January 3, 2018

Museum Theft: Doge’s Palace - Venice, Italy


Shortly after 10 am this morning, on the last day of an exhibition at the Doge’s Palace (Italian: Palazzo Ducale), once the heart of the political life and public administration at the time of the Venetian Republic, jewel thieves broke into a display case and absconded with pieces of jewelry on temporary display in Venice.

Promoted by Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia, the exhibition was curated by Amin Jaffer, Senior Curator of the private collection, and Gian Carlo Calza, a distinguished Italian scholar of East Asian art.  The exhibition, titled "Treasures of the Mughals and Maharaja" brought together 270+ pieces of Indian jewelry, covering four centuries of India's heritage, owned by Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al-Thani, CEO of Qatar Investment & Projects Development Holding Company (QIPCO), the Qatari mega-holding company.  

Sheikh Al-Thani is the first cousin of Qatar's Emir, and began acquiring pieces for his now-extensive jewelry collection after visiting an exhibition of Indian art in 2009 at London's Victoria and Albert Museum.


Some of the bejeweled pieces on display at the Doge's Palace included encrusted jewelry with diamonds, rubies, jade, pearls and emeralds, once owned by India's great maharajas, nizams and emperors.  Founded by Babur after his conquest of much of Northern India, the pieces from the Mughal dynasty date from the early 16th century to the mid 18th century, one of India's most opulent eras in jewelry composition.  

Additional pieces from the collection were created during the politically chaotic 18th century and from the British Raj period in the 19th century and were produced to appeal to wealthy British travelers and India's upper caste.  The collector's more extravagant contemporary objects on display include a necklace commissioned in 1937 by Maharaja Digvijaysinhji of Nawanagar and made by Jacques Cartier, which is said to rival the ruby and diamond necklace of Empress Marie-Louise which is part of the Crown Jewels of France.

The Al-Thani collection brings together and regroups pieces from many former Indian treasuries, some of which emphasize beliefs of the period.

In India, the nine stones of the Navaratna (Sanskrit: नवरत्न) where nava stands for nine and ratna for jewel, are considered to be auspicious, and in Vedic texts and Indian Astrology were believed to have the power to protect the wearer.

These jewels are:

Blue sapphire (niilam)
Cat's Eye (vaidooryam)
Diamond (vajram)
Emerald (marathakam)
Hessonite (gomeda)
Pearl (muktaaphalam)
Red Coral (vidrumam)
Ruby (maanikyam)
Yellow sapphire (pushparajam)

Often the gems were set in pure gold, using a gemstone setting art form known as Kundan, a method of gem setting, that consist of inserting a gold foil between the stones which does not require soldering or claw mounts. 


Former V&A curator Dr. Amin Jaffer is said to have begun advising Sheik Hamad on his acquisitions, after becoming the international director of Asian art at Christie’s.  In 2017, after ten years with the auction house, Jaffer resigned to take the position of Chief Curator of the Al-Thani's collection.

Ripped from the pages of an Oceans 8 Hollywood Script

According to current reconstruction of the incident using cameras surveillance footage, two thieves, one serving as lookout and a second culprit who actively broke into a display case located in the Sala dello Scrutinio, quickly made off with one brooch and  a pair of earrings. As soon as the display case was breachedsounding an alarm, the pair deftly escaped through the crowded museum gallery, blending in among the patrons and were out of the museum before security could seal the museum's perimeter to apprehend them.

Exhibition Hall, Sala dello Scrutinio, Doge's Palace, Venice
Image Credit: Palazzo Ducale
Immediately after the theft, the Sala dello Scrutinio was closed pending a complete inventory and review of surveillance footage.   

At the present time, photographs of the pieces stolen during the robbery have not been released by the authorities or by Al-Thani. In a statement given by the Venice city police commissioner Vito Gagliardi, the stolen jewelry included diamonds, gold and platinum, had been assigned a customs value of just 30,000 euros ($36,084), but are likely worth “a few million euros.”  

Selling hot goods

While diamonds may be a girl's best friend, buying stolen gemstones is a serious crime.  Without a certificate of authenticity which proves a diamond adheres to the KCPS, or Kimberly Process Certification Scheme showing that the gem does not originate from a "blood zone" tainted by human rights abuses, finding a buyer who will purchase an unprovenanced jewel of skeptical origin can be difficult.

Individuals caught trading in stolen or "blood diamonds" face significant legal ramifications and buying unprovenanced jewels poses great economic risk for jewelers, pawn shops, diamond and gem traders and cutters, and anyone else who might come into contact with a newly stolen and possibly well documented stolen gemstone.

Even if the Venice gem thieves were able to successful sell their newly stolen loot, they will likely do so with only a modicum of success. While big-time professional jewel thieves may have black market connections that allow them to sell substantial pieces for hefty sums, most implus thieves have to settle for intermediary fences which pay nowhere near what the gems in the necklace may actually be worth, financially or historically.

By:  Lynda Albertson

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