The figure turns to address two others. Like him, they are dressed in head-to-toe black, their faces obscured. Unlike him, they are lagging on the stairs of Berlin’s Hackescher Markt S-Bahn platform. Because there is no audio and his face is turned away from the CCTV cameras, there’s no way to know what he’s saying, but there’s something in his body language. A restlessness, like an eager kid telling his friends to catch up because they’re at risk of missing out.
It's 3 a.m., on March 27, 2017. The figures are going to steal a 100 kg coin the size of a car tire made of the purest gold in the world.
Whatever the leader says works. The two other figures catch up, fall in line, and when they reach the top of the stairs, speed walk towards the end of the S-Bahn platform. The three figures step off the platform, onto the track bed, and over to the service pathway running parallel to the tracks. They didn’t have to worry about any trains passing by and spotting them, because they knew that the S-Bahn wouldn’t start up again until 4:13 a.m.
The path they walk gives them an enviable view of the unattended city, theirs in the way all cities belong to those awake at such an early hour. The Berlin Cathedral looms above them and Monbijoupark, with its winter-battered trees, peers over the S-Bahn tracks. Beneath them is the Spree River, and ahead is the Bode Museum, part of what is known as Museum Island.
It was there, on the second floor of the Bode Museum, that the Big Maple Leaf coin awaited them.
Since its creation, the coin had possessed a curious quality, a weight greater than its mass, and a worth beyond its face value. It had a way of changing lives. The three figures were moments away from learning that themselves. If they succeeded, the coin would certainly make them rich. But it also had the potential to do more: make them infamous, noteworthy, respected, admired for the brazenness of their act. Which was the idea. This was meant to be a provocation, and what was at stake in those early hours of the day wasn’t just repercussions, but reputation.
Ten years earlier, 6000 kilometers away, in Ottawa, designer and engraver Stan Witten was at his desk with a set of graphite pencils drawing three silver maple leaves on an 8.5x11 piece of paper. The veteran Royal Canadian Mint employee was focused on getting the leaves just right. He wanted to ensure the leaves felt alive, as if they would curl up and float off the page. They were for a special project unlike any he had ever worked on for the RCM.
The project, to create a 100 kg coin, twenty inches thick, with a face value of one million dollars, was so unprecedented that when RCM chief technology officer Xianyao Li was told about it, his first thought was, “It’s impossible.”
The idea for the Big Maple Leaf coin formed as the RCM was launching a new series of pocket-sized coins made of 99.999 percent pure gold, often referred to as “five nines pure.” Raw gold is typically muddied with other elements like silver, aluminum, or zirconium, and needs to be processed so that there are less than ten parts per million of other elements. The typical standard is four nines. That extra decimal represents hundreds of thousands of dollars of additional value, and a source of technical pride for an organization like the RCM.
But the RCM wanted to signal a little more to the world, to draw attention to the new line of coins. In 2004, the Austrian Mint had created what was at that time the world’s biggest coin: a 31 kg coin made of 99.99 percent pure gold. In doing so, Austria hadn’t issued a direct challenge, but because there is an unofficial rivalry between international mints, they might just as well have. What if the RCM combined one accomplishment with another? What if they created a big, 99.999 percent pure coin? Really big. Big enough to draw attention.
Most coins can be struck with a hydraulic press, but there was no machine large enough, or powerful enough, to strike a coin this size. Li and his colleagues would have to turn to casting, a process not unlike pouring batter into a cake mold. The problem with that was the need to create a custom mold that could produce the needed thickness. It would also have to be a mold strong enough to withstand so much hot molten gold, while flexible enough to let the coin pop out after. Precision also had to be considered. Because the coin was to be sold at 100 kilograms, if it ended up weighing 101 kilograms, that additional gold would be an expensive loss for the RCM. If the coin came out of the cast under 100 kilograms, the team would have to scrap the entire coin and start again. The process could also risk contamination, turning five nine gold into four nines.
Over the next three months, the team worked through the process. They knew they were working on something unique. Defining. Whenever a coin was cast, the whole plant would gather and provide support. “Everyone wanted to know how successful it would be,” recalls Xianyao Li. “When we succeeded everyone was so happy. When we scrapped one coin because of the weight, everybody found a way to support the team so they don’t feel bad.”
Eventually the casting process succeeded. Witten used hand engraving tools to remove slight defects that emerged during the casting process, enhanced the details of the maple leaves and the image of Queen Elizabeth (designed by Susanna Blunt) on the opposite side. The coin surfaces were primed by hand, pre-polished, and then given a frosted finish.
