Associated Press Published 6:24 a.m. CT Oct. 21, 2020 | Updated 12:47 p.m. CT Oct. 21, 2020
The collections of Museum Island in Berlin earned a not from UNESCO in 1999 when they became officially listed as a World Heritage site. (Photo: Flickr/Ana Paula Hirama)
BERLIN (AP) â" More than 60 artworks and artifacts at some of Berlinâs best-known museums were smeared with an oily liquid by an unknown perpetrator or perpetrators earlier this month, authorities said Wednesday. They were hopeful that the apparently random damage can be repaired, but said the motive was a mystery.
The works at the Museum Island complex, a UNESCO world heritage site in the heart of the German capital that is one of the cityâs main tourist attractions, were targeted at some point between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. on Oct. 3. Investigators said they had watched hours of surveillance camera footage but hadnât found any obvious sign of anyone applying the liquid.
In all, 63 works at the Pergamon Museum, the Alte Nationalgalerie and the Neues Museum were affected, said Christina Haak, the deputy director of Berlinâs state museums. There was no thematic link between the targeted works, and âno pattern is discernibleâ to the perpetratorâs approach, Haak added.
The liquid was oily but not corrosive, said Friederike Seyfried, the director of Berlinâs Egyptian collection, which is housed in the Neues Museum. She wouldnât give more specific details of the colorless fluid, citing the ongoing investigation.
Carsten Pfohl, a senior official with Berlinâs criminal police office, said that more than 3,000 people visited the Museum Island on Oct. 3, a Saturday on which Germany marked the 30th anniversary of its reunification. Complicating investigatorsâ efforts, most of that dayâs tickets were sold on site and only 1,400 personalized tickets had been booked in advance; all who ordered the latter have been contacted by email to ask whether they noticed anything untoward.
Police said they had decided initially not to go public about the incident out of âtactical considerations related to the investigation.â On Tuesday night, the weekly Die Zeit and Deutschlandfunk radio broke the story. On Wednesday, police called for witnesses to come forward with any accounts of suspicious people or events they noticed on Oct. 3.
It wasnât clear how the liquid was applied to the works, Pfohl said. They appeared to have been chosen at random, and investigators are inclined to believe that a lone perpetrator was responsible, he added â" but they arenât ruling out multiple perpetrators.
Pfohl said that police are investigating âin every directionâ but wouldnât participate in local media speculation that conspiracy theorists might be involved.
There was no indication of it being âan act that speaks for itself,â he added. âThis is a variety of objects that do not have any immediate connection in terms of context ... we have no self-incriminating letter or anything like that, so we have to assume for now that the motive is completely unclear.â
Pfohl said that the incident isnât unique because artifacts in museums in other countries have been attacked with liquids over recent years. Officials werenât aware of any threats. The damage was discovered by museum staff.
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Seyfried said the works affected didnât include any paintings and also werenât among the complexâs best-known attractions. Those attractions include treasures such as the Pergamon Altar, Babylonâs Ishtar Gate and a famous bust of Egyptian Queen Nefertiti.
Germanyâs culture minister, Monika Gruetters, strongly condemned the damage to the artworks.
She said in a statement that âthere is justified hope that the damage can be repaired,â but said that Berlinâs state museums once again need to answer questions over their security precautions.
In March 2017, burglars broke into the Bode Museum, part of the Museum Island, and made off with a 100-kilogram (221-pound) Canadian gold coin known as the âBig Maple Leaf.â
The suspects are believed to have smashed a protective case and then lifted the coin out of a museum window before fleeing along a railway track with their haul in a wheelbarrow. It was never recovered.
Haak said the museumsâ security concept is constantly being reviewed and officials are considering how to improve it, but â100% security for the objects would mean in principle having to withdraw them from public view.â
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