Let’s start by setting the scene. Bergen, Norway’s second-largest city, is an international hub filled with remnants of days of old, culture, and tradition. 

The city is home to more than 20 museums that cover an array of themes and areas, such as fisheries, trade, architecture, contemporary art, archaeological excavations, and much more. 

Among all these museums, the University Museum in Bergen stands out with numerous fascinating collections. 

When it comes to Norwegian cultural and natural history, the University Museum proudly hosts some of the country’s largest collections. 

And it was the University Museum that was targeted by thieves in 2017.

The robbery of Viking treasure

During a windy night in August of 2017, robbers broke into the University Museum and stole 397 Viking Age artifacts and objects. 

The thieves used the scaffolding that was set up around the museum building to climb all the way to the storerooms on the 5th and 6th floor, where artifacts from the Bronze Age and Iron Age were kept. At the time, no internal security mechanisms were in place at the museum.

The museum and the police dedicated substantial time to uncover the circumstances behind the thievery. 

Here’s what happened.

The scaffolding was set up in early June, it was enveloped by a tarpaulin, and an alarm system was installed on the scaffolding. 

However, on that particular night of the robbery on August 12, the harsh weather conditions set off the alarm twice as the wind caught the tarpaulin. 

The security guards went to check the alarm the first two times. 

However, when the alarm was triggered for a third time – this time by actual thieves – they did not bother to check it again, believing that it was the wind’s fault.

That’s when and how the thieves broke in.

Posters of the stolen treasure that is still missing, at the University Museum in Bergen. Photo: The Viking Herald

The (inter)national campaign to reclaim the treasure

There were close to 300 Viking arm rings, neck rings, different types of brooches and pins, beads, and bead necklaces among the 397 stolen items.

As soon as the Museum detected the robbery, a national campaign to retrieve the Viking treasure was launched – numerous Norwegian and international media outlets, cultural institutions, and various other organizations started raising awareness about the missing heritage.

Both local and international authorities started working on the case, and Interpol and the World Customs Organisation were also involved.

The University Museum itself launched an awareness campaign to prevent the objects from ending up on the art market. 

By publicly broadcasting the information on the stolen treasure to the world, the idea was to discourage the thieves from selling the items. 

The museum published hundreds of pictures of the stolen Viking objects on social media, hoping that discouraged looters would eventually return the artifacts.

Thief has change of heart

After a few months, the awareness campaign generated the results that the museum was hoping for.

Early in October, a person walked into the police station in Bergen. He told the police he had done something he deeply regretted. 

Based on his confession, the police launched an investigation effort that resulted in two men being arrested and an additional person ending up in the health services’ care. 

The thieves were allegedly connected to the drug milieu. The police in Bergen revealed that the burglary didn’t seem to be very organized or planned. 

The investigation led to the recovery of most of the objects. 

At a press conference on November 17, the police announced they had successfully recovered a large number of missing items. 

Around 300 of the stolen objects have been recovered. The artifacts were found muddled in a large blue bag, and many were severely damaged. 

A total of approximately 70 tortoise brooches were stolen. Some were badly damaged, according to the museum, others had superficial damage, and some had no visible damage. 

The police recovered around 300 stolen objects. They were found muddled in a large blue bag, and many were badly damaged. Photo: The Viking Herald

Irreparable damage 

The stolen artifacts from the Viking Age are more than a thousand years old. They were buried in the ground for centuries, so some of them were very fragile and damaged to begin with. 

The artifacts are usually safeguarded in special packaging – some are kept in special foam, some are placed in plastic bags, and some are protected and placed on shelves.

Furthermore, there are strict rules and regulations for access, lighting conditions, and climate control when it comes to handling the collections. 

As one would expect, the thieves did not take particular care about safeguarding the objects.

According to the museum, the artifacts were damaged to various degrees when they were returned – some were exposed to heat, some were broken, some had their surfaces damaged, and some had traces of tools on them. 

In the end, the museum decided to classify the damage according to four categories: extensive damage, comprehensive damage, slight damage, and no visible damage.

Implications for research

Furthermore, the incident will also have important implications for future research. 

As significant damage was inflicted on some items, a certain amount of their research potential has been lost. 

The Viking artifacts are regularly used in research by both Norwegian and foreign scientists. 

When such objects are missing, the University Museum points out in its “Stolen Viking treasure” exhibition, it is a hard blow for cultural heritage management and research.

As the museum cannot know how the items were stored and treated while they were stolen, future researchers’ efforts will be characterized by a significant level of uncertainty.

94 objects still missing

Unfortunately, 94 unique Viking objects are still missing, including parts of artifacts that have been returned.

The museum provided many examples of such missing parts – for example, only the pin of a penannular brooch has been returned. 

The search for the missing Viking treasure is ongoing.

In order to continue raising awareness, the Cultural History Collections of the University Museum in Bergen are hosting an exhibition on the incident, entitled “The stolen Viking Treasure.”

“The stolen objects are unique and irreplaceable. They are our common local, national, and international heritage. The Viking Age is an integral part of the Nordic identity,” a message from the exhibition notes.

Have something to share?

If you suspect a cultural object originates from the Bergen Museum, you can always contact the University Museum or the International Council of Museums

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