On May 11, 2003, a thief used a scaffolding to break into the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria, creep over to the antiquities wing and make off with Benvenuto Cellini's famous gold, ebony and enamel "Saliera" (an ornate salt cellar depicting a reclining nude woman opposite the figure of Neptune), a nearly 500-year-old sculptural work by the pugilistic, iconoclastic Italian Renaissance artist. The theft of the salt cellar--notable as the last remaining example of Cellini's work in gold--sent ripples through the art world, both for the brazenness of the crime and the devastation of the loss.
Art theft cases don't usually have happy endings: the pieces often disappear forever into the clutches of unscrupulous private collectors or, if made of valuable materials, are melted right out of existence. This theft, however, was apparently motivated by money rather than an overwhelming appreciation for the craftsmanship of the piece, since a ransom note was subsequently sent to the company that insured the piece, which has estimated value $55-$80 million. And then a lot of nothing happened between then and last fall.
in November of 2005, the thief and law enforcement officials brokered a handoff, but then, according to news reports, the thief called it off via text message and instead led police on a chase through Vienna. As luck would have it, the suspect was captured on video buying the mobile phone used in the text messaging and he was recognized and tracked down. The 50-year-old suspect initially denied the theft, but then confessed to the crime.
The salt cellar was finally recovered on Jan. 21. As it turns out, the man had wrapped the sculpture in linen and plastic, placed it in a metal box and buried it in the woods near his house in Zwettl (a town some 50 miles north of Vienna). Because the sculpture had been waterproofed by the suspect and buried only recently (it apparently spent most of its time in a suitcase under the guy's bed), there was only minor damage to the piece.
Here's hoping the next time museum guards hear window glass breaking, they'll investigate.