Berlin police appeal for witnesses after museum artefacts vandalised

Philip Oltermann in Berlin
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Markus Schreiber/AP</span>
Photograph: Markus Schreiber/AP

Police in Berlin have appealed for witnesses to help identify a mystery attacker who vandalised dozens of ancient artefacts and artworks at four galleries in the German capital.

Details of extensive damage to 63 objects emerged only this week, after police failed to identify a culprit via surveillance camera footage and started to contact visitors who had booked tickets to the Pergamon Museum, the Museum for Islamic Art, the Neues Museum and the Alte Nationalgalerie on 3 October.

While 3,000 people paid to visit the galleries, only 1,400 had booked their tickets online and left behind contact details in keeping with coronavirus contact-tracing regulations.

Related: Berlin: vandalism of museum artefacts 'linked to conspiracy theorists'

The perpetrator’s motive, meanwhile, remains unclear as police said there was “no thematic link” between the objects, which had been sprayed with an oily substance from what is suspected to have been a covertly carried water pistol or syringe.

At a press conference on Wednesday, investigators acknowledged but declined to comment on media reports linking the attack to followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory cult, some of whose proponents claim that the Pergamon Museum is the centre of the “global satanism scene” because it holds a reconstruction of the ancient Greek Pergamon Altar.

Attila Hildmann, a former vegan celebrity chef who has become one of Germany’s best-known proponents of the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory, posted messages on Telegram in August and September in which he suggested that the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, was using the altar for “human sacrifices”.

“We don’t want to take part in any speculation at this stage”, said Carsten Pfohl of the Berlin state criminal police when asked about Hildmann’s messages.

The mystery attacker had caused “the most extensive damage to the museum island collections to date”, the museums’ deputy director general, Christina Haak, said on Monday.

Haak described the attack as “a very, very painful experience”.

“We are disturbed because we don’t have an answer. We don’t know whom we are facing,” he added.

Much of the actual damage is small enough that it will have been missed by tourists who have visited the galleries since, however.

At the Neues Museum, a hand-sized stain is visible on the midriff of the limestone sarcophagus of prophet Ahmose, one of several objects from the ancient Ptolemaic Kingdom on display. But a stain on the sarcophagus case of a relative of king Nectanebo II, dating back to 360-342BC, is barely visible to the untrained eye.

According to a report in Die Zeit, another object that was damaged is the Tell Halaf bird of prey, a 3,000-year-old monumental stone sculpture originally excavated from what is now northern Syria.

When asked why the museum authorities and police had kept quiet about the incident for two weeks, Pfohl said the priority had been to assess the full extent of the damage and contact the museums that had loaned the damaged artefacts.

The galleries’ collections are overseen by the Prussian Heritage Foundation, which has faced increased scrutiny in recent months over what critics see as a “dysfunctional” and “structurally overwhelmed” management.