In May 2007, the Big Maple Leaf coin was revealed to the public and the press at the RCM’s Ottawa offices. Internally, the team celebrated. Special posters were made and signed by all involved (Li has one framed in his office). Team photos were shot. There was also a celebration in the employees’ cafeteria, with coffee and cake, and a chance to stand next to the coin and have a photo taken.
In the days, weeks, and months after, the Big Maple Leaf coin’s creators saw their hard work receive international attention. The Guinness World Records organization officially recognized the coin as the world’s largest. There was high demand for the coin to tour the world.
The creators received personal attention too. Witten saw his name appear widely in external publications and brochures. All of it has been tucked away in a filing cabinet he keeps at home, to look back on when he retires.
As for Li, he was invited in 2008 to give a presentation at his industry’s most prestigious event, the Mint Directors Conference. He broke through in the mint industry in ways he hadn’t before, becoming a member of the technical committee that oversees the industry.
And the RCM itself? “This built some confidence in the mint that we can overcome a lot of technical challenges,” Li says.
The RCM’s work with the coins wasn’t entirely done, however. The coin had attracted other attention as well. Wealthy companies and individuals reached out to the Mint, inquiring if the coin could be custom made for them. The RCM accepted. In the end, six coins were created. One stayed with the RCM in a vault. One went to Barrick Gold Corporation, a Canadian gold mining outfit. One went to an Austrian investment firm. One went to Queen Elizabeth. The last two went to two individuals in Dubai, one of whom, it is rumoured, uses the coin as a coffee table.
When all the work was done, the team was proud of it as an artistic accomplishment, an engineering accomplishment, and a national accomplishment. “I think coins tell a lot about a country, and showcase the country. What’s important, what they’re proud of, what’s meaningful,” Witten says. Li adds, “That’s our history. The coins do give us things we can pass down for years.”
They felt they had created something lasting. “Coins are permanent, right? Even one this heavy. They don’t burn or don’t blow away, or get lost,” Witten told me.
“Unless someone steals it,” Li added.
The three thieves arrived at a wall that once belonged to a support structure that connected the Bode Museum to the Pergamon Museum. The bridge itself was long gone, and the structure had lost its purpose, but that morning it would find one again. Scaled, the wall leads to the only second-floor window accessible from the outside of the museum. It was the thieves' best way in, and they had planned accordingly. Nearby was a ladder they had left behind from a previous visit, six days earlier, when everything had gone wrong.
On March 21, the would-be thieves had climbed that ladder up to the window, to remove bolts from security glass that covered the window and gain access to a locker room for museum employees. Mid-bolt removal, however, the glass had cracked. Worried, they fled. If anyone noticed the damage the next day, security would likely be increased and their only entry point would be closed to them.
The damage was noticed. A repair order was issued, but it wasn’t prioritized, likely because the damage was written off as wear and tear. The thieves had been given another chance. But if they didn’t succeed today, on March 27, the coin was going to be gone. It was scheduled to be moved to the Berlin Kulturforum, across the city. If that happened, their weeks’ worth of planning, stress, and anticipation would be for nothing.
They climbed the ladder and stood in front of the security glass for the second time in a week. No longer worried about causing further damage (what did they have to lose now?), they successfully removed the remaining bolts on the security glass and got the casement window behind it open. They knew they didn’t have to listen for the shriek of an alarm, because they knew the alarm sensor in the window had been faulty since 2013 and was turned off. They knew this the same way they knew the window damage hadn’t drawn concerns, the same way they knew how to do everything they were about to do. Their crew had a fourth member. They had an inside man.
They were in. There was the risk of being caught by one of the guards who patrolled the rooms and halls of the museum, but that morning there was only one guard on duty, and he was patrolling another floor. In order not to set off the motion sensors throughout the museum during their rounds, guards turned them off.
At that early hour, the thieves’ hurried steps would have pierced the silence and the assumed decorum of museums, echoing off the hardwood floors and into the high ceilings.
They walked out of the “Employees Only” door and left the first of several doorstoppers meant to ease their escape. The path took them past frescos of the god Pan and Renaissance images of Christ, past statues of Prussian military leaders watching their advance and a collection of 18th century French artwork. They passed an assembly of baroque southern German art before finally moving past an image of a man victoriously holding a decapitated head, and arriving in the first of the series of rooms, painted envy green and filled with narrow door frames only one person can fit through at a time, that made up the museum’s numismatic section.
Around them were coins from the Holy Roman Empire all the way to the present. There was ancient and modern currency from Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal. There were quotes about currency from a Nürnberger leaflet from 1652, inscribed on a plaque: “Money rules the world. You noble Miss Money/Everyone courts you/What does it matter: because your love on earth/can do anything.”
