Double art theft: The theft of Thorsten Goldberg’s golden nest and the igno­rance in dealing with this case
Martin Henatsch


The list of reports in the media is long, the case highly promi­nent: “The trea­sure”, “The police were warned - and the perpe­tra­tors acted with light­ning speed”, “Stolen gold nest. Did the thieves get their tools of crime from the fire depart­ment?”, “It’s worth 80,000 euros!”. Gold nest stolen from Berlin elemen­tary school”, “Why it might not be a good idea to display gold in a Berlin elemen­tary school” - to quote just a few of the blaring head­lines of the media response to an extra­or­di­nary work of art and its special fate [1]. Thorsten Goldberg’s ‘Golden Nest’ engages the Berlin public like a work of art rarely does.

Unfor­tu­nately, however, this unusual appre­ci­a­tion applies less to the artwork itself, which the Berlin artist had created for the Fuchs­berg Elemen­tary School in the Berlin district of Marzahn-Hellers­dorf, but above all to the spec­tac­ular theft of this extra­or­di­nary work. And so we are robbed twice: once as a result of the crim­inal act on the night of May 14-15, 2019, in which the Gold Nest was stolen by profes­sional means; and a second time, ulti­mately much more lasting, caused by the reac­tion of the polit­ical as well as media publicity trig­gered by it. Thus, much more than the loss of a single work of art is now at stake: the canon of values reflected in it, with which we confront art and its demo­c­ratic legit­i­ma­tion. More gener­ally speaking: the status of culture in our society. As if in a magni­fying glass, the ques­tions about our atti­tude to these values are now raised in the reac­tion to the robbery of Goldberg’s ’nest’ in the polit­ical as well as media space, as if this had been part of the artist’s concep­tual strategy. For these are in fact precisely the ques­tions that were inscribed in Thorsten Goldberg’s ‘Golden Nest’ from the outset, albeit without the scan­dal­izing and art-remote exag­ger­a­tions that the work and the artist have now had to endure.

The Berlin artist’s ‘Golden Nest’, created as part of an ‘Invited Art in Construc­tion Compe­ti­tion’, was stolen with the utmost crim­inal energy from a glass safe in the Fuchs­berg Elemen­tary School, conceived as part of the artwork and specially designed for this purpose. The nest, made of golden branches, had a mate­rial value of €30,000. There­fore, it was tech­ni­cally secured in a way that only a few precious objects in the world are, and thus exceeded, for example, even the protec­tive measures of the ‘Big Maple Leaf Coin’ previ­ously stolen from the Bode Museum. Never­the­less, a large part of the fili­gree golden branches spun into a nest was stolen with the profes­sional use of heavy equip­ment (previ­ously specially stolen from the special stock of the fire depart­ment) and with the simul­ta­neous obvious failure of the secu­rity services. These were then presum­ably imme­di­ately melted down, sold and turned into cash. To make it unmis­tak­ably clear at this point: Neither the work of art nor the artist can be blamed for any of this.

But, as if the crim­inal act of robbery was not in itself a very sad story, the real tragedy of the ‘Golden Nest’ case was to follow: through the reac­tions of the media, the city of Berlin and its respon­sible author­i­ties. Instead of blaming the secu­rity services or complaining about the extent of the brutal­iza­tion that became visible, the artist as well as the selecting jury members are now the focus of accu­sa­tions. They are accused, for example, of having acted irre­spon­sibly and waste­fully, since such a valu­able precious metal was used to attract the thieves in the first place [2]. Does this mean that, for example, only churches, castles or exclu­sive repre­sen­ta­tive build­ings should enjoy the dubious priv­i­lege of being allowed to symbolize their values with corre­sponding precious items, while a school in Marzahn-Hellers­dorf is to be denied this right? This, although the gold used here does not serve the consol­i­da­tion of post-feudal or cler­ical claims to power? Should some­thing as valu­able as gold there­fore be reserved only for more exclu­sive places and have no justi­fi­ca­tion as a sculp­tural image for one of the most valu­able goods of our society - school educa­tion as a basic right for all citi­zens of this country?

The court deci­sion now pronounced on 12.07.2021 by the Tier­garten Juve­nile Court unfor­tu­nately continues the conse­quence of the disdain that has taken place towards artistic work: it demands compen­sa­tion of € 30,000 for the loss through theft, a sum that roughly corre­sponds to the equiv­a­lent value of the gold used in the work of art, but not to the artistic value of the work and its produc­tion costs.

The court deci­sion now spoken on 12.07.2021 of the juve­nile court Tier­garten continues the conse­quence of the taken place disdain oppo­site the artistic work unfor­tu­nately: It demands for the loss by theft a value substi­tute of 30,000 €, a sum, which corre­sponds approx­i­mately to the equiv­a­lent value of the gold used in the work of art, not however to the artistic value of the work and its produc­tion costs at a value of approx­i­mately 80,000 €, thus for a re-estab­lish­ment and/or a new produc­tion by no means would be suffi­cient. Just imagine at this point that the robbery had been for a painting by Picasso - would the court deci­sion then have set as compen­sa­tion only the equiv­a­lent value for the mate­rials used, canvas, oil paint, etc.?

