Suspects forced their way into the Green Vault Museum and got away with at least three sets of early 18th-century jewellery.
Police have raided apartments across Berlin and detained three people on Tuesday suspected of involvement in a jewel heist at a museum housing one of Europe’s greatest collections of treasures, officers said.
Thieves forced their way into Dresden’s Gruenes Gewoelbe, or Green Vault museum, in November last year and got away with at least three sets of early 18th-century jewellery, some set with diamonds and rubies, in what German media described as the biggest art heist in modern history.
The stolen jewels were worth up to 1 billion euros ($1.19bn), Bild newspaper previously reported, without giving a source. It said a nearby electricity junction box had been set on fire, cutting the power supply to the whole area.
Police were searching 18 apartments, garages and vehicles for the jewellery and other evidence including digital data, clothes and tools, mostly in the city’s southern district of Neukoelln, police said on Tuesday.
A total of 1,638 officers were taking part in the operation, which could cause serious traffic disruptions through the day, it added.
Three Germans were arrested on suspicion of theft and arson, and will appear before an investigating judge later in the morning, the police said. The force said the arrests took place in different parts of the country, without going into detail.
Security camera footage showed two men breaking into the museum through a grilled window in the early hours of November 25. Officers were on the scene five minutes after the alarm sounded, but the thieves escaped.
All three were accused of “serious gang robbery and two counts of arson,” Dresden prosecutors said.
The robbers snatched priceless 18th-century jewellery from the collection of Saxon ruler, Augustus the Strong.
Items stolen included a sword whose hilt is encrusted with nine large and 770 smaller diamonds and a shoulder piece which contains the famous 49-carat Dresden white diamond, Dresden’s Royal Palace had said.
The collection was brought together in the 18th century by Augustus the Strong, elector of Saxony and later king of Poland, who commissioned ever more brilliant jewellery as part of his rivalry with France’s King Louis XIV.
One of its best-known treasures – the 41-carat Dresden “Green Diamond” – was away on loan at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art at the time of the break-in.
The treasures of the Green Vault survived Allied bombing raids in World War II, only to be carted off as war booty by the Soviet Union. They were returned to Dresden, the historic capital of the state of Saxony, in 1958.
Germany has been hit by several high-profile heists, with banks and museums frequent targets.
A Berlin court sentenced three men to multi-year jail sentences in February for the theft of a 100-kilogramme (220-lb) gold coin from one of the German capital’s museums.
Police have found no trace of the Canadian coin since the late-night heist in March 2017 from the Bode Museum, located close to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Berlin apartment.
The “Big Maple Leaf”, one of five minted in 2007, is considered the world’s second-largest gold coin after the one-tonne Australian Kangaroo issued in 2012.
Robbers also hit a German customs office early November, making off with 6.5 million euros ($7.7m) in cash.
Police have offered 100,000 euros ($118,662) as a reward for information leading to the suspects.