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More than century-old artifact worth $2 million swiped from Brooklyn church

A tabernacle made of 18-carat gold and jewels was taken from St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church late last week. An expert fears it might have already been melted down.
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A more than century-old church artifact worth $2 million was stolen from its New York City sanctuary, authorities said, in a brazen break-in that local Catholic leaders called a crime of "disrespect and hate."

A tabernacle made of 18-carat gold and decorated with jewels had been housed at St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn before someone stole it sometime from Thursday night to Saturday afternoon, officials said.

Image: Stolen tabernacle
The tabernacle, a box containing Holy Communion items, was made of 18-carat gold and decorated with jewels, police and the diocese said. It’s valued at $2 million.NYPD via AP

Police are "investigating a brazen crime of disrespect and hate," the Brooklyn Diocese said in a statement.

To remove the tabernacle, thieves had to cut through a metal protective casing. Statues of angels were decapitated and destroyed.

St. Augustine was closed for construction at the time of the theft, and camera recordings from the security system were also stolen, the church said. The stolen tabernacle dates to the church’s opening in the 1890s.

There had been no arrests or other significant developments by Tuesday morning, a New York police spokesperson said.

Erin Thompson, who teaches art crime at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, fears that jewels from the stolen tabernacle have already been removed for sale and that the rest of the artifact has been melted down for its gold.

"I would be very surprised if we ever see the tabernacle again," Thompson said Tuesday.

Gold has a very relatively low melting point, so even an everyday propane torch can produce an ingot that "you can sell by weight at the nearest jeweler," Thompson said.

"Think of all those signs that say, 'We buy gold,'" she said. "And there’s no need to sell it right away — gold will keep. And you know how much it’s worth, so you can use it like cash in an underground economy."

Last year, a statue of Saint Rita of Cascia was stolen from its perch at National Shrine of Saint Rita in Philadelphia before it was found abandoned a short distance away.

That statue weighed about 100 pounds and had an estimated value of $100,000.

"A detective looked around nearby alleys, suspecting, correctly, that the thieves would find it too heavy to be worth it — indeed, they abandoned it," Thompson said. "But that wasn't gold."