Police are searching for the bold thieves who made off with priceless diamonds and other historic treasures from the Grünes Gewölbe or "Green Vault" state museum in Dresden, Germany, early Monday morning. Officials say the criminals took parts of three jewelry sets.

The museum has a large collection of jewels, Baroque artifacts and intricately crafted golden tableaus that were amassed between 1723 and 1730 by August the Strong, the Saxon elector and arts patron who later became king of Poland.

Early reports of the heist sparked incredulity and worries about its scope, as the historic Green Vault collection includes thousands of rare and irreplaceable items. While the material value of what was taken seems to have fallen short of the potential $1 billion of loot that was initially reported by some German news outlets, Marion Ackermann, the general director of the State Art Collection in Dresden, said the pilfered items have priceless cultural value.

Police in Dresden say the heist took just minutes, and that the thieves targeted three vitrines in the museum's "Jewel Room."

The criminals got into the Green Vault by breaking a security grill and window in the historic royal palace that houses the museum, police said at a news conference held around 1 p.m. local time. Citing surveillance video, officials say the thieves used what looks to be a hatchet or small axe to smash glass display cases and grab exquisitely crafted items.

"We are shocked by the brutality of the burglary," Ackermann said, according to Deutsche Welle.

Saying the stolen jewelry pieces are essentially the crown jewels of Saxon kings, Saxony's Art Minister Eva-Maria Stange said on Monday, "They belong to Saxony."

As NPR's Rob Schmitz reports from Berlin, one of the museum's most prized possessions is safe.

"One of the museum's best known treasures, the 41-carat Dresden Green Diamond, happened to be away on loan to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art at the time of the break-in," Schmitz says. "Other exhibits include a table-sized sculpture of the Indian royal court made of gold, silver and precious stones, as well as a golden coffee service by an 18th century court jeweler."

Details of the heist are still emerging, as police investigate and look for the perpetrators. Saxony's police say they believe the thieves fled the scene in an Audi A6 sedan — and that an identical vehicle was later found on fire in an underground parking lot.

Laying out a timeline on its Twitter feed, the museum's parent organization, the Dresden State Art Collections, says the first police car was called to the building at 5:04 a.m. local time. Within a minute, a report emerged of an escape vehicle, setting off an intense search in the city. Around the same time, officials realized there had been a power failure in the museum's section of Dresden. Soon afterwards, a broken electrical control box was found in the area — and the authorities are still working to determine whether that may have been a case of sabotage.

While initial reports suggested the power might have been cut to the museum's security systems, police later said that the outage had affected street lights in the area of the crime scene.

New of the heist was startling, given the museum's status as one of Europe's largest collections of jewels and European artistry. And the break-in triggered strong personal feelings in Saxony, where the museum serves as a repository of a cultural identity that goes back for centuries.

In response to the intrusion, Saxony's Prime Minister Michael Kretschmer said, "Not only the state art collections were robbed, but we Saxons!"

Referring to the wider significance of the valuable treasures held in the Grünes Gewlbe, Kretschmer said the history of Saxony cannot be understood without the Green Vault.

Saxony Interior Minister Roland Wöller said it's a "bitter day" for the state's heritage, adding that the criminals had stolen "treasures of unimaginable value." As of now, he added, officials are assuming the burglars knew precisely what they wanted to take, and how to get it.

The police acknowledged that the theft is an emotional topic for many Saxons, but they also urged people not to speculate about details of the crime, or who might be to blame.

The treasures of the Grünes Gewölbe have been part of Dresden and Saxony's resurgence from the ravages of World War II and the Cold War. The pieces survived U.S. and British allies' relentless bombing of Dresden, only to be seized by the Soviet Union. They were later returned to East Germany, but the full breadth of the collection's thousands of pieces wasn't put on public display until around 15 years ago, the museum says on its website.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.