a store manager at the market in Gotha, heard it from her customers. Everybody knew somebody who worked in the palace -- and everybody had heard something.

It became official the next day, with the local newspaper printing a short report from the state-run news agency ADN: "On Thursday night, unknown perpetrators stole five valuable paintings by Old Masters from the Castle Museum. The stolen artworks are valued at several million marks. Police have launched an urgent investigation."

In those December days in 1979, Knut Kreuch's childhood illusion of being insulated from crime was shattered. Now, if the lights went out as he was walking down the stairs to the washing machine, he would know that robbers were everywhere, even on the east side of the wall. What he could not have known is that 40 years later, he would play a decisive role in finally getting back the paintings stolen in the largest art theft in the history of East Germany.

The Stolen Pictures

Last Monday, Kreuch -- a satisfied smile on his face and his hands folded calmly in his lap -- was sitting in his office in Gotha's baroque town hall on the city's central square. A member of the center-left Social Democrats, he has been the mayor of Gotha since 2006. And on Monday, his mood could hardly have been better. After all, it looked as though the five stolen artworks, after having been missing for 40 years, were finally back in safekeeping -- thanks entirely to him. In the several months preceding, he had made a risky wager, but early last week, his confidence was growing that he had won.

What he didn't know last Monday, of course, was that just a few days later, on Thursday, investigators with the Berlin State Criminal Police (LKA) would fan out across the country to search the offices and apartments of three witnesses and two suspects, both of whom are suspected of blackmail and possession of stolen goods. First the artworks reappeared. Now, the focus is on solving the criminal case that was opened so many decades ago.

One of the offices searched last Thursday morning at 9:30 a.m. was that of a lawyer in a southern German city. In recent years, the lawyer has become a specialist in rehabilitating artworks from dubious sources so they can re-enter legal circulation. Kreuch knows the man because he participated in a deal not long ago which saw Gotha buy back a valuable piece of art that had once belonged to the Castle Museum.

As a result, Kreuch was immediately amenable when the lawyer called him in June 2018 asking for a meeting, a face-to-face which then took place in the town hall of Gotha a short time later. The lawyer told the unsuspecting mayor that he had recently been approached by someone, and then he laid five photos, one after the other, on the table. Kreuch was immediately electrified. He could hardly believe what he was seeing. The stolen pictures from Gotha!

Kreuch was initially speechless. He had launched a media campaign 10 years earlier in a desperate attempt to get the stolen artworks back for the city. At the time, he was worried that an important statute of limitations would expire. But beyond a couple of clues that proved to be dead ends, there was nothing. No trace of the paintings.

On that night way back on Dec. 14, 1979, a temperature and humidity datalogger in the museum recorded a sudden drop in temperatures. The thieves had managed to access a window almost 10 meters (33 feet) off the ground, scaling the outside walls of the castle with the help of climbing spurs and a lightning rod before scoring the pane with a glass cutter, taping the glass and breaking in.

Broken Bits of Frame

The window led them into the gallery where Dutch Masters were on display and they removed four paintings from Frans Hals, Anthonis van Dyck, Jan Brueghel the Elder and Jan Lievens. From the next gallery, the home of Old German Masters, they swiped a piece from Hans Holbein the Elder before lowering all five paintings to the ground using a cord.

A call from the museum reached the Gotha Volkspolizei (People's Police) at 7:10 a.m. the next morning. Officers would later find picture frame fragments around the base of the lightning rod and along the route the thieves took through the surrounding park as they escaped, leading officials to conclude that the artworks had been damaged. In January 1980, the director of the East Berlin Gemäldegalerie art museum estimated the value of the five works to be 4.5 million West German marks.

The Volkspolizei and the Ministry for State Security (Stasi) immediately assembled a substantial team to investigate the spectacular robbery, with the Stasi launching Operation Old Masters and the Volkspolizei assigning 95 officers to the case. The search for the works of art expanded across all of East Germany, with every possible lead being pursued. In late July 1980, Major Grüner from the criminal investigation department in Gotha wrote a detailed case report in which he noted that 1,027 people who lived or worked near the crime scene had been checked. In addition, he noted that an additional 252 people with some sort of connection to the Castle Museum were being monitored.

Police and Stasi officials checked hundreds of prison inmates and ex-prisoners in addition to interrogating 189 "burglars from the Erfurt district who had been amnestied and released." The homes of 86 of them were likewise searched. In total, investigators interviewed several thousand people in connection with the investigation and searched 1,045 vehicles.

It was exactly the kind of dragnet investigation the police state of East Germany was designed for -- yet they found nothing. The paintings were gone. In the mid-1980s, the Stasi and the Volkspolizei largely abandoned the investigation, leaving the largest art theft in East German history to remain unsolved.

And yet suddenly, last June, here was the lawyer from southern Germany sitting in the town hall of Gotha and offering a deal to the mayor. His clients, the lawyer said, according to Kreuch's recollection, were interested in returning the paintings, but he wanted to learn whether the city of Gotha wanted them back. After all, the lawyer continued, his clients were demanding money.

