No clues in theft of figurine from Vienna museum

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

VIENNA, Austria -- Vienna's Art History Museum said Tuesday it would consider negotiating with whoever stole a 16th-century, gold-plated sculpture by Florentine master Benvenuto Cellini, a significant Italian Renaissance work valued at $57.5 million.

"This was an attack against art, an attack against the museum and an attack against the world's cultural heritage," said museum director Wilfried Seipel, visibly shaken, his voice cracking at times.

Thieves broke into the museum before dawn Sunday, climbing up scaffolding on the building and smashing a second-floor window to seize the 10-inch object, known as the "saliera" or saltcellar, from its case.

An alarm went off Sunday at 3:55 a.m., but three security guards on duty failed to respond. The "catastrophic" theft was discovered by a cleaning lady four hours later, Seipel said.

A $81,200 reward is being offered for information leading to the object's recovery.

, said the director, who also suggested the museum would be willing to talk to the thieves.

"We are open to negotiate with anyone," he said.

Seipel said the theft was "highly professional."

The ornately carved object, with gold, ebony and enamel, features a male figure holding a trident who represents the sea confronting a female figure representing the earth. Next to the male figure is a small vessel meant to hold salt.

The three guards were suspended pending an investigation, and Seipel offered Monday to step down from his post at the state-run museum. Austria's education and culture minister did not accept his resignation, saying responsibility for the theft rests with the guards.

At a news conference, Seipel said the guards believed Sunday's incident was a false alarm, which are common. There were four false alarms at the museum in the previous month.

Still, he said, the guards' behavior "cannot be explained."

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