Then there was the Big Maple Leaf coin, in all its purity, size, detail, and value. It was right there and now all they had to do was take it.
One of the thieves removed an axe from the backpack they had brought with them. He wrapped his hands around its black rubber handle, and the yellow grip at its base. Then he swung the axe towards the case protecting the coin.
When the Big Maple Leaf coin arrived in the Bode Museum in 2010 it had been on something of a Bad Luck European Tour. This coin was the one purchased by the Austrian investment firm, AvW Invest. The company dissolved around 2010—the head of the company was arrested for fraud—and the coin was sold at an auction for 3.27 million euros to a Spanish precious metals company named Oro Direct Sales. That company, too, got into trouble. Police descended on their offices in 2014 with suspicions of money laundering and illegal trading. The coin, however, narrowly avoided that fate thanks to Boris Fuchsmann, a Ukrainian real estate mogul living in Düsseldorf. A collector of art and luxuries, Fuchsmann had registered for the auction Oro Direct Sales had won while in South Africa for the 2010 World Cup. During the auction, however, he was visiting Kruger National Park and had no cell reception. Afterwards, he reached out to the Spanish company and offered 100,000 euros more for the coin than they had paid. Oro agreed. Not long after, Fuchsmann got a call from the Bode Museum who asked if he could lend the coin for a special exhibit called “Gold Giants.” He agreed.
The Big Maple Leaf coin proved to be a draw to the museum. The press covered it. A TV film crew filmed the exhibit. Its success was considerable enough that, while the other coins that were lent to the museum for the exhibit were returned, the museum asked Fuchsmann if they could give the Big Maple Leaf coin a more long-term home. The coin became a permanent addition and the museum became its guardian.
The glass encasement that guarded the coin smashed into pieces so thick, so heavy, that when they fell onto the hardwood floor, they left deep gouges that remain there, like scars, to this day.
With the coin now exposed, the thieves put their hands on it for the first time. Muscles tightening beneath the 100 kg weight, they lifted the giant Maple Leaf coin and lowered it down onto a handle-less wooden trolley.
They had to move. The guard could return to the security room at any moment and reactivate the motion sensors, and then the propped open doors would trigger an alarm.
They hastily pushed the trolley back along the route they had come, its small wheels click-clacking along the floors, leaving the occasional skid mark. Plaster was ripped off the walls as the trolley bumped into them. When the thieves arrived back in the locker room, they lifted the giant coin up towards the window. They left the trolley behind, shoved the coin, and gravity did the rest.
Waiting below was a wheelbarrow. (Unbeknownst to them, the wheelbarrow had been noticed ten days ago by an electrician working on the S-Bahn’s signals, but he assumed his colleagues had left it there). The thieves loaded the coin into the wheelbarrow and pushed it to a spot above Monbijoupark, where a driver was waiting. Their bounty was put into the trunk, then the thieves got into the car and drove off.
In sixteen minutes, they had become millionaires.
After 4 a.m., the guard on duty in the Bode returned to the security room from his rounds. The guard was an eight-year veteran of Museum Island security but had only recently been transferred to the Bode. Tonight was his first time on solo duty since starting there and his first two rounds (one starting, according to logs, at 18:55 and another at 23:00) had been uneventful. He had no reason to think the third would be any different.
Then, on a monitor, he saw something confusing. Several doors on the second floor were open, even though he was certain that he’d closed them earlier. Fear gripped him. Someone was in the museum. How had this happened? He hadn’t heard or seen anything.
The guard radioed Museum Island’s central security for backup. One of his colleagues noticed the scuff marks the thieves’ trolley had left on the hardwood floor. Tracking them eventually led to the scene of the crime where someone, according to reports, exclaimed, “Oh shit, the coin.”
A call went out to Bernhard Weisser, the director of the museum’s numismatic collection, who initially thought he was being pranked. The coin was so big, so awkward to transport, the museum had considered it an unlikely target for a theft. “That was a big mistake,” Weisser would later tell the press.
Another call went out to the Berlin Police, who misunderstood the scope of what had happened. One coin was missing? Considering the museum had thousands of coins and other priceless artworks, that hardly seemed like a major crime. It wasn’t until they arrived at the scene and an officer saw the broken glass case, along with a plaque describing a 100 kg coin, that the police realized it hadn’t been just a piece of ancient pocket change.
