Lost Masterpieces

They Stole Sweden's Crown Jewels, and Escaped By Speedboat

Whoever stole the Swedish crown jewels earlier this week may be beginning to realize that it’s very hard to sell stolen art—if they haven't melted the gold down already.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Around noon on July 30, two thieves boldly walked into the Strängnäs Cathedral in Sweden, smashed a glass case, grabbed two crowns and an orb displayed inside, and then disappeared with their ill-begotten royal crown jewels in broad daylight, security alarms blaring in the background.

Of course, their getaway plan was a little more complicated than that of the jewelry heist itself—when is transportation not a headache?

Police believe they may have ridden stolen black bikes from the cathedral to the banks of Lake Malar, jumped into their waiting getaway speedboat, and disappeared.

Hearing the details of this crime, it’s hard to decide if these criminals were extremely lucky or ingeniously efficient.

The police, of course, wasted no time or resources trying to track down the royal baubles. In something of a “planes, trains, and automobiles” approach to the search, the authorities dispatched helicopters, boats, and cars to look for the suspects.

Divers were sent to explore the bottom of the lake to see if they could find any clues as to the whereabouts of the booty or the thieves.

Did they dock at a lakeside town and continued their flight on land? Or did they make their way into nearby Stockholm and disappear into the busy streets of the big city?

Lake Malar is one of the biggest lakes in Sweden, full of islands (numbering around 8,000), convenient waterside cities, and all the nooks and crannies that Scandinavian waterways are known for.

So the vanishing potential for the criminals is nearly endless, and the theories for what happened next are plentiful. After they motored away from the banks, did they swap out their boat for jet skis and continue further into the lake? Did they dock at a lakeside town and continued their flight on land? Or did they make their way into nearby Stockholm and disappear into the busy streets of the big city?

“It’s 1-0 to them right now,” a police spokesman told reporters following the theft. Another assured people that the authorities are pursuing every potential escape route. “We are on land, in the water and in the air.”

No price tag has yet been assigned to the missing pieces, and their financial value is probably lower than one would expect. The stolen pieces were made explicitly for the burials of King Charles IX (also known as Karl IX) and his wife, Queen Christina the Elder.

While they are, of course, made of gold, that most royal of materials, the most valuable gems were excluded.

“The stones applied to these crowns are not diamonds, they are rock crystals and pearls,” Reverend Christopher Lundgren, dean of Strängnäs Cathedral told the New York Times.

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But as with many stolen artifacts and works of art, the historical importance of these objects far outweighs any dollar price that could be applied, even if the funeral crowns were dripping in diamonds.

King Charles IX was the youngest son of King Gustav Vasa, and he took his seat on the throne just after the turn of the 17th century.

Charles didn’t rule for very long—just seven short years—but it took him a lot of work to secure the crown for himself. The youngest son, after all, doesn’t usually assume the throne without some political maneuverings and manipulations. Charles’ involved his two older brothers and a nephew.

He also tried to win the hand of Elizabeth I, sending a delegation to woo her with his portrait and romantic talk of the economic benefits their marriage could bring. She ultimately turned him down

It was the first of the brother kings, Erik XIV, who instituted the tradition of a royal coronation in Sweden, with all of the royal regalia and finery that the pomp and circumstance required. (He also tried to win the hand of Elizabeth I, sending a delegation to woo her with his portrait and romantic talk of the economic benefits their marriage could bring. She ultimately turned him down.)

He was unseated by the next brother in line, John III, who started the dubious family tradition of usurpation.

John was a patron of the arts and continued his older brother’s work, attempting to lift Sweden out of its position as something of a remote European backwater and into the spotlight as a power player on the Renaissance stage. To do this, he encouraged the arts to flourish in the country, including that of goldsmiths.

By the time Charles came along and stole control of Sweden from his nephew, Sigismund III, John’s son who, by virtue of his parents’ marital alliance, was also ruling Poland, the tradition of royal regalia that continues to this day had been firmly established.

“Although seemingly uninterested in the arts, [Charles] was willing to spend large amounts of money when the symbols of his kingship could be enhanced,” Michael Conforti writes in the 1988 exhibition catalog for the National Gallery of Art show “Sweden: A Royal Treasure.”

For his coronation in 1607, Charles commissioned fabulous works of finery in silver and gold for the royal procession, his horse was dressed in trappings made of enamel and gilt-silver, and he even had a bejeweled, gold anointing horn made specifically to hold the oil for the ceremony that would formalize his reign.

“Charles IX was keenly interested in finds of precious stones in his kingdom (which included Finland) and was probably at special pains to incorporate these stones in his new regalia,” reads an entry in the exhibition catalogue.

While the most valuable of these stones didn’t quite make it into his burial bling, it’s no surprise given his interest in the trappings of royalty that Charles arranged to be buried with a brand new crown, orb, and scepter made specifically for that purpose. (It’s always good to be prepared to wield your symbolic power in the afterlife, after all.)

When his wife died in 1625, 14 years after his death, she received the same gilded treatment.

So, Charles and Christina were laid to rest in all the comforts of their royal rule at Strängnäs Cathedral, where they planned to spend eternity peacefully enjoying their gems.

Well, sort of. Eventually, visions of the finery that rested so close, yet so thoroughly out of sight were too much to handle, and the burial regalia was exhumed and rescued from a lifetime of obscurity. The objects were put on display in secured cases in the cathedral for all the public to enjoy.

Until, earlier this week, that is, when two thieves took their cue from Charles and got a little greedy. Despite their impressive disappearance, the question remains: why did the thieves target these specific pieces and what do they plan to do with them?

While the idea of a wealthy backer pulling the strings behind the scenes is an intriguing proposition — one that has lit up the silver screen on more than one occasion and has already been floated in this case — it’s also incredibly rare

The common theory often floated after puzzling art thefts is that the crime was a made-to-order job. But while the idea of a wealthy backer pulling the strings behind the scenes is an intriguing proposition—one that has lit up the silver screen on more than one occasion and has already been floated in this case—it’s also incredibly rare.

More likely, the duo was a pair of opportunistic criminals who saw dollar signs when they first became aware of the gold regalia. But if that is the case, they’re probably scratching their heads about what to do next.

It’s incredibly hard to sell stolen art—something most common criminals don’t realize beforehand—and these pieces are no different.

The crowns and orb are recognizable and would garner unwanted attention and red flags if they appeared on the art market. This leaves one overriding fear in cases like this: that the thieves will take an invaluable piece of history and melt it down for the gold, which wouldn’t even amount to a whole lot of cash in this case.

While the smash-and-grab tactics seem more straightforward than that of a Hollywood plot, maybe the story behind the “Swedish job,” as some have taken to calling it, will be worthy of a heist flick of its own—with the last scene featuring the crown jewels resuming their rightful place in the heart of Sweden for all the world to see.