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Police hunt suspects in Dresden jewellery heist

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Berlin (AFP)

Police in Germany were Tuesday hunting robbers who snatched priceless 18th-century jewellery from a state museum in Dresden in what local media have called the biggest art heist in modern history.

Authorities across eastern Germany have been put on alert after thieves made off with treasures from the Green Vault at Dresden's Royal Palace in an astonishing smash-and-grab raid early Monday morning.

Police have called for witnesses to step forward and released images of the stolen items, which were taken from a collection of jewellery of 18th-century Saxony ruler Augustus the Strong and which experts say may never be recovered.

They include a sword whose hilt is encrusted with nine large and 770 smaller diamonds, and a diamond bow decorated with 662 brilliants.

Extraordinary CCTV footage of the two robbers going about their raid has also been released by investigators.

In the black-and-white clip, one of the two suspects was seen using an axe to smash the display case.

- 'Criminal gang' -

The thieves launched their brazen raid after having set off a fire in an electrical panel near the museum in the early hours of Monday, deactivating its alarm as well as street lighting, police said.

Despite the power cut, a surveillance camera kept working and filmed the pair breaking in.

"The whole act lasted only a few minutes," police said in a statement.

The suspects then fled in an Audi A6 and remain on the run.

The apparent getaway car was found on fire later elsewhere in the city, said police, adding that the vehicle was being examined for clues.

On Monday evening, Dresden police chief Joerg Kubiessa told broadcaster ZDF that a "criminal gang" may be behind the robbery.

Dresden police said they were also in contact with colleagues in Berlin to explore possible connections to a similar heist in the capital two years ago.

In 2017, a 100-kilogramme (220-pound), 24-karat giant gold coin was stolen from Berlin's Bode Museum. Four men with links to a notorious Berlin gang were later arrested and put on trial.

The coin has never been recovered, and fears are growing that the Dresden haul will also remain lost forever.

Speaking to AFP Tuesday, managing director of diamond retailer 77Diamonds Tobias Kormind said that, if the thieves were not caught, the probability of finding the diamonds was "virtually nil".

- 'Priceless' value -

With speculation mounting that the robbers would extract the diamonds from individual pieces for sale separately, Green Vault director Dirk Syndram warned it would be "stupid to do that."

"They're all 18th-century cuts. You can't just turn these stones into cash," he told DPA news agency, adding that breaking them up would lower their value.

Yet Kormind told AFP that if the jewels were recut into modern stones, they would have "zero traceability".

He suggested that the thieves may plan to recut the diamonds in different places before releasing them into the market over a number of years.

"They might mix them up in parcels that are being bought from elsewhere, so they look like they have traceability and origin. Unfortunately, it is the most transportable form of wealth," said Kormind.

Museum directors have refused to put a financial figure on the value of the haul.

"We cannot put an exact value on them because they are priceless," said Marion Ackermann, director of Dresden's state art collections.

Handelsblatt newspaper called the theft the "biggest art heist in modern history".

- 'Highest priority' -

Founded by Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony in 1723, the Green Vault is one of the oldest museums in Europe.

After the Royal Palace suffered severe damage in World War Two, the Green Vault remained closed for decades before it was restored and re-opened in 2006.

One of its most valuable pieces, the Dresden Green Diamond, is currently on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

German Culture Minister Monika Gruetters said that protection of museums and cultural institutions was now of "the highest priority".

"The theft of items which make up our identity as a nation of culture strikes at our hearts," she said.

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