The Gold Horns

The Gold Horns are among the most famous relics from prehistoric Denmark. Much of their fame is related to the story of their theft from the Royal Chamber of Arts.

The Gold Horns of Denmark were two large horns of gold, dating back almost to pre-historic time. The combined weight of the horns was almost 7 kilos.

The Gold Horns are famous, not only by themselves, but also for the dramatic story related to their theft.

What the horns were ment for is unknown: They could be drinking horns, or perhaps music instruments. Contemporary horns for drinking have been found, made of glass or the horns of ox, but wind instruments made of wood and of a shape similar to the Gold Horns are also known. Either way, the material and ornamentation indicates a religious or ceremonial purpose.

An inscription on the shorter horn points towards a king of the danes, Liutgast, that was 'rich on gold'. The interpretation is however uncertain, as the name could also point directly to the goldsmith who created the horns, or to a broader collection of people: 'one from the woods, seeking shelter'.

The Findings

Finding of the Gold HornsCredit:

The first Gold Horn (the 'long horn') was found on the 20th of July 1639 by Kirsten Svendsdatter, on a field in the hamlet Gallehus in southern Jutland. Kirsten wrote about it to the king Chrinstian 4th. He requested the horn be turned over to him, and gave her a skirt in return.

The second Gold Horn (the 'short horn') was found on the 21th of April 1734 by Erik Lassen. It was found on the exact same field where the first Gold Horn had been found nearly 100 years earlier. Erik Lassen handed the horn over to the Count at Schackenborg, who passed it on to the king. From the king Erik Lassen later received a reward of 200 rigsdaler ('coin of the realm').

The field where both Gold Horns were found is marked by  a large stone. It can be found at coordinates N54° 57' 31'' E8° 48' 41'' (GPS: N54.9587028 E8.8114086). The site has been thoroughly examined by the National Museum of Denmark.

Gold Horns finding spot Get Directions
Guldhornsvej 10, 6270 Tønder, Denmark

The First Theft

In time both Gold Horns became part of the collection in the Royal Chamber of Arts. There they should have been preserved for posterity. Sadly, that was not going to happen.

The night between the 4th and 5th of May 1802 an empoverished goldsmith and watchmaker named Niels Heidenreich broke into the Royal Chamber of Arts. He used a combination of his livingroom key and another key, the shaft of which he had extended to fit. Niels Heidenreich took the Gold Horns and carried them to his home.

Next morning the theft was discovered. A bounty was set to 1000 rigsdaler, and the thief was search for through the contemporary media - newspapers and broadsheet ballads.

In the end Niels Heidenreich was discovered as the culprit by the guildmaster of the Goldsmiths Guild, Andreas Holm. Holm had purchased some gold coins from Heidenreich, which he found out were fake. Although reported to the police, Heidenreich avoided punishment, but Holm still suspected him, and surveilled him with the help of several colleagues.

On the 27th of April 1803, after having bought a property and deposited a chatol with hidden lumps of gold at his sister's home, Heidenreich was finally apprehended. Three days later he confessed the theft. The 10th of July he was sentenced to prison, where he stayed until he was released in 1840. Four years later he passed away.

What happened to the Gold Horns? Unfortunately, Niels Heidenreich stole the horns because of financial trouble. He melted them down immediately after the theft, so the horns as such no longer exist.

When Heidenreich went to prison everyone who had bought gold from him had to turn it over to the State. The gold was then sent to the Royal Coin Foundry and used for coins. Thus the remains of the horns passed out of knowledge and history.

An exception is a pair of earrings that Heidenreich gave to his neighbour. These survived, and are today kept at the museum in Ringe on the island of Fyn, Denmark. And in 2004 the National Museum of Denmark recieved another set of earrings that, according to a family legend was originally purchased from Heidenreich. Analysis has revealed the metal to be identical to the first set of earrings, and the style is also similar.

Gold Horn - Worms Drawing
Credit: Wikipedia

Drawing by Ole Worm from 1641 of the longer Gold Horn. Later copies were made based on this and similar drawings.

The Following Thefts

The story might have ended where the Gold Horns were lost. But the dramatic story continues.

Casts had been made of the Gold Horns. Using these, copies of the horns were created and sent to Cardinal Stephano Borgie in Italy. Unfortunately the copies were lost in a shipwreck. Another set of copies was lost when it was sent to professor Böttiger in Dresden, Germany. And the casts themselves were scrapped, thought to be without value.

After the theft new copies of the Gold Horns were made, based only on drawings and eyewitness accounts. ln 1970 a new set of copies were made by silversmith Folmer Dalum.

In 1983 one set of copies were stolen from Moesgaard Museum. They were soon recovered, but damaged to a degree where the museum had new copies made.

The 17th of September 2007 the 'original copies' were stolen from an exhibition in Jellinge, along with an amber bear and a golden neckband. The thiefs had gained access through a window using a ladder, and with an axe destroyed the exhibition case. The earrings from the original horns were also thought to be stolen, but were found by the police in the remains of the exhbition case. In the evening of the 18th of September the horns and the anber bear were recovered, and the thiefs apprehended. The neckband was found in a ditch the following day.

The amber bear and one of the horns were unscathed, whereas the other horn had marks of sawing in one end. The neckband had been broken to pieces, of which several are still missing.

So far, no further thefts have been made.


Gold Horn Exhibition

The Glorious Past that was Lost

Adam Gottlob OehlenschlagerCredit: Wikipedia
Credit: Wikipedia

The Gold Horns remain a source of romance in Denmark, and a symbol of 'the Glorious Past that was Lost'. Artistic groups have named themselves after the horns, and they feature in stories and plays.

One of the most famous danish poems is called 'Guldhornene' ('the Gold Horns' in danish) by Adam Oehlenschläger who - interestingly - lived only a few houses away from Niels Heidenreich. He wrote the poem at more or less the same time Heidenreich was secretly melting down the horns.