The ensuing investigation was made considerably easier by the thieves, whose heist may have been daring and well-planned, but hardly careful. Caution didn’t seem to have been a priority. Along each step of the heist, the thieves had left easy evidence to collect. At the S-Bahn Hackescher station, CCTV cameras had captured that morning’s journey. Where the ladder, axe, trolley, and wheelbarrow had been left served as useful landmarks to identify the thieves’ in-and-out route. Gold fragments had also been left where the coin had been dropped, which outlined their final escape path, as did another security camera which caught the getaway Mercedes driving away from the scene. The thieves had left DNA on several of their tools.
The police, nonetheless, didn’t have any immediate theories as to who the suspects could be. But they would soon find out there was a place in Berlin where it wasn’t much of a secret at all.
Wander streets like Karl-Marx-Strasse and Sonnenallee in the borough of Neukölln, located in southeast Berlin, and you’ll notice signs of what many call a parallel society within Germany. Hookah bars, as well as stores selling Middle Eastern nuts and sweets, all demonstrate the local population: the Arabische Grossfamilien (Arabian extended families) that have made the borough their home.
These families are made up of Kurds from Southeast Turkey who, during the 1980s, fled Turkey for Lebanon, then fled Lebanon for Germany due to the Lebanese Civil War. When the families arrived as refugees, they were subject to what is now considered a failure of politics and a policy of neglect. They were excluded from society. Ignored into its margins. They received welfare, but little opportunity. They weren’t allowed to work or leave Berlin.
Germany’s disinterest encouraged isolation, but the country’s neglect had another effect. While the vast majority of Grossfamilien were law abiding (and this remains true today), a contingent began to seek financial opportunities beyond German law. If Germany wouldn’t shape their futures, these men would shape their own. They turned to drugs, prostitution, extortion and theft to make money and, over time, robust criminal organizations, referred to as clans, were formed.
As a clan member named Yehya E. relays in the book In the Gangs of Neukölln by journalist Christian Stahl, “It’s about being a man, and being a man is very important . . . It’s the face you wear. One with which you can walk around on the street. You can’t let yourself be seen anywhere when you’re not a man . . . So, you carry the dream of being a big mafia boss in your heart . . . to be a hero for a moment.”
Becoming that hero is made possible because of accessible hierarchies, where there are no fixed positions. What elevates you is what you do. Youth make themselves upwardly mobile in the clans by building a resumé of assaults, petty theft, and drugs.
And some graduate to more audacious crimes; like the Big Maple Leaf theft. Seeking respect and recognition, the thieves made no secret of their plans, which is why, eventually, the police were contacted by clan informants, and told three names.
Ahmed, Wayci and Wissam Remmo.
The police knew the Remmo clan, and the three men, well. The Remmos are one adversary among the small battles in an ongoing war between the clans and police. When luxury cars double park in Neukölln and an officer tries to give a ticket, they are quickly surrounded by clan members yelling “Get out of here, this is our territory, fucking cop.” When officers are leaving work, they are followed home, or asked on their way out the door how their children are doing in school by clan members—who name the children, and the school.
Patriarch Issa Remmo arrived in Germany in 1995 and has thirteen children and fifteen siblings. He has always vehemently denied any criminal activity, insisting he is nothing more than a real estate investor and restaurateur. He has posed for photo shoots in crisp dress shirts, pouring coffee in a standard suburban backyard, promoting the image of himself as unassuming entrepreneur. Nonetheless, his family—especially his children—continually find themselves in court.
With the information they obtained from undercover sources, the Berlin Police got to work. They began monitoring the communications of numerous members of the Remmo clan. Police suspected talk of the museum robbery was being restricted to encrypted message services. But the police did get an investigative foothold when they became aware of a twenty-year-old man named Denis W.
Denis W. had started working at the Bode Museum only twenty-six days before the theft. More significantly, he was known to be a school friend of one of the suspects, Ahmed Remmo. A week after the theft, he had also drawn attention to himself through a sudden financial windfall. He had invested thousands of dollars in a local bakery, he had been luxury car shopping, and he was seen wearing a new 11,000-euro necklace. The police had found the inside man.
A police officer remembered Denis W. from three weeks before the theft. He had pulled him over for filling up at a gas station, then driving off without paying, all while using a fake license plate in case cameras caught the act. The officer at the time had noticed Bode Museum floor plans in the back seat, as well as screwdrivers and nylon gloves in the trunk. Later, it would also be discovered that Denis W. had photos of the museum that corresponded with the thieves’ escape route.