It is this humil­i­ating disre­spect for an extra­or­di­nary work of art, which runs like a thread through the public reac­tions, that repre­sents the actual loss in the robbery of the gold nest. However, the fact that with Thorsten Goldberg’s ‘Gold Nest’ a unique and top-class symbol was stolen, which stands for the most valu­able trea­sure that our society possesses at all - the future of our chil­dren and their educa­tional oppor­tu­ni­ties - seems to be lost in the discus­sion of the public respon­sible for the work as well as in the media.

The occa­sion for the creation of the artistic work was the construc­tion of a new, well-equipped elemen­tary school, urgently needed in Marzahn-Hellers­dorf after many years of waiting. The appre­ci­a­tion expressed in this new school building with its modern equip­ment for the chil­dren of a district that is other­wise consid­ered rather neglected was to be visu­ally under­lined with a special work of art: The artistic design, selected in a compe­ti­tion in 2014, was to be a cause for justi­fied pride on the part of the students as well as the starting point for count­less iden­tity-forming stories: “We are some­thing special! We are worth something!”.

With his ‘Golden Nest’, Thorsten Gold­berg has wonder­fully succeeded in imple­menting these require­ments by coun­tering the struc­tural as well as finan­cial invest­ment in the chil­dren of this district with an artis­ti­cally multi-layered image without lapsing into super­fi­cial senti­men­tality. On the one hand, the golden branches of his nest can be under­stood as a radiant symbol of the social value of such a school, in which the students can fledge like little birds in a nest; on the other hand, however, they can also be under­stood in finan­cial terms as a mone­tary invest­ment that is worth its weight in gold - for a need that, according to the artist’s rules, may only be redeemed in the future. In accor­dance with a contract drawn up by the artist and to be under­stood as part of the work of art, the gold trea­sure could be sold by the school after 14 years and the proceeds thereby gener­ated used for other school purposes. The only condi­tion for this: According to the contract belonging to the work and to be observed, poli­tics, school and parents must agree by majority and in a demo­c­ratic nego­ti­a­tion process whether the sculp­ture will be sold or not; This freedom of deci­sion opened by the artist himself makes it possible to confirm or ques­tion the artistic validity of the work and its public value more than a decade later. The artist thus opens up the possi­bility of the legal melting down and capi­tal­iza­tion of his own work - a process now ominously antic­i­pated and to the school’s disad­van­tage. Yet little is heard about this dimen­sion of content, which is so crucial to the work, and the gold compo­si­tion, which is there­fore by no means inter­change­able, despite consid­er­able media coverage.

It may there­fore hardly come as a surprise that a long overdue compen­sa­tion of the artist or at least an offer to replace his work has not been made so far - a circum­stance that almost reads like the prema­ture fulfill­ment of a pessimistic prophecy contained in the artwork (contrac­tual possi­bility of self-destruc­tion of the work). Because, clear supporting state­ments of the policy or an expected clear commit­ment to the work of art as well as to the artist: predom­i­nantly missing. And this is the real scandal. Instead of under­standing the “Golden Nest” as an alarming indi­cator of our handling of contem­po­rary art and our claim to educa­tional justice, and instead of fighting with all our might against the culture-destroying tenden­cies that become apparent in dealing with it, Goldberg’s work is reduced to the value of a mate­rial finan­cial invest­ment. Worse still, the artist is accused of negli­gent handling of the gold and the mate­ri­ality he delib­er­ately uses as an essen­tial compo­nent of the work’s content is negated by offi­cial sources: the respon­sible city coun­cilor is publicly quoted as saying that it would be better “in the future to do without works of art made of pure gold. ‘The mate­rial prob­ably rather arouses crim­inal ener­gies.’ ”[3]

Here, too, one could iden­tify that “vandalism from above” that Benjamin H. D. Buchloh diag­nosed as early as 1989 in his essay of the same name for the erec­tion and disman­tling of the monu­mental sculp­ture ‘Tilted Arc’ (1981-89) by Richard Serra in New York, and which has since been discernible as a constant threat to art in public space. With Buchloh, one must now also ask in Berlin what validity is still accorded to an artistic cate­gory, from which, due to its special condi­tions, both public visi­bility and inter­fer­ence in public concerns are to be expected, if it is at the same time exposed to a “rage of destruc­tion” by the “rulers,” even if they initially commis­sioned the work. [4]

Para­dox­i­cally, art in public space now seems to come under partic­ular pres­sure to justify itself precisely where it accu­rately targets prede­ter­mined breaking points in our society. What value do we assign to art, what tasks, what places do we concede to it? Can gold, in its symbolic signif­i­cance, also be used to distin­guish a school? Isn’t it precisely excep­tional works of art in public space that are capable of trig­gering such debates outside of exclu­sive art reserves and thus pointing to the basic values of public coex­is­tence? Where is the oath to this potential?

