Stealing the Saliera
On the value of salt, French royalty, and Austria’s most notorious art theft
Salt made Austria rich.
In a country without gold, silver, or even a port, salt deposits from the prehistoric sea under the alps was a precious resource for trade. People received their wages in salt. The city of Salzburg and the Salzkammergut region of the country both take their names from the so-called white gold.
It’s easy to forget this when you stand in Spar, listening to Europop on the supermarket radio and weighing up boxes of salt that cost less than €2 a kilo. But, in 2003, Austria was reminded of how different things had once been. When the fifth most high-value art theft in history took place in Vienna, the world’s media, the police, gallery directors and the public were fixated on a salt cellar.
There are, however, salt cellars and salt cellars. My parents had an earthenware salt pig and a teaspoon. I’ve got my eye on a Le Creuset grinder (Volcanic is my glaze of choice) which retails at €40 and already feels extravagant.
But the salt cellar in question is by the Italian goldsmith Cellini. It dates from the 1540s and is valued at 50 million euros.
Known in Vienna’s Kunsthistorischesmuseum as the ‘Sogenannte Saliera’ (the so-called Saliera), the artwork is 10 inches of solid gold and ebony. It was commissioned for the table of Francois I of France who is remembered, among other things, for initiating the French Renaissance and for his nickname, Francis of the Large Nose.
Cellini would have been in his early 40s when he crafted the Saliera. Originally from Florence, his musically talented family pushed him towards learning cornet and flute until the age of 15 when he was apprenticed to a goldsmith instead. He was banished from Florence for brawling, bounced from city to city perfecting his craft (and committing more crimes), and eventually landed in a Roman jail. As a prisoner, he was so unpopular that a fellow inmate tried to murder him by tricking him into eating diamond dust.
In contrast to Cellini’s life, the Saliera is an incredible feat of craftsmanship and a mindboggling symbol of wealth. Salt was precious, even for the royal family, and so it deserved to be lavishly displayed in the centre of the table. The salt cellar Cellini made depicts Neptune and Demeter, the gods of the ocean and agriculture. Neptune, with his trident, is surrounded by seahorses and sits beside the model ship which holds the salt. Demeter sits beside a temple which holds pepper. The Saliera is so intricate and valuable that it’s known in the KHM as ‘the Mona Lisa of sculpture.’
Robert Mang didn’t know any of this when he stole it.
Mang, a 50-year-old security engineer, had been left by his wife and had been in poor health. One rainy day in Vienna, he joined a tour of the KHM. He later confessed to being more interested in the young Italians on the tour than in the artwork. Inside the museum, he noticed several catastrophic failings in the security system. The building was covered in scaffolding which provided a covered, easy pathway to the unsecured windows. He saw outdated security scanners and glass cases that hadn’t been properly reinforced.
A few weeks later, Mang found himself at a club near the museum. He left the party in the early hours of the morning and climbed the scaffolding. He claims that he did it just to see if he was right.
At 3.55 am, the alarm went off, but false alarms were so common in the museum that it was ignored by the three guards on duty.
It wasn’t until 8.20 am that the broken glass and empty cabinet were discovered by a porter cleaning the gallery. In the intervening four hours, Mang had taken the Saliera home and hidden it in a box in his room. It wasn’t until he saw the evening news that he realised the magnitude of what he had done.
Austria was in uproar. The museum director appealed for information. A reward of tens of thousands of euros was offered for information leading to the arrest of the thief and the return of the Saliera. But, ultimately, there was nothing to do but wait. It would have been impossible to sell such a famous work of art, so the thief was stuck. There were two theories: either the culprit was an unhinged private collector who wanted it for themselves, or the museum was about to be extorted.
It was October 2005 before Mang did anything else. Initially, he had been too panicked to act. Then the museum’s insurance company began to receive texts about the Saliera. First, he demanded 5 million euros, then 10 million. Neptune’s trident arrived by post along with a note threatening to melt the rest of the artwork down if the ransom wasn’t paid.
With interest in the case reawakened, it wasn’t long before Mang made a mistake. He was caught on CCTV in a phone shop barely 10 minutes from the museum and the texts were quickly linked back to him. He turned himself in and, during his trial, called himself an idiot. The police dug for an hour in the grounds of his holiday home north of Vienna and found the Saliera safely wrapped in linen and plastic. Mang was sentenced to four years for his crimes.
After its ordeal, the Saliera was quickly put back on display in the KHM. Neptune got his trident back and the only trace of the incident is a few scratches from the broken glass. The theft made the artwork famous, but the museum makes no mention of it in the description of the object. One imagines, though, that the new case is bulletproof.
For those wishing to take home their own gilded salt cellar (whether to keep it in full view or hide it under the bed), the gift shop sells a 12cm replica of the Saliera for a cool €160.
You can visit the Saliera in Vienna’s Kunsthistorischesmuseum.