Meticulously hand-crafted in gold, ivory and enamel, Benvetuto Cellini’s Saliera (Salt Cellar) is the epitome of opulence, a masterpiece by any standard. It’s elegant design, consisting of a male figure representing the sea facing a nude female figure that personifies earth, is unmistakable and unique. The sea figure rests beside a boat-shaped vessel for salt, while the earth figure reclines next to a temple shaped receptacle for pepper. Completed in 1543 for Francis I of France, the Saliera passed through the Habsburg Collection before finding a place in the vast galleries of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum in the 19th Century. It is considered to be the only work of precious metal by Cellini in existence, currently valued at nearly $60,000,000.
The highly recognizable Cellini Saliera became the target of an unwise thief at 4:00 a.m. on May 11, 2003. The museum was partly covered by scaffolding, which further aided the thief in an already easy job of breaking into the building. A security alarm was set off during the heist, and the thief hurriedly exited with the Saliera. However, he didn’t need to be so rushed. The security guard on duty disregarded the alarm as a glitch and reset it, never bothering to investigate the source. It took four hours before anyone realized the irreplaceable Saliera was gone.
Three slow years passed without word.
Stealing the Cellini Saliera was laughably simple. However, the cold reality of disposing of such a hot object surely proved problematic for the thief right away. Quickly realizing that the Saliera was unsellable and worthless to him, it was then hidden. A break in the case came in January of 2006, when the thief was identified using video footage. Robert Mang, a “specialist in security alarms”, turned himself in to police in the wake of the media attention. He led investigators to a wooded area north of Vienna, where the Saliera was found buried in a lead box. Mang was sentenced to four years in prison for the theft.
Benvenuto Cellini’s golden Saliera was returned to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, where it stands not only as a remarkable one-of-a-kind masterpiece, but as testament to lax security and the futility of art theft. -T.S.