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  • Police find stolen £36m figurine
    1.22.2006 BBC News

    The gold Saliera is 26 centimetres (10 inches) tall

    Austrian police have recovered a $60m (£33.9m) 16th Century figurine stolen in 2003 called Saliera, or salt cellar, after a suspect turned himself in.

    Experts established it was an authentic work by Florentine master Benvenuto Cellini, Austria's Press Agency said.

    It was found on Saturday, buried in a wooden case near Zwettl, a town about 55 miles north of Vienna, police said.

    The suspect turned himself in on Friday after police released photos of him identifying him as a suspect.

    Authorities have been trying to track down the 25.4cm (10 inch) gold Saliera since it was stolen from a showcase at Vienna's Art History Museum.

    'Mona Lisa of sculptures'

    The daily Salzburger Nachrichten reported that the man was identified after being photographed by a surveillance camera.

    He had been spotted buying a mobile phone which he used to send a text message to police during a failed attempt last year to ransom the figurine.

    The suspect turned himself in after acquaintances told him he looked like the person being sought.

    The museum said at the time that Cellini's piece was the sculpture equivalent of Leonardo da Vinci's 16th Century masterpiece painting the Mona Lisa.

    Break-in

    Saliera depicts a male figure representing the sea and a female figure that represents the earth. A small vessel meant to hold salt is placed next to the male figure.

    It was stolen after thieves smashed a window to get into the museum, police said. They then smashed a glass display case and took the sculpture.

    The artwork was created between 1540 and 1543 on commission from King Francis I of France, commonly considered that nation's first Renaissance monarch.

    It is 26 centimetres (10 inches) tall and is Cellini's only remaining authenticated gold work.


    Strange case of the ?35m saltcellar
    1.23.2006 Luke Harding, The Guardian

    It is one of the world's greatest Renaissance artefacts, an extraordinary gold-plated saltcellar by the Florentine genius Benvenuto Cellini. But for nearly three years the Austrian police had no idea what had happened to the ?35m figurine after it was stolen in 2003 from a Vienna museum. Had it been melted down, or was it gracing the home of an unscrupulous collector?

    And who had stolen it in the first place, shinning up scaffolding and breaking a window and display case at the capital's sumptuous art history museum without the guards noticing? Yesterday, detectives were celebrating a double triumph. They had recovered the unique gold and enamel cruet set and caught the man suspected of stealing it.

    "Our joy is extraordinary," Austria's culture minister, Elisabeth Gehrer, said showing off the 16th century sculpture or "saliera", which depicts a trident-wielding Neptune reclining opposite a languorously naked woman. Its return has prompted national rejoicing. "Today will go down in history. You sometimes need good nerves."

    The head of Vienna's criminal police described how he got the saltcellar back. The suspect "was a funny guy," he said. "He had collected sculptures in his youth and had a feeling for them," Ernst Geiger told the Guardian. "He also ran an alarm firm and was an expert in alarm systems. He knew exactly how to steal it. He told us afterwards it [the theft] was all rather spontaneous."

    The raid was one of the most embarrassing in art history, but it was only several days later, through the media, that the thief realised he had made off with a Renaissance masterpiece. He later tried to blackmail the insurance company, Mr Geiger alleged, demanding first ˆ5m (?3.4m), then ˆ10m.

    Last November the suspect agreed to give the cruet set back - but called off the handover by text message after allegedly leading police on a wild goose chase through the streets of Vienna. That was his mistake. A video camera captured the suspect buying a mobile phone. Last Friday, after weeks of deliberation, the police published the picture. It showed a smiling, middle-aged man with thick black hair and brilliant white teeth. His friends immediately recognised him.

    The suspect - a 50-year-old man - phoned up to deny his involvement, but later together with his lawyer confessed, leading detectives on Saturday to a wood near Zwettl, a town 55 miles north of Vienna, police said. Here he had a holiday home.

    Mr Geiger said the suspect had marked four trees so he could find the sculpture. "There was a lot of snow. We had to clear it away. We dug for an hour. Eventually we found a metal box. The sculpture was wrapped inside in linen and plastic. It was all properly waterproofed. Everything was professionally done." The artwork had suffered only minor damage. The suspect had only buried the sculpture there recently, Mr Geiger said. "For most of the time he kept it in a suitcase under his bed of his flat."

    How did the police feel, knowing the "Saliera" was safe? "It was a very good feeling. It was a high-risk operation. But it worked."

    The recovery of the treasure is likely to relieve pressure on museum officials who faced accusations of ineptitude when it disappeared on May 11 2003. The theft provoked angry questions in parliament; Austria's biggest tabloid, the Kronenzeitung, called it "scandalous".

    The saltcellar is Cellini's only fully authenticated work in gold. A riotous publicity hound who was jailed for murder and then released after the intervention of the Medicis and the pope, Cellini was a gifted follower of Michelangelo and penned a self-promoting "autobiography". It was translated into German by Goethe, who regarded him as a key Renaissance figure. Cellini created the 28cm high Saliera in Paris between 1540 and 1543 after it was commissioned by King Francis 1 of France. It later passed into the possession of Archduke Ferdinand of Tyrol, before ending up in the imperial Viennese collection.

    "Our biggest fear was that it would get melted down," Mr Geiger said. The suspect in his text message had said he was "angry that the police were involved and said he was considering turning it into scrap".