The Truth About The $57 Million Salt And Pepper Holder Once Stolen By Thieves

In May 2003, Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum was broken into on an early  Sunday morning, and the thieves got away with one of the museum's most valued pieces — the Saliera. It's a gold-plated saltcellar sculpture that dates back to the 16th century. The piece was created by Renaissance sculptor and goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini, who was one of the most prominent Mannerist artists (via Britannica). The Saliera was displayed in the museum encased by glass, and when it was stolen, the alarm went off. However, the museum guards deemed it as a false alarm and didn't bother to check whether anything was amiss.

According to a report by The New York Times, the thieves were able to enter the museum by way of a scaffolding that was erected by the building. They then broke a window to gain access. The Saliera was discovered missing on that same morning by a cleaning lady. The theft was disastrous for the museum, as the Saliera was considered "the Mona Lisa of sculptures" said museum director Wilfried Seipel. At the time of the theft, the Saliera was said to be worth about $57 million. There were no other pieces stolen from the room where the Saliera was located, which led Seipel to believe that the thief was a private collector who wanted that particular piece.

The search for the Saliera

A few years went by, and there were no leads about who took the precious salt and pepper holder. In October 2005, however, authorities received a text message from an anonymous sender demanding 5 million euros in exchange for the Saliera, per Beyond Arts. The sender also threatened to melt the artwork if the demand was not met. Authorities were able to trace where the phone used to send the message was purchased, and they were able to access a surveillance video of the person buying the phone. Footage from the video was released to the public, and soon the thief turned himself in.

It was later revealed that the Saliera had been recently buried in the woods. As reported by Reuters, the Saliera was recovered and returned back to the museum in 2006 where it was again put back on its display. It is said to be the most valuable piece in the museum's collection, as it is the only authenticated gold artwork by Benvenuto Cellini.

Who stole the Saliera?

The man who stole the Saliera was identified as 50-year-old Robert Mang, who was a security engineer. Before the theft, Mang went on a tour at the Kunsthisorisches Museum where he noticed faults in the security system. After a few weeks, Mang was partying at a club near the museum. As he left the party, saw the scaffolding beside the building and took the opportunity to steal the Saliera. When asked why he did it, he answered, "The Saliera is so handy. I couldn't have taken a painting that easily," (via Andritz). He said he just wanted to prove that the museum's security system was faulty and that it was a spur-of-the-moment decision to steal something.

According to the police, Mang wasn't aware that what he had stolen was a valuable piece of artwork. He only knew its cost when he saw it on the news. Per The Guardian, the Saliera was buried in the woods near Mang's holiday home. "We dug for an hour. Eventually we found a metal box. The sculpture was wrapped inside in linen and plastic. It was all properly waterproofed," authorities said. Mang had kept the Saliera in a suitcase hidden under his bed after he stole it, and he buried it fairly recently before he turned himself in. Mang was sentenced to 4 years in prison for the theft (per the Los Angeles Times).