A Vague Group of Heirs

Kreuch showed interest, but made it clear even during this initial visit that the city was not in a position to buy the paintings. Without a partner, the mayor said, it wouldn't work. He carefully tried to find out who the lawyer's clients might be, but the lawyer remained vague.

It seemed to be a group of heirs who allegedly had no idea as to how their deceased forebears had acquired the paintings, but Kreuch was only able to learn a few pieces of the story during this initial encounter. He was told that the artworks had been taken out of East Germany to the West years after the break-in, but the Gotha mayor was not initially told how many clients the lawyer was representing, what their names were or even where they lived.

It also remained unclear how much money was being demanded in exchange for the paintings, with the lawyer declining to name a price. Kreuch figured he was just trying to get the lay of the land. After an hour or so, he packed up his photos, the quality of which left quite a bit to be desired. They showed the paintings from the front and the back, but the most sensational thing about them was that they were color photographs.

For the last 40 years, only the museum's official inventory photographs had been available -- in black-and-white. But a few years before the lawyer's visit to the mayor of Gotha, a color photo had appeared in a London auction catalogue that looked to be of one of the stolen paintings. It caused quite a commotion in the art world, with many thinking that it might finally offer a clue to the whereabouts of the five stolen paintings. But it didn't. The photo apparently only showed a copy of one of the paintings stolen from Gotha.

Kreuch had three messages he wanted the lawyer to take back with him to southern Germany. First, he was extremely interested in bringing the paintings back to Gotha. Second, he needed to know how the lawyer's clients had come into possession of the paintings and where they had been for the last four decades. And third, he was not interested in legal proceedings but wanted an amicable settlement.

The two men agreed to stay in contact, but the visit left the mayor in a difficult situation. After all, he had no mandate to close such a sensitive deal on his own. But if he had informed his staff and city officials, it was extremely possible that the news would leak, which could have killed the deal.

Reasonable Price?

Kreuch decided to keep his cards close to his chest and told nobody in Gotha of his meeting with the lawyer. Instead, he paid a visit in September to Martin Hoernes, an art historian who was general secretary of the Ernst von Siemens Art Foundation, which supports the purchase of art by public collections.

Hoernes had helped the mayor buy back a valuable ivory tankard that had disappeared out of the Castle Museum and his foundation was experienced in reclaiming artworks that had been stolen. But clear rules applied to such transactions: The foundation never purchased pieces directly from the thieves themselves; the seller had to reveal how they had come into possession of the artwork in question; and the price had to be reasonable.

But what is reasonable? Stolen paintings are not traded on the legal art market. They are registered with Interpol and with various other databases for art that had disappeared.

Hoernes expressed a willingness to help, so Kreuch remained in touch with the southern German lawyer. The mayor recalls that they would sometimes speak on the phone several times in one week before not having any contact at all for several weeks in a row. They would chat about the weather, about this and that, essentially sizing each other up. Kreuch had the impression that the lawyer was testing him, trying to determine how serious Gotha was about reacquiring the paintings.

The mayor, meanwhile, wanted to do all he could to prevent the contact from breaking off, seeing it as his only chance to get the vanished paintings back. An absurd element of German law holds that an owner's right to return expires after 30 years. If the lawyer had chosen to discontinue talks, Kreuch would have been the clear loser. The Old Masters from Gotha would likely have remained lost forever.

In the talks, Kreuch followed a two-pronged strategy. He did his best to convince the lawyer to have the paintings examined by an evaluator to ensure that they were, in fact, authentic. And he continued to insist that he be told how they came into the possession of those who were selling them, preferably in writing.

Gradually, according to Kreuch's recollections, the numerous conversations began to form the outlines of a story. There were, to be sure, plenty of gaps. Parts of it sounded implausible and elements changed from time to time, but there was one constant of particular legal relevance. The family that possessed the paintings had apparently always known that they had come from the Gotha art heist. But according to law, only those who possess something in good faith -- who don't know that it has been stolen, in other words -- can acquire ownership "by adverse possession," essentially the legalistic term for "squatters rights." This, however, was apparently not the case when it came to the southern German lawyer's clients.

Sidestepping Demands

According to the mayor, the Stasi played an important role in the stories the lawyer told him. Not surprising, Kreuch thought. The lawyer also mentioned a significant sum that had allegedly been paid to an East German agency, but it wasn't clear which one. For Kreuch, it was all too vague. He wanted evidence and the name of the family, but the lawyer, according to Kreuch's impression, continually sidestepped such demands.

Finally, though, after a long period of silence that lasted several months, the lawyer came up with a purchase price for the five paintings. And it wasn't insignificant. He wanted 5.25 million euros.

