Antique Artworks Vandalized In Museum Island Berlin

63 artworks were sprayed with a mysterious oily substance at the Pergamon Museum, the Neues Museum and the Alte Nationalgalerie.

Oct 21, 2020By Antonis Chaliakopoulos, MSc Museum Studies, BA History & Archaeology
Left: The director of Antique Egyptian Department, Friederike Seyfried, shows the media a stain on the Sarcophagus of the prophet Ahmose at the Neues Museum in Berlin, Markus Schreiber, via AP. Right: People walking through a colonnade in Museum Island Berlin, Markus Schreiber, via AP

Yesterday the German media reported that antique artworks were vandalized on October 3rd in the Museum Island Berlin. The unknown perpetrator(s) sprayed 63 artifacts with a mysterious oily substance. The involved museums are the Pergamon Museum, the Neues Museum, and the Alte Nationalgalerie.

The German media are making a connection with a well-known, right-wing conspiracy theorist, while the police investigate the case.

The German newspaper Zeit referred to the event as “one of the largest iconoclastic attacks in post-war Germany”.

The Attack On The Museum Island Berlin

A stain on the Sarcophagus of the prophet Ahmose inside the Egyptian Court of the Neues Museum, Markus Schreiber, via AP

On October 3rd the Pergamon Museum had just reopened after months of closure due to COVID-19. On that date, an unknown number of perpetrators sprayed 63 artifacts with a mysterious oily substance leaving small but noticeable dark marks.

The attack affected artifacts mainly in the Neues Museum, the Pergamon Museum, and a few objects in the exhibition building “Pergamonmuseum The Panorama” and the Alte Nationalgalerie.

Among the damaged objects were Egyptian statues, images of Greek gods, sarcophagi, and the frames of 19th-century European paintings. Contrary to initial reports, the vandalism did not directly affect paintings.

The police refused to give details on the exact contents of the liquid. However, the Berlin State Museums’ Rathgen Research Laboratory has analyzed it.

It is still unknown if one or many individuals are responsible for the attack on Museum Island Berlin.

Die Zeit reports that, in the Pergamon Museum, dark stains are easily visible on a stone frieze and a sculpture from Tell Half dating back to almost 3000 years. Besides, the sarcophagus of the Prophet Ahmose suffered considerable damage with stains disfiguring some of its hieroglyphs.

In a press release today, Berlin’s State Museums said that:

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“The amount of liquid sprayed in each case was small, and in many cases, the soiling could be cleaned quickly. Visibly soiled objects such as stone and wood sculptures are already being examined and treated for restoration. Good results have already been achieved here, but the restoration measures have not yet been completed.”

The attack follows a series of vandalisms including graffiti outside the Neues Museum.

The Event Remained A Secret For 19 Days

Reconstruction of the Ishtar-Gate in Pergamon museum, David von Becker, via Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The German media Zeit and Deutschlandfunk first reported the incident on October 20. This means that the event remained a secret for a whole 19 days. During this period, neither the public nor the surrounding museums, who could also be at risk, were noticed.

Berlin’s State Museums defended their stance:

“For reasons of investigation tactics, the museums were previously obliged to maintain silence about the incident.”

Another possible explanation is that the authorities kept the Museum Island Berlin attack a secret to avoid inspiring imitators. The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which manages Berlin’s Museum Island, would probably like to avoid extended news coverage of the incident too. That is because security is a sensitive issue entangled with the discussion of repatriating colonial artifacts.

In any case, the German media appeared skeptical:

“Whoever thinks that the Berlin museums got away with this lightly is underestimating the scope of this attack,” says the Zeit.

Germany’s culture minister, Monika Gruetters condemned the attack and stated: “there is justified hope that the damage can be repaired”. However, she noted that Berlin’s State Museums need to answer questions over their security precautions.

The police are now launching an investigation looking for witnesses, while the institutions on Berlin’s Museum Island are increasing their security measures.

Who Is Behind The Attack On the Museum Island Berlin?

The director of Antique Egyptian Department, Friederike Seyfried, shows the media a stain on the Sarcophagus of the prophet Ahmose at the Neues Museum in Berlin, Markus Schreiber, via AP

The identity of those responsible remains unknown as there is no CCTV footage able to offer insight into the vandalism. In today’s press release, Berlin State Museums said:

“The perpetrator(s) acted very discreetly and apparently used moments where the guards and other visitors couldn’t see what they were doing”

Regardless, the German media are openly suspicious of the right-wing conspiracy ideologist Attila Hildmann. In August and September, Hildmann called the Pergamon Museum “Satan’s Throne” on Telegram where he has 100,000 followers. Hildmann also called the Museum the center of “a global Satanist scene and coronavirus criminals” who abuse children and use the Pergamon altar for human sacrifices.

A similar case to the one in Berlin’s Museum Island took place in the Greek capital of Athens in 2018. Back then, two women of Bulgarian origin sprayed hundreds of objects with an oily liquid. The attack affected objects at the Benaki Museum, the Byzantine Museum, and the National Museum of History. The women said that they sprayed antiquities and other artifacts with oil and myrrh because “the Holy Scripture says it is miraculous”. They also argued that they acted under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to scare away evil demons. The court finally sentenced the women to four years in prison.

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By Antonis ChaliakopoulosMSc Museum Studies, BA History & ArchaeologyAntonis is an archaeologist with a passion for museums and heritage and a keen interest in aesthetics and the reception of classical art. He holds an MSc in Museum Studies from the University of Glasgow and a BA in History and Archaeology from the University of Athens (NKUA) where he is currently working on his PhD.