In the early hours of March 27, 2017, thieves stole one of the world’s largest gold coins from the Bode Museum in Berlin. The coin—a behemoth weighing 221 pounds and valued at more than $4 million—has not been seen since. But as Taylor Dafoe reports for artnet News, a trail of evidence has resulted in prison time for three men linked with the brazen heist.
Last week, a German court sentenced two cousins aged 21 and 23 to four-and-a-half years in prison. Due to their ages at the time of the crime—18 and 20 years old—they were tried as juveniles, “which reduces the prison terms that could be imposed,” according to Bloomberg’s Karin Matussek. Prosecutors had pushed for sentences of between five and seven years.
A third suspect who had worked as a security guard at the museum received a sentence of three years and four months. A fourth defendant was acquitted.
The coin, produced by the Royal Canadian Mint in 2007 and dubbed the “Big Maple Leaf,” was made of 99.999 percent pure gold. (“Why did the Royal Canadian Mint make the world's purest and largest gold bullion coin?” the mint’s site asks. “Because we can.”) Loaned to the Bode by a private owner, it went on display in 2010.
Police believe the thieves broke down, melted and sold the coin sold soon after the theft. During the trial, which began last January, prosecutors presented a dramatic picture of the Big Maple Leaf’s disappearance.
The cousins, prosecutors said, plotted an inside job with a childhood friend hired as a security guard at the Bode museum shortly before the heist. Following the tracks of an old overpass that led to the institution, the thieves took just 16 minutes to slip in through a second-floor window, smash the coin’s glass case with a carbon-reinforced axe, and roll the Big Maple Leaf—transported by a skateboard and a wheelbarrow—to a nearby park where a getaway car waited. The museum’s alarm system was not triggered—something the Bode has been “under huge pressure to explain,” wrote Kate Connelly of the Guardian in 2019.
Security footage from the days leading up to the theft showed “three suspicious men dressed in all black” walking the getaway route, according to Deutsche Welle. Prosecutors attempted to identify the third individual in the security footage as a brother of one of the cousins but were unsuccessful, leading to the fourth defendant’s acquittal.
Searches of the suspects’ belongings yielded several key pieces of evidence: gold particles stuck to the men’s clothing and consistent with the purity of the Big Maple Leaf; a pair of gloves laced with particles matching the security glass on the window through which the thieves entered; and a rare Armani jacket that was “clearly identifiable” in the security footage, per Deutsche Welle. On the phones of one of the suspects, police found “a detailed search history of how to break down large pieces of gold,” the publication adds.
Three of the four individuals arrested in connection with the heist were reportedly “associates of a crime ring,” as David Shimer wrote for the New York Times in 2017. Defense attorneys representing the accused claimed that news of their clients’ links to organized crime prevented them from receiving a fair trial.
“Despite the huge effort in their investigations, including a special commission, 50 telephone surveillance operations and mobile phone site analysis, 30 house searches and the deployment of sniffer dogs, the evidence collected is scant,” said Toralf Nöding, a lawyer who represented one of the suspects, as quoted by the Guardian.
But a Berlin court, which meted out the sentences last Thursday, evidently disagreed. In addition to receiving prison time, the cousins have been fined €3.3 million ($4.3 million), or the estimated price of the coin. The former security guard was hit with a fine of €100,000 (around $109,000), which is equal to the sum that authorities believe he was paid for his role in the heist, reports artnet News.
Both the prosecution and defense, according to Deutsche Welle, have one week to appeal the court’s decision.