Three years ago, almost twenty valuable art objects were stolen from a church in a small village near the town of Liberec in North Bohemia. The loot was soon discovered in Poland and on Thursday, the Baroque woodcuts and statuettes were handed back to representatives of the Roman Catholic Church here in Prague, to be restored and returned to the village church. Even though the number of church robberies has fallen since the looting sprees of the early 1990s, hundreds of cases are still reported every year in the Czech Republic.
The case of the north Bohemian statues and woodcuts had a happy ending because only a small percentage of the pillaged art normally makes it back to the Czech Republic. Most of the stolen objects are smuggled across the border and presumably sold to private collectors or at antique fairs. After the borders opened in the early 1990s, burglars took churches in Bohemia by storm. Back then most churches were left unlocked during the day and had no alarm systems.
The Culture Ministry estimates that since those days, art objects worth hundreds of millions of crowns have been lost and the losses can be compared to those suffered by this country during the Thirty Years' War in the 17th century. Petr Svojanovsky from the Culture Ministry:
"Since 1995, many of the buildings have been equipped with alarm systems and the number of robberies and volume of stolen objects has been somewhat decreasing. But we can say it is also because in many of the churches there is not much left to steal anymore."
This year alone, the Culture Ministry says it invested some 11 million crowns (over half a million US dollars) in burglar alarms for churches across the Czech Republic. Some 80 percent of the country's churches have now been equipped with safety alarms but as the bishop of Litomerice, Pavel Posad, says individual parishes have different ways of protecting their churches.
"Wherever it is possible electronic devices are installed which are connected to police stations. But there are other methods of prevention, too. For example, if a church has three doors, two of them can be bricked up. The problem is that churches are often situated on the outskirts of or outside villages. In many parishes, believers take the statues home for the week and bring them back only for the Sunday mass."
The robberies most often affect Roman Catholic churches out in the country but recently burglars have also focused on cemeteries from where sculptures are stolen, presumably to decorate the gardens of art collectors abroad.
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