A bigger breakthrough on the case came when a raid was executed on July 12, 2017. Among the targets were the Big Maple Leaf coin suspects, and more evidence was found. Police found an app on Wissam Remmo’s cell phone for calculating gold prices. His search history unearthed queries for equipment that could melt gold, along with news updates on the heist. His camera roll included screenshots of Google Map directions that appeared to indicate the thieves’ getaway route. In his apartment, they found gloves with glass fragments that matched the museum window the thieves had entered through.
Police found a piece of paper listing current gold values with Ahmed Remmo’s fingerprints on it in a kitchen spice rack. Between all the suspects, the police found clothes—a rare Armani jacket seen in the CCTV footage, gloves, shoes—that had small gold particles on them, which police hoped would match the coin.
All of it was damning evidence, though at risk of being deemed circumstantial. But it was enough for the police to arrest the suspects the day of the raid, pursue an indictment, and set the trial process into motion.
The police were eager to involve the state as soon as possible.
The state attorney’s office was now part of a three-prong attack underway against the clans, and here was a significant chance to gain ground in the battle. But convictions against clan members are rare: the criminal organizations’ wealth allows them to intimidate witnesses to recant their testimony, as well as afford the city’s best defense lawyers, eager to chip away at any perceived vulnerabilities in the prosecution’s case.
Even a pinch of doubt could mean the panel of judges (there are no juries in German courts) refusing to convict. If there was a successful conviction, the impact on the clans could be minor. Time in prison can be as comfortable for clan members as life on the outside. And jail time was often perceived to be a means of proving oneself. (“Prison makes men,” is a common expression among the clans). Clans often use members who are under twenty-one to commit more overt crimes so that they will be tried in more lenient youth courts.
But a successful outcome for the clans wouldn’t necessarily spare the parties involved from anger. On July 17, 2019, patriarch Issa Remmo’s son was cleared of murder. Remmo began yelling in the court room at the prosecutor. “I know you, and everyone who works with you . . . I am a clean person. I have respect for the court, for the police. I have respect for this country, but absolutely none for you.” Outside the courthouse, he continued in front of the cameras of Spiegel TV. Addressing informants, he said, “I know you . . . As god is my witness, I will fuck your sisters.”
The trial for the coin heist began in January 2019. The suspects covered their faces with magazines to protect themselves from the press, and none of their family or friends were in attendance. They sat still and silent in the courtroom as the charges were read, only speaking to confirm their names and professions. (They told the judges they were students and couriers).
Over the course of several court dates scattered over months, the details of what happened the night of the Big Maple Leaf coin theft were laid out. Museum employees explained the security gaps that had led to the window alarm being inoperable. The guard on duty that night was questioned about his movements. He shared how haunted he was by those who refused to believe he hadn’t heard or seen anything that night, and shared the anxiety he has suffered since. Police investigators testified about searching the crime scene and their investigation of the Remmos that led to the arrests. Experts were brought in to connect suspects to the thefts and the evidence. An ex-girlfriend of Ahmed Remmo, who had told investigators about him hiding tools and bragging about being a millionaire, was called to the stand. (She retracted her comments once there). Ernst Pernicka, an archaeometrist, provided critical evidence linking the gold particles found on the thieves’ clothes to the giant coin.
On February 20, 2020, all parties gathered to hear what verdict had been reached.
After acknowledging the theft at the heart of the case was “the coup of a lifetime,” judge Dorothee Prüfer passed down the court’s decision.
Denis W. received three years and four months of prison time. He was fined 100,000 euros, his presumed cut for being the inside man.
Wissam and Ahmed Remmo were sentenced to four years and five months (priors for assault and breaking and entering led to longer sentences). They were fined 3.3 million euros, the estimated value of the coin at the time.
Wayci Remmo was released due to a lack of evidence tying him to the crime.
The three men’s defense lawyers attempted to appeal the verdict, which was denied in July 2021. It likely didn’t help that Wissam Remmo became a suspect— and was eventually arrested—for another spectacular crime in 2019: the robbery of the Green Vault, a museum in Dresden. The haul? Royal jewelry some estimate to be worth 113 million euros or more.
One question remains: What happened to the Big Maple Leaf coin?
It was never recovered and nobody believes it still exists intact. It was impossible to sell as is, so it was likely broken apart or melted. Its presumed fate evokes another quote that had been on display in the Bode Museum that night it was stolen, not far from where the Big Maple Leaf Coin stood. The author bemoans what he considers the worst fates that can befall a society. There’s war, plague, and famine. He then adds debasement—the destruction of a currency’s value. It’s likely no single piece of currency has been so stripped of so much value. And yet, another value remains. One that now lingers, like fine gold dust, on all those who came in touch with it.