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Penchant for pinching plumage Thief ruffles feathers of natural history museums

Birds of prey in a drawer at the Natural History Museum in Basel


A Swiss man with a collection of more than 17,000 bird feathers is set to appear in court in Basel, accused of stealing many of them from museums across Europe. The damage is estimated at CHF6 million ($6.2 million). 

“He said he was interested in birds of prey and wanted to document variations in feathering,” said Marcel Güntert, the retired head of Bern’s Natural History Museumexternal link, at the crime scene. “I should have smelt a rat.” 

The museum’s cool underground cellar is home to countless impressively stuffed birds, including parrots, eagles and vultures. The drawers contain thousands of bird skins, with feathers, beaks and feet. 

Güntert soon finds the victim: “Accipiter cirrocephalus. Australia, July 1954” says the tag on the corpse. The collared sparrowhawk is missing its left wing.  

“At first we brought the specimens [to the man] in a meeting room upstairs, but after a couple of visits we trusted him. He could come down here unobserved,” Güntert says. 

The 45-year-old man, who will appear in court on Tuesday, is suspected of targeting museums in Switzerland, Germany and Austria over years, if not decades. 

A mutilated common buzzard from the Basel collection


‘Archive of life’ 

“The damage is immeasurable,” said Stefan Hertwig, a director at the Bern museum. “All the birds are one-offs and the big question is whether the stolen feathers can be identified and returned to the right museums.” 

The man was eventually busted in 2012 after a museum in Berlin raised the alarm. Museums in Basel, Bern, Neuchâtel, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Munich and Vienna were shocked to find his name also on their visitor lists. 

Investigators, who are looking into thefts committed between 2005 and 2012, found more than 17,000 feathers in the man’s collection. More than 160 feathers and wings are thought to have been stolen from museums. 

Hertwig said the thefts in Bern took place before 2005 and had exceeded the statute of limitations. 

Güntert regrets not putting two and two together when he saw some tiny crumbs on the floor just after one of the man’s visits. “They were from a quill. At the time I thought a specimen must have got brittle and crumbled. I now know it was the remains of a cut job,” he says. 

Hertwig says the case has been a wake-up call for museums. 

“Today we keep a closer eye on things,” he admits. “Stealing feathers or wings is like tearing pages out of a valuable library book. These collections are like an archive of life.” and agencies/ts

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