Green Vault Plundered by Thieves Was Treasure Hoard All Princes Envied
In the 16th and 17th century arms race for baubles, there was one clear winner—Saxony. Recently robbed, its stockpile was the most magnificent. And it was open to the public.
Late at night in the spring of 1698, Peter the Great arrived in Dresden, capital of the state of Saxony. Furious over the gawking by the general public (he was 6’8”) he threatened to leave. Despite his anger and despite the time of the night (past midnight) Peter wanted to visit a museum, and a set of rooms within that museum in particular. Prince Fürstenberg, who was his host while Elector August was away, agreed.
The rooms Peter was so determined to see were known as the Green Vault, so named because they were painted Saxon green. Here, Robert Massie notes in his epic biography Peter the Great: His Life and World, “the rulers of Saxony kept a collection of jewels and precious objects which were among the richest in Europe. Peter was absorbed by both collections and remained, examining one instrument or object after another, until dawn.”
This week, on Monday, the world woke up to the shocking news that a billion dollars worth of those jewels had been stolen in a brazen heist.
Any theft at a major museum is always distressing. But I was just in Dresden a couple months ago and visited the Green Vault, and like many other visitors I was surprised at how intense the security was. (Although, a lot of energy seemed to be devoted specifically to not allowing photography.) Visitors also go in one or two at a time through an airlock, which then reopens to let you through. This is repeated on the way out. Staffers are in every one of the small chambers, palpably eager to catch somebody doing something wrong. Visits have a timed entry, and exit. Reports indicate, however, the thieves broke in during off hours.
As a tourist, the security seemed like a small price to pay. For while the collection is somewhat different from when Peter the Great visited more than 300 years ago, it is still mesmerizing. Plus, it was heaven for anybody frustrated that the decorative arts and the geniuses behind those types of objects have, with the exception of somebody like Louis Comfort Tiffany, been given short shrift in favor of the other visual arts like painting, sculpture, and architecture. And while each room has its wonders, the royal jewels of Saxony (which included the thankfully out-on-loan largest green diamond in the world) are utterly gobsmacking. Three of the diamond sets known as garnitures (essentially think of them as head-to-toe diamond decorations for a royal; two consisted of 37 diamonds, one smaller one of other gems and pearls) were stolen. The jewelry room also holds a gift from Peter the Great himself, a statue of a moor decorated with precious stones (reportedly untouched).
The rooms today are a complete reconstruction, but their origins date back to at least 1572 when the Dresden Kunstkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, is first noted in writing. At that time (and when Peter visited) there were three rooms on an upper floor for the treasure collection—Silver, Jewelry, and a Hall of Preciosities. The Kunstkammer was world-renowned for its collection of natural curiosities, clocks, armor, and rare books. And the treasury was world-renowned for its astounding splendor. Both were representative of this German city’s reputation, which was referred to as Florence on the Elbe. People of noble rank or with the “right credentials” could visit it. Augustus the Strong, who was Elector of Saxony (1694-1633) and eventually the King of Poland (1697-1706, 1709-1733), renovated and expanded it, opening it to the public and thus making it what some consider the first museum. In an attempt to create a synthesis of the arts known as Gesamtkunstwerk, the rooms built to display the objects left behind the Saxon green and instead became treasures in their own right intended to awe the visitor.
The treasure in their vaults reflected a city that was also being transformed into one of the most beautiful in Europe. As much of Dresden was destroyed during the fire bombing of World War II, it’s hard to imagine its former beauty. Today, it is best found in the meticulous paintings of Bernardo Bellotto, the nephew and protege of Canaletto. Bellotto (who would often sign his paintings ‘Canaletto’) painted large-scale works of the city and its wondrous buildings in the style of his uncle’s famed canvases that have come to define our popular image of Venice. The old Dresden can also be glimpsed in one of the most romantic and sensual palaces ever built, the restored Zwinger Palace in the city.
The electors of Saxony before and after the Augustus of Peter the Great’s time (a lot of them were named Augustus) benefited not only from the wealth that many cities enjoyed during the Renaissance, but also their status as a mining region, and their proximity to workshops like those in Augsburg and Nuremberg. And so in the collecting race that princes of Central Europe took part in during the 16th and 17th centuries, Dresden’s ruling family was the envy of them all. They amassed a hoard of thousands of objects in gold, bronze, silver, rock-crystal, precious stones of all colors, turned ivory, and playfully intricate objects made of exotic new materials from distant lands “discovered” during the Age of Exploration.
While a lot of objects made in gold or silver were melted down in the ensuing centuries in times of crisis, the playful objects are still there and make up some of the most exciting bits of the collection. There is for instance a whole section of coconuts that were masterfully carved and mounted with gilt silver. Or there are the positively delightful ostrich eggs that Elias Geyer (a 16th-century master from Leipzig) transformed into actual ostriches for spectacular drinking vessels. Fun fact from the audio guide about those sculptures—the ostriches are each holding a horseshoe in their beak, which reflects the belief at the time that they could digest anything. While the object of turned ivory (painstakingly carved on a lathe) would today be a big no-no, it’s impossible not to be wowed by the stacking cups of George Wecker, the Bavarian ivory turner. Plus, there’s also a plethora of esferas de la pacienca (fancy Rubik’s cubes in the form of ivory spheres, which I first discovered at Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City). There are also objects like the works in gold ruby glass which have essentially disappeared from the public consciousness. Throw in gilt silver automatons, kaleidoscopic works in coral, hefty gold sculptures, rock crystal, and it’s overwhelming.
In 1942, however, these wonders were all removed and packed away into Konigstein Fortress for safekeeping. The bombing campaign that destroyed most of Dresden also destroyed the library containing the archives of the collection, with only the inventory books saved. The Soviets then took the treasures back to Russia, only to return them in 1958.
In the decades after the war, the iconic buildings of Dresden (the royal palace, Frauenkirche, Hofkirche, the opera house, etc.) were rebuilt as they were prior to fire bombing. Some did not reopen until the early 2000s. While a portion of the Green Vault’s collection (totally 4,000 objects) was put on display, it wasn’t until the full Old Green Vault reopened in 2004 and the New Green Vault (rooms above that were refashioned to hold parts of the collection such as armor) in 2006 that the entire collection was back for public consumption.
While there are the usual indignities that come with visiting a major site in the current era, I still found gazing upon these objects to be a heady experience. Obsession with craftsmanship today is a mostly romantic or luxurious pursuit, but at the time of creation these objects were a testament to the prowess of mankind, a symbol of an era where we pushed our creative limits like the starchitects and tech wizzes of today.
And now it is closed again, this time because of thieves who ripped off the bars protecting its windows and then performed a smash and grab on its jewelry cases.