Recently, a massive gold coin known as the “Big Maple Leaf” was stolen from a German museum. The coin was approximately 21” in diameter, minted from pure .9999 gold, and weighed about 220 pounds. The crime has become an international story because it is one of the most brazen heists in modern history. The theft of the Big Maple Leaf leaves more questions than answers. How was the coin stolen, how many people were involved, and although the coin has a face value of a $1 million, what do you do with it? After all, it isn’t like you can go to a bank and exchange it for cash. The coin in its current form is essentially worthless to anyone other than the rightful owners. To understand the possibilities of the fate of the Big Maple Leaf we must take a look at one of the biggest gold heists in history, but first let’s examine how such a crime could have been pulled off in the first place.
A Theory on How the Coin Was Stolen
To fully grasp the complexity and boldness of such a robbery, we need to gain a full appreciation of the geography of the Bode-Museum that housed the Big Maple Leaf. The front of the museum is where the Spree River splits in Berlin. Crossing the river is essentially a two-lane road. The river hugs both sides of the museum and the streets along the west bank of the river are loitered with cars on each side. The back of the museum has an extensive network of rail tracks that separate the museum from other museums in the area. The number of automobiles lining the streets and the number of adjacent museums and restaurants in the area are significant. It would be relatively easy to inconspicuously park the getaway vehicle on the street. However, the number of museums in the area, including The Bode-Museum, presumably would provide an extensive network of surveillance cameras, making escaping with a 220-pound gold coin nearly impossible.
This is to say nothing about the security the criminals would presumably encounter inside the Brode-Museum. The museum houses priceless sculptures and paintings from the 13th – 18th centuries, Late Antique and Byzantine Art, not to mention an extensive collection of medals and coins that once included the Big Maple Leaf. It should be expected that a museum boasting one of the largest collections of coins in the world, including 102,000 coins from ancient Greece, and 50,000 ancient Roman coins, would have security only rivaled by Fort Knox. To successfully navigate the museum without being caught on some type of surveillance or triggering an alarm would require an intimate, if not inside knowledge of the security system.
The Big Maple Leaf was encased in bulletproof glass. Obviously the glass wasn’t impermeable but it would take some time to create a big enough hole to free the giant gold coin. This would also take tools or weapons that would need to be removed from the museum as to not leave evidence behind. From reports, the bulletproof glass case was “violently shaken.” A sledgehammer, crow bar, pick, and even a high-powered gun are all possible weapons the thieves could have used to penetrate the coin’s casing.
The thieves have now successfully breached the bulletproof glass case, have taken possession of the Big Maple Leaf, and are on their way through the museum to exit through the window which they used to break into the building. It would take at least two people to carry the coin through the museum if a moving dolly was not used. The dolly would just be additional equipment that would need to be removed from the museum. To safely get everything, including the equipment used in the robbery, out of the museum it would take a minimum of three people but most likely four or more people. The thieves left a ladder by the railroad tracks behind the museum that was presumably used to climb to the window to break in the museum. The ladder brings up other issues. Did the robbers underestimate the weight of the coin and were forced to use an extra person, thereby leaving the ladder behind. How do you get the coin safely down the ladder? Perhaps the thieves didn’t care about the condition of the coin and simply threw it out of the window, climbed down the ladder, and carried the gold coin away into the night.
The thieves at this point have made it out of the museum, placed the coin in the getaway car, and returned to their hideout. Now what? As stated before, the possibilities of actually profiting from such a heist are extremely limited. Let’s assume if the thieves are smart enough to plan and execute a robbery as elaborate as this was that they had a plan for what to do after they stole the coin. The obvious answer would be to have a furnace ready and waiting to melt the gold coin. History would say this is a little more complex and a lot more difficult to pull off.
The Brink's-Mat Robbery
The most famous gold heist in modern times is the Brink’s-Mat robbery. At the time it was dubbed the “crime of the century.” Over $600 million (today’s value) worth of gold bullion and diamonds were stolen from the Brink’s-Mat warehouse, Unit 7 of the Heathrow International Trading Estate. For context the location is near Heathrow Airport in west London. The robbery took place on November 26, 1983. A six-man gang were tipped off by a member of the security staff that there would be over $4 million in cash in the vault. The gang held the security staff hostage, poured gasoline on them and threatened to light them on fire if they weren’t let into the vault. Naturally, the security guards complied and opened the vault.
Instead of finding cash, there were boxes of gold bullion, totaling 6,800 bars of gold, weighing 3 tons. The gold was property of Johnson Matthey Bankers Ltd. and intended to be sent to the Far East. The gang loaded the gold into the getaway van with the help of a forklift and drove off with the bottom of the van scraping the road.
A couple of days after the robbery, police were notified of a hot crucible being used in a shed located in a London neighborhood. The shed was outside the jurisdiction of the police and was never investigated. The crucible was the property of a local jeweler, Brian Palmer who claimed ignorance to the source of the gold. About half of the gold was believed to be laundered by melting it and mixing it with copper and brass to give it the appearance of scrap gold and penny coins.
There is no other option for disposing of a gold coin like the Big Maple Leaf other than melting the gold. There is also no shortage of ways to melt the gold available on the internet to even the most novice of gold robbers. The melting point of gold is 1,948 degrees Fahrenheit, meaning these crucibles are not likely suitable to be used in a home. Most likely they could be used on open land or an industrial setting safe from prying eyes. Ingot molds to reshape the gold once it is melted are also readily available online. The volume of gold of the melted giant coin would be about 100 kilo bars. It is a substantial amount of gold to inconspicuously get rid of and very difficult to successfully pull off without anyone incriminating themselves or the others involved in the crime. Another interesting fact about this robbery is that none of the other extremely valuable coins were touched. The robbers bypassed literally thousands of gold coins that most likely would have been easier to carry out of the museum, melt, and sell than one giant coin. A single Roman gold coin sold for almost $1.5 million dollars last year. I guess this was pocket change for the criminals which is also the beauty of the gold coins. They would fit in your pocket.
Where is the Giant Gold Maple Leaf?
The truth is likely to come out in the not so distant future about who stole the Big Maple Leaf. The likelihood of finding the Big Maple Leaf again is not good much less finding it in museum quality. Chances are the giant gold coin has already been melted and waiting to be laundered on the black market.