In this respect, the theft of the ‘Golden Nest’ and its recep­tion para­dox­i­cally under­lines the core of the state­ment of the artwork, which reveals its quality even in its scan­dal­izing destruc­tion: a call for the protec­tion of an endan­gered trea­sure that cannot be valu­able enough for us and touches the basic values of our society - yet is obvi­ously tram­pled upon. It would be a fatal signal if those forces that ques­tion these values, steal and destroy them, or do not oppose their disman­tling with words or lack of action, were now allowed the upper hand. To now let the phys­ical as well as content-related robbery of the work of art stand unre­quited as a final act would be to cower - before the audacity, crim­i­nality and igno­rance towards art and the asso­ci­ated funda­mental values of our society.

There­fore, the imme­diate restora­tion of the work of art would be the only correct and at the same time neces­sary conse­quence of what happened. Only the early recon­struc­tion of the work of art would make that clear state­ment that our society does not accept the theft of such a ‘trea­sure’, which is symbolic in many ways. The artistic concept worked out by Thorsten Gold­berg for this purpose, according to which the ‘Golden Nest’ could be mate­ri­ally recre­ated, but now stored in a non-public place protected from further access - and would appear in the wall show­case of the elemen­tary school in which it was orig­i­nally located only as a perma­nent projec­tion - is ready in the artist’s drawer and has already been presented to the respon­sible district coun­cilor. The risk of a renewed theft could be mini­mized in this way, without renouncing the exis­tence of the nest in its mate­ri­ality of golden branches, which is essen­tial for the work of art.

This process could be accom­pa­nied by a moder­ated public debate about the content and back­ground of the artwork, of course also directly in the school. Such a package of measures could not only compen­sate for the concrete theft, it would - beyond all lip service - also set a confi­dence-building excla­ma­tion mark for the support in dealing with art both in Berlin and beyond the city limits. We are eagerly awaiting a corre­sponding commis­sion from the Senate of the City of Berlin to the artist Thorsten Goldberg.

[1] The following is a selec­tion of the exten­sive media coverage:

Theft of the gold nest was prob­ably “a demon­stra­tion of power” by the clans, Welt 17.05.2019.
Stolen gold nest. Artist sure: It was better secured than a museum trea­sure, Berliner Kurier 16.05.2019

Stolen gold nest. Did the thieves get their tools of crime from the fire depart­ment? Berliner Zeitung May 16, 2019

Thieves steal gold nest. Burglary in Berlin school: huge damage - were there clans?, Münchner Merkur 17.05.2019

IT’S WORTH 80,000 EUROS! Gold nest stolen from Berlin elemen­tary school, Bild 15.05.2019.
Why it may not be a good idea to display gold in a Berlin elemen­tary school, Vice 15.05.2019
Gold nest stolen: Was it the R. family again?, FAZ 16.05.2019

Gold bird’s nest stolen: Police inves­ti­gate clan milieu, Süddeutsche 16.05.2019

Manuela Heim on stolen art, nest on the run, taz 16.05.2019

This was a demon­stra­tion of power,” FAZ 16.05.2019

A golden nest for 92,500 euros, The Taxpayers Asso­ci­a­tion has presented its black book of waste, Thüringische Landeszeitung 25.11.2019

Loser of the year, The Schüler:innen (students) of a Bies­dorf elemen­tary school, taz 11.01.2020
Spec­tac­ular art robbery with hammer, axe and glass saw: gold nest thief flut­ters into jail!, Berliner Kurier 12.07.2021

[2] Cf. B.: “We are of the opinion that this is prop­erly exem­plary of what is going wrong. We have a reno­va­tion backlog … and the Senate has nothing better to do than to hold up art in construc­tion and put solid gold in there …” (Bund der Steuerzahler) Abend­schau rbb24 15.05.2019;

So I’m quite happy that this is gone. Because, I’ve always been afraid, comes one, hostage-taking, because they want to steal the gold, that’s why I’ve always been afraid. So I’m actu­ally quite happy about it - they should also no longer make it in there, the nest” (parents) Abend­schau rbb fernsehen 16.05.2019;

Why does the district have money for art but not for proper toilets?” “Unfor­tu­nately, I can’t take it for myself or for other things that would be impor­tant in our district, but it has to be explic­itly for art.” (Coun­cilman G. Lemm) Abend­schau rbb24 15.05.2019

[3] Cf. Tagesspiegel 15.05.2019

[4] Cf. Buchloh, Benjamin Heinz Dieter: Vandalism from Above. Richard Serra’s Tilted Arc in New York. In: Walter Grasskamp (ed.): Unwanted Monu­ments. Modern Art in Urban Space. Munich 1989, pp. 103-119.