Suspicions of an inside job have rattled a kibbutz in northern Israel following the robbery of its cherished museum collection over the summer.
A number of valuable statues were stolen from the archaeology and art museum in Kibbutz HaZore’a on August 19.
Thirty-three rare items of south and east Asian origin were taken, some dating to the first and second centuries, in total valued at some NIS 2 million (almost $600,000), according to a Channel 12 news report.
The robbery devastated members of the community, many of whom visited the collection on a monthly basis, often with their children.
Especially beloved by the kibbutz residents was a statue called “The Guard,” a brightly colored 1-meter (3-foot) tall statue of a Chinese soldier, meant to protect a tomb during the Tang Dynasty period in the 7th to 10th centuries, which was placed near the entrance to the museum.
“I grew up with him,” one kibbutz member said of the statue.
The collection also connected the community to its roots. The museum was founded with items bequeathed to the struggling community in its fledgling years by businessman Wilfrid Israel. Israel engineered the emigration of thousands of Jews, including his Jewish employees, to pre-state Israel in the 1930s and 1940s, saving thousands of lives.
He played a key role in the “Kindertransport” which saved 10,000 German Jewish children, taking them to the UK without their parents in 1938.
The museum at the kibbutz today is named after Israel.
An elder member of the kibbutz broke into tears while describing the robbery to a Channel 12 news crew; another compared the feeling surrounding the robbery to Syrians seeing ISIS destroy ancient artifacts and sites.
“People in the kibbutz, some of them don’t want to talk about the theft at all. It hurt them so much and they took it very personally,” said museum keeper Tali Weiss.
Weiss first discovered the break-in the morning after it occurred, she told Channel 12, which broadcast an investigation into the heist on Friday.
Weiss was first confused by the broken handle on the door but then realized a theft had taken place.
“The moment that I absorbed it, my heart started racing, and until that night it was pounding in a terrible way. I couldn’t calm down,” she said.
The three thieves were first picked up by security footage at 1:42 a.m. crossing a lawn from the community’s dining hall to the museum.
The masked thieves disabled the outdated security cameras by breaking them and using poles to push the cameras on the ceiling aside. The alarm system did not go off for an unknown reason.
The thieves left the museum 10 minutes after entering for the first time and are seen in outdoor security footage hurriedly walking across a lawn carrying statues and bolt cutters, including the statue of “The Guard.”
“The one thing I thought was, that it did not fall,” Weiss said of the beloved statue. “Even if it’s not with us, at least it will remain whole. That nothing will happen to any statue itself, especially ‘The Guard.’”
The thieves disappear out of the view of security cameras, and it’s not clear where they went.
Forty-five minutes later, at 2:45 a.m., the thieves are spotted by the cameras again on their way back to the museum. They stop on the way, and one heads to the kibbutz’s laundry room to take a sheet and two sacks to carry off more plunder.
They were less rushed in their second intrusion, leaving the museum for the second time at 3:20 a.m., carrying more statues in the laundry room sacks.
The kibbutz’s camera at its rear gate captured the thieves leaving the premises on foot, but suspiciously, they appear not to be carrying the statues; and the objects they stole at first, including “The Guard,” are nowhere to be seen.
Kibbutz members realized that the plunder had likely not left the kibbutz the same night, and that at least one of the robbers could have been a resident. Some saw evidence that the robbers were familiar with the layout of the community in the security footage.
Weiss said she realized the stolen objects had remained in the kibbutz two days after the break-in.
“It made me crazy,” Weiss said. “The meaning of it is clear to me.”
“Everyone could point out someone or something, some points of failure, members of the kibbutz whom they trust less,” said resident Gal Avriel. “Some people are identified more with the ‘dark’ side, who could be suspected in one way or another” by kibbutz members, he said.
Other interviewees were not so sure, or said they did not discuss the issue. Another added that the incident had stoked mistrust in the community.
“I’ll say, I don’t want to believe it, and I don’t believe it,” said an older member of the community.
“I’m not getting into it. I want to try to keep this place clean as much as possible,” one said.
The thieves took specific objects from the collection, and ignored others.
“I wonder about that all the time,” said Anat Torbovitch, a curator of Asian art familiar with the collection. “What was the sense behind it? What was guiding them? For some of the things, I really don’t get it.”
An art appraiser speculated that the thieves had sent photos or videos to someone outside who told them which items to take. He said that there was not a market for such objects in Israel, and that the buyers would be based outside the country.
Torbovitch said the artifacts would likely end up in Asia, due to their origin there, and the difficulty of selling them in Europe.
Police said there had been no breakthroughs in their investigation.