The “Big Maple Leaf,” a 221-pound gold coin estimated to be worth $4 million, was stolen from a Berlin museum in the early hours of Monday morning.
Thieves are suspected to have broken into the Bode Museum in the German capitol at 3:30 a.m. and made off with the oversized Canadian coin, which measures about 21-inches wide and is more than an inch thick.
The heist would not be the most expensive in art history. It is disputed whether that title should go to the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa or the 1990 robbery of 13 masterpieces from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.
But the coin is a point of pride for the German museum, which boasts one of the world’s largest coin collections, and for the Royal Canadian Mint, which issued the pure-gold coin.
Police said the coin was probably stolen by a group of thieves who apparently entered the museum through a window, broke into a cabinet where the coin was kept, and escaped with it before police arrived.
"Based on the information we have so far we believe that the thief, maybe thieves, broke open a window in the back of the museum next to the railway tracks," police spokesman Winfrid Wenzel said. "They then managed to enter the building and went to the coin exhibition.”
The thieves are believed to have to set up a ladder from the adjacent railway tracks to enter the building located on Berlin’s famous Museum Island. The ladder was found on the tracks on Monday, interrupting the rail service, according to Deutsche Welle.
Investigators have not said how the thieves managed to avoid setting off the museum alarms or hauling the heavy coin out of the museum.
"The coin was secured with bullet-proof glass inside the building. That much I can say," Mr. Wenzel said. "Neither I nor the Bode Museum can go into detail regarding personnel inside the building, the alarm system or security installations."
Loaned to the museum in December 2010, the “Big Maple Leaf” is a unique addition to its Münzkabinett coin collection of more than 540,000 items. Issued by the Royal Canadian Mint in 2007, the coin is featured in the Guinness Book of Records for its “unmatched” degree of purity, according to the museum's website. It is 999.99/1000 gold.
While the coin has a face value of $1 million, its purity is estimated to push its worth up to $4 million. Like all Canadian coins, it features a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II on one side. On the other is a maple leaf.
The coin’s size and purity are eye-catching. But the $4 million price tag is far less than the two most expensive art heists in history. The 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa would top this list, except for that Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece is deemed essentially priceless, Alice Farren-Bradley, a stolen-art recovery specialist at the Art Loss Register, a firm that maintains the world's largest database of stolen and missing art, told Live Science. The thief, Vincenzo Peruggia, apparently thought the iconic 16th century painting was worth 500,000 Italian lira (about $281) at the time. He demanded that amount when he was apprehended trying to sell it two years later.
The most expensive art heist with a value assigned to it is the unsolved theft of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990. The 13 masterpieces two thieves are suspected of making off with come to a total of nearly $300 million. Among these works of art are Vermeers and the only known seascape by Rembrandt.
But art thieves rarely bring in the amount of money assigned to the artwork they steal, according to Ms. Farren-Bradley. Stolen art pieces are easily recognizable, making it nearly impossible to sell them on the open market, she said. Instead, thieves often try to sell them back to the people or institutions they stole them from, destroy them to cover their tracks, trade them on the international black market, or sell them to unsuspecting dealers as imitation paintings.
This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.