The US$50m trophy, the king’s gold chain, and his spear … Bulawayo’s expensive museum heists

21 May, 2023 - 00:05 0 Views
The US$50m trophy, the king’s gold chain, and his spear … Bulawayo’s expensive museum heists King Lobengula statue at the Natural History Museum

The Sunday News

Bruce Ndlovu
Sunday Life Reporter

WHEN police raided Bongani Mahlobo’s Hope Fountain homestead on the morning of Tuesday, 14 June 2006, they found King Lobengula’s gold-coated spear on the thatched roof of his humble abode.

The police raid came a little over a week after Mahlobo had sent shockwaves around the country when he made it out of the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe (NMMZ) with the spear, measuring 1.2m, a 45cm black fly whisk and a small brown clay pot that belonged to King Lobengula

After he was apprehended, Mahlobo, a self-styled traditional healer, claimed that he had been under the influence of the ancestors when he decided to repossess the last Ndebele king’s belongs.

“He told the officers that he was a descendant of Lobengula and stole the artifacts under ancestral spirits’ influence. He said he was a traditional healer and his ancestors guided him to the historic site where he took the artifacts,” said then Bulawayo police spokesperson, Precious Simango.

Mahlobo’s “heist” in the end, amounted to a little more than a burglary, as it did not come at a great loss and looked amateurish, given the manner in which he was apprehended.

Natural History Museum

However, it was just another famous incident episode which saw one of the city’s most trusted warehouses for historical and cultural artifacts fall prey to thieves. Earlier, at the beginning of December 2002, Bulawayo woke up to the news that King Lobengula’s gold chain had been stolen from the Natural History Museum.

The chain, which was thought to be secure behind glass display cabinets, was at that stage over a century old, having been a gift from the pioneer missionary Robert Moffat.  King Lobengula had reportedly got the chain from white traders and left it with one of his queens when he disappeared in 1893 when his army was overpowered by the white settler army. The chain was thought to be worth millions of dollars.

The heist took place despite the presence of a burglar alarm and closed-circuit television monitoring, which was considered sophisticated for that time, fueling speculation that it was an inside job.

“It is inconceivable that artifacts in those cabinets can just disappear without a trace. The cabinets are designed such that it is impossible to get to the exhibits without loosening the screws that hold the glass panels together. It would be impossible for any casual visitor to the museum to find time to do that?” said a source that spoke to the Sunday News at the time.

That heist came four years after perhaps one of the most lucrative artifact heists in history, when the 5 442 grams, 18 carat gold One Thousand Guinea Gold Trophy was stolen from the same museum. The modus operandi on that particular heist seemed eerily similar to the Lobengula chain theft.

“Just like in the case of the gold cup, there is no sign of any breakage into the glass cabinets and it boggles the mind how anyone could have bypassed the security alarm to get to the exhibits. It looks suspiciously like an inside job,” the source that spoke to Sunday News anonymously said.

The gold trophy, which belonged to the Bulawayo Agricultural Show Society, was valued at US$50m when it was stolen. A former employee of the museum said all artifacts were supposed to be accounted for in an annual audit. In addition, cleaning staff at the museums has a list of all exhibits, against which they check to establish that everything is in place every morning.

“The trophy was valued in terms of its significance as a historical and cultural symbol. This trophy is unique. It is the only one of its kind in the world and considering all these facts, it has been valued at US$50 million,” the then regional director of museums Albert Kumirai was quoted as saying then.

Up until it was taken, the trophy was kept at the museum except for the few hours when it was required for the presentation to the winner of the society’s Supreme Bull of Zimbabwe Champion competition, an annual competition that attracted competitors from Zimbabwe and the region. Winners were presented with replicas while the real trophy was kept in what was believed to be the safe custody of the museum.

Natural History Museum

On the night of the trophy’s theft, it was believed that the cabinet containing the trophy had been smashed at around 2AM, with a silent alarm attached to the cabinet being activated and a reaction force from a city security company arriving in the building within five minutes. However, the thieves, who had eluded the security guard on patrol, had seemingly vanished into the night by then.

It was later established that the thieves had left the building through a double glass door in the first floor of the museum, where a rope was tied to a handrail. A chain that usually held the museum’s two sliding door together was left unscrewed.

In scenes reminiscent of spectacular Hollywood heist flicks, it was thought that the thief or thieves had used the rope to swing out of the building, with two floodlights mounted on the ground to improve security “blinded” using sheets of cardboard.

At the time, law enforcement officers were of the opinion that whoever stole the gold trophy must have remained inside the building when the museum closed its doors later in the day. Police in charge of investigations said at the time they suspected the theft was a collaboration between outsiders and an insider at the museum, as it would have been impossible for outsiders to do it without inside help.

Frantic efforts were made to recover the trophy, with the National Museums Department initially offering a reward of $10 000 for its return. With Interpol also informed of the theft of the trophy, the reward soon rose to $150 000 for its safe return, but all this was to no avail as the trophy was never returned to the museum again.

To illustrate the value of the gold trophy, Van Gogh’s famous Poppy Flowers, harming depiction of yellow and red poppies which was stolen in 2010 and is yet to be recovered, is said to be worth US$55m.

It is rated as one of the world’s most expensive missing treasures.

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