Police recover stolen Renaissance sculpture worth tens of millions

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The Independent Online

A suspect in the theft of a €50m (£34m) Renaissance sculpture has turned himself in, and police said yesterday they had recovered the work, stolen almost three years ago from an Austrian museum.

As the suspect was being questioned, experts established the authenticity of the 16th-century, gold-plated Saliera, a salt cellar sculpture by the Florentine master Benvenuto Cellini.It was found near Zwettl, about 55 miles north of Vienna.

The suspect, who has not been named, gave himself up after police released photographs of him. He had been captured on film by a surveillance camera while buying a mobile phone, which was used during ransom negotiations last year. He went to the police after acquaintances told him he looked similar to the person being sought for the theft.

Authorities have worked to track down the Saliera since it was stolen from a showcase at the Art History Museum in Vienna on 11 May 2003. In August that year a letter was sent to an insurance company demanding €5m for its return. On Friday, police said the blackmailer actually demanded €10m. The letter reportedly contained porcelain powder from the work.

Wilfried Seipel, the museum's director, expressed joy yesterday at the Saliera's recovery, calling it "the most beautiful moment of my life". The 10-inch, ornately carved sculpture, with gold, ebony and enamel, features a male figure holding a trident and confronting a female figure. A small vessel meant to hold salt is placed next to the male figure. It was created between 1540 and 1543 on commission from King Francis I of France, considered the nation's first Renaissance monarch.

On Friday, officials said police had recovered the trident, which had been separated from the main sculpture.

The theft revealed serious security gaps at the museum. The thief or thieves broke into the second floor from scaffolding, smashed a window and a glass showcase, removed the Saliera and left the way they came. Museum officials said guards heard an alarm but discounted it as false.