Kreuch recalls that the lawyer told him toward the end of last year that he wanted to come to Gotha and bring along one of the five paintings so that it could be examined to ensure authenticity. But this time, it was Kreuch who tapped the brakes. No, he said, he wanted all of the paintings at once or none at all. Again, weeks of silence ensued. By now, the lawyer knew that Hoernes from the Ernst von Siemens Foundation was involved, but his exclusive negotiation partner remained Mayor Kreuch.

In spring, things started moving more quickly. The lawyer, says Kreuch, suddenly offered to travel to Gotha town hall with all five of the paintings. But Kreuch delayed once again, asking what he was supposed to do with the works of art in the town hall. Instead, he insisted that they be brought to Berlin, where they could be examined in the Rathgen Research Laboratory, part of the German capital's publicly held art collections, known as the Staatlichen Museen.

The lawyer hesitated before ultimately agreeing. He sent Kreuch a five-page settlement agreement that included the 5.25-million-euro purchase price. The contract seemed contestable, but Kreuch signed anyway. As a ruse. What else could he have done? He saw it as the only possibility to get the paintings back and Hoernes had indicated that the Ernst von Siemens Foundation was prepared to cover the outlay should it come to that.

The plan foresaw the paintings being handed over on Sept. 30 in Berlin, and the Rathgen Laboratory had agreed to be involved, but lawyers from the Staatlichen Museen had their doubts about examining stolen artwork in a state institution. On Sept. 12, they informed the Berlin LKA of the upcoming transfer.

Kreuch and Hoernes would have liked to settle the issue amicably, hoping that doing so would increase their chances of getting other artworks back that had disappeared from Gotha's holdings. But now the police were involved, and they follow their own rules. Over at the LKA, René Allonge took over the case.

Covert Surveillance

A senior criminal investigator, Allonge enjoyed great respect within the art scene. Back in 2011, he dragged theprolific art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi  into court before following up that coup by tracking down thegigantic bronze horses  that had stood in front of Hitler's Chancellery in Berlin. Now, he hoped to be able to solve the mystery of the Gotha art heist.

Allonge arranged covert surveillance for the planned handover on Sept. 30 and he also coordinated with Kreuch, Hoernes and the head of the institute to arrange for an undercover investigator to take part in the meeting. The plan called for him to be identified as Hoernes' supervisor, responsible for ultimately approving payment. The lawyer, they felt, would have a hard time refusing his participation.

The handover took place at midday, with the lawyer from southern Germany turning up alone. They chatted for a while before the lawyer then signed the settlement agreement and grabbed his mobile phone. At 1:30 p.m., Allonge's surveillance team watched as a Mercedes Sprinter delivery van drove up to the back of the institute. A man stepped out and unloaded five packed objects. He didn't give his name and seemed anxious, but he remained for the rest of the encounter.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 50/2019 (December 6th, 2019) of DER SPIEGEL.

The packages were unpacked and, once the bubble wrap was removed, there they were, the five Old Masters from Gotha that had been missing for 40 years. They were in cheap frames and had apparently been cleaned, but they looked authentic. It was now up to the institute to determine if they were, in fact, real.

As soon as the paintings were secure, the tone of the meeting became less cordial, with the disguised investigator demanding that the unidentified van driver finally tell the story behind the paintings. He said that following the death of his father three years before, he became part of a group of heirs. He and four other heirs had each possessed one of the paintings, which he had collected in the past few days.

Ongoing Investigation

His father, the van driver related, had been a prisoner of war in Russia and had met a man there named "Hans," who later emigrated to Australia. Hans' son was then imprisoned in East Germany, according to the story told by the van driver, whereupon the van driver's father paid a million marks from an inheritance to get Hans' son released, though it's not clear to whom the money was paid. In return for buying Hans' son out of prison, the van driver's father received the paintings as collateral.

The LKA ran a check on the van's license plates and found that it was owned by a medical doctor from northwest Germany and it didn't take long to find pictures of the man on the internet. It turned out to be the man who had, in fact, brought the paintings to Berlin. But his story sounded extremely unlikely to the investigators, and it turns out their skepticism was justified.

Allonge checked out the facts and they weren't true. The doctor's parents had bequeathed almost nothing to their children and there were no indications that the father had ever been a prisoner of war in Russia. Furthermore, he had only died a year-and-a-half earlier, not three.

The upshot is that it remains unclear how the man came into possession of the valuable paintings. Were the thieves from his family? Did relatives of his buy the stolen works of art? And how much of the story did he know?

Police are now investigating the doctor and the lawyer on suspicion of blackmail and possession of stolen goods. DER SPIEGEL was unable to reach the doctor and the lawyer declined comment because of the ongoing investigation. The presumption of innocence until proven guilty, of course, applies to both.

In the raids last Thursday, Berlin investigators seized numerous documents that must now be examined and analyzed. The largest art heist in the history of East Germany is far from being solved. Kreuch, for his part, isn't optimistic: He doesn't think he will ever learn the whole truth about the Gotha break-in. Perhaps it's time for another episode of "Unsolved Mysteries."