Vandals Deface Dozens of Artworks in Berlin Museums

BERLIN — Vandals squirted dozens of artworks and objects throughout Berlin’s Museum Island complex with “an oily liquid,” officials said on Wednesday, raising questions about the safety of Germany’s priceless collections.

The police in Berlin have been investigating the attacks on at least 63 pieces, held in three central Berlin museums, for more than two weeks. After evaluating hours of video footage from surveillance cameras, the police said they still had no clear leads in the inquiry.

“To this day, we are not able to pinpoint exactly when the objects were damaged,” Carsten Pfohl a leading investigator with the Berlin state police said at a news conference.

Although the precise time is unknown, the authorities believe the damage was carried out during regular opening hours on Oct. 3, a national holiday when Germans mark the reunification of the former East and West Germany. The police issued a statement asking the public and anyone who was at the museum during its opening hours that day to send them any tips or information that might help their investigation.

About 3,000 people visited that day at the museum, which is limiting attendance because of the coronavirus outbreak. Although visitors enter based on time slots, no one is required to leave personal information — though the museum might have it for visitors who booked tickets in advance online.

Mr. Pfohl and the National Museums in Berlin, which oversees the collections housed in the Museum Island complex’s five buildings, refused to comment on German media reports linking the attack to a German conspiracy theorist who has repeatedly told his followers that one of the institutions, the Pergamon Museum, is linked to global Satanism.

On Aug. 23, Attila Hildmann, a vegan chef and cookbook author who has supported the theories of QAnon, circulated a message to his tens of thousands of followers on the messenger service Telegram that called for the destruction of the museum, which houses the Pergamon Altar. Some followers of QAnon in Germany have fixated on that huge ancient Greek monument, believing it to be the throne of Satan described in the Book of Revelation.

Mr. Hildmann could not be reached for comment on Wednesday, but he posted a link to the reports of the vandalism in his Telegram channel, repeating the claim that Satan’s throne is inside the museum.

“Go for it, charge me,” he dared prosecutors in his post.

In July, the authorities in Mr. Hildmann’s home state of Brandenburg opened an investigation against him in a separate matter, on suspicion of inciting his followers to commit hate crimes, but have not pressed charges.

Markus Farr, a spokesman for the National Museums in Berlin, said on Wednesday that they were awaiting the outcome of the investigation.

He also responded to criticism about keeping information about the vandalism secret, calling the decision a tactical move. Two leading German media outlets, Die Zeit weekly and Deutschlandfunk radio, first reported the damage late Tuesday.

None of the most prominent objects in the three museums where the attacks took place had been damaged, said Friederike Seyfried, the director of the Egyptian collection on the Museum Island. The centerpiece of one of those institutions, the Neues Museum, is a famous 3,500-year-old limestone-and-stucco bust of Queen Nefertiti.

Journalists from Die Zeit and Deutschlandfunk on Tuesday reported seeing “visible marks” on 19th-century paintings, stone sculptures and Egyptian sarcophagi, one of which was shown to reporters on Wednesday. A sarcophagus of the prophet Ahmose (332-30 B.C.) had a stain, looking like liquid had landed on the stone, then dribbled down.

“The museums were open as usual throughout, and most of the damaged objects have been cleaned,” Mr. Farr said, adding that any damage to them “would not be noticed.”

“Some of the stones are still being analyzed regarding what kind restoration is necessary,” he said.

Investigators said they believe that because the vandals could have used a bottle, water gun or a clown flower to squirt the liquid on to the pieces, they were able to move through the museum without being detected. The exact substance used has been identified, but is not being named.

The vandalism is the latest in a string of incidents that have raised questions about security in German museums.

Three years ago, the Bode Museum, another building on the Museum Island, was the site of a spectacular robbery of a 221-pound gold coin. Last year, thieves made off with jewels of gold and precious stones from a museum in the eastern city of Dresden.

“Once again, however, the National Museums in Berlin must be asked questions about their security measures,” said Monika Grütters, Germany’s minister for culture. “It must be clarified how this much damage could have gone unnoticed, and how such attacks are to be prevented in the future.”

Ms. Grütters demanded that “a comprehensive report” on the security situation be carried out and submitted to the National Museums in Berlin Foundation’s board of directors.

Security questions also arose this year when the Museum Island institutions were closed to the public as part of government measures aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus. In June, Mr. Hildmann began holding rallies on the steps of the Neues Museum denouncing public health restrictions and calling the neighboring Pergamon Museum the center of a “global Satanic scene” and home to “corona criminals.”

The authorities in Berlin eventually forced the demonstrations to take place elsewhere in the city. But before that, the museum responded on its doorstep to the conspiracy theorists — by hanging a large, red banner across the pillars that line the front of the building. “For global openness and democratic values,” it read. “Against racism, anti-Semitism, nationalism and agitation.”

Ben Decker contributed reporting from Boston.

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