Classic jewel heists…from the historical to the hysterical.
By Mark Stewart
Last November, a pair of thieves in Germany made off with a group of priceless artifacts from the Green Vault Jewelry Room in Dresden’s Royal Palace. When asked to actually put a price on the haul, experts estimated the value of the theft at over $1 billion, making it the largest caper of its kind in history. Three sets of 18th-century jewelry were taken, each including dozens of precious gems. The theft was an old-school “hack”—the thieves smashed through the museum showcases with an ax.
The lure of gems and jewelry has proved irresistible to scores of get-rich-quick criminals over the centuries, dating back to tomb-robbers in ancient Egypt (and perhaps farther back than that). No less alluring to the rest of us are the details of these crimes, particularly the most imaginative ones…and sometimes the most unimaginative ones. Here are some of my favorites:
1671 • NOBLE GESTURE
The “Holy Grail” of thievery targets might just be the Tower of London, which has housed the British royal family’s crown jewels for centuries. One of the loopiest schemes to make off with them was concocted by Thomas Blood, who spent a great deal of time and money creating a fake identity so he could pass himself off as an English nobleman. Blood befriended Talbot Edwards—the ofﬁcial Keeper of the Jewels—and promised that his rich nephew would wed Edwards’s as-yet unmarried daughter, elevating both into high society. Since they were practically related, Edwards agreed to give Blood and some fake-noble buddies a private viewing of the king’s bejeweled crown and scepter. Once in the inner sanctum, they knocked out Edwards, broke up the crown and scepter with a mallet, stuffed the pieces down their pants and ca-chinged down to the bottom of the tower—where they were immediately apprehended by the guards. Blood expected to lose his head, and probably should have, but when King Charles II heard the story he couldn’t stop laughing. He rewarded the counterfeit noble for his chutzpah with a genuine title and a country estate in Ireland.
1964 • MURPHY’S LAW
One of the legendary party animals of the 1960s was Jack Murphy, aka Murph the Surf, a concert violinist, tennis pro and national-champion surfer who lived for the next adrenaline rush and had absolutely no impulse control. He also was known to help himself to the odd piece of jewelry to ﬁnance his hedonistic lifestyle. One evening while passing the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Murphy noticed that a number of gallery windows on the building’s top ﬂoor were cracked a couple of inches for ventilation. He knew this gallery very well: It housed the J.P. Morgan Collection of gems and minerals. On the night of October 29th, Murphy and two accomplices scaled the outside of the castle-like structure, entered the gallery and discovered to their delight that the alarms on the cases all had dead batteries. They helped themselves to gemstones by the handfuls, including the Star of India (the world’s largest sapphire) and climbed back out the window completely unnoticed. The theft, discovered the following morning, was a national sensation. Murphy and his pals upped the ante on their partying, arousing suspicion, and were arrested at their hotel three days later. They had already sold several diamonds, including the famed 16.25-carat Eagle Diamond, which was never seen again. Free on bail, Murphy was rearrested for robbing Eva Gabor and later convicted of a Florida murder. In 1975, he was the subject of the movie Live a Little, Steal a Lot, starring Robert Conrad and Don Stroud. Murphy was paroled in 1986 and became an ordained minister.
1989 • DUST DEVIL
It is common knowledge among thieves that members of the Saudi royal family diversify their oil wealth by stashing away signiﬁcant quantities of high-end gems and jewelry. Kriangkrai Techamong, a Thai gardener working at the palace of a Saudi prince, scaled the outside of the building, jimmied open a cheap wall safe, and helped himself to 200 pounds of loot (which included a blue diamond the size of an egg). He hid his booty in the dust bag of a vacuum cleaner, which he wheeled calmly past the prince’s security team and out of the palace. Techamong shipped the jewels to himself before boarding a plane back to Thailand. The fencing part of the operation was not as well-thought-out, however. Some of the unique pieces started showing up in photos of Thai politicians and their spouses, prompting the Saudis to send a trio of investigators to Thailand. All three were murdered.
2003 • REALITY BITES
In a heist worthy of Ocean’s Eleven (or Twelve, or Thirteen), a highly skilled team assembled by criminal mastermind Leonardo Notarbartolo successfully ran a gauntlet of security systems and made off with over $100 million in gold, jewelry and precious stones from a vault two stories beneath the Antwerp Diamond Center in Belgium. Operating out of a small ofﬁce they had rented in the building, the thieves made copies of master keys, conquered a lock with millions of possible combinations, evaded an array of motion and heat sensors, penetrated an 18-inch steel door and swapped security tapes on their way out to erase video evidence of their crime. Notarbartolo, who managed to fence the bulk of his booty, was shocked when the authorities quickly cracked the case and arrested him—even though they never did ﬁgure out how he did it. The clue linking him to the crime was DNA recovered from a half-eaten salami sandwich. No more spoilers here—J.J. Abrams optioned the story so one day you’ll see the whole thing on the silver screen.
2008 • TUNNEL VISION
The Academy Awards are “showtime” for the world’s top jewelers, and Italian design group Damiani is no exception. Workers in the company’s Milan store were preparing for an Oscars party when seven men dressed as police ofﬁcers inexplicably appeared on the other side of a sophisticated security system, scooped up $20 million in jewelry, and disappeared down a staircase, never to be seen again. The thieves had spent weeks in the basement of the adjacent retail space, which was unoccupied, tunneling through a wall that was nearly 30 feet thick. Fortunately for Damiani, its best items had already been shipped to the U.S. and were adorning the necks of celebrities gliding across the red carpet.
2012 • EASY RIDERS
The Brent Cross Shopping Centre holds the distinction of being the ﬁrst “American-style” shopping mall in London. It was also the scene of one of the most brazen heists in British history. A few minutes after the mall’s opening on an otherwise normal Tuesday morning in November, shoppers had to dodge three motorcycles roaring across the upper walkway— each vehicle carrying a driver and a passenger. The motorcycles stopped in front of Fraser Hart Jewelers, the three passengers hopped off and crashed through the store window with axes and baseball bats, got back on the motorcycles and sped off with more than $3 million in jewelry and high-end watches. The bikes were recovered hours later but the thieves were never caught. Unfortunately, the surprising presence of baseball bats in a cricket-crazed culture offered no useful clues.
2013 • GONE IN 60 SECONDS
The Carlton Hotel in the French seaside resort of Cannes hosted an exhibition of jewels belonging to Lev Leviev, a crony of Vladimir Putin’s known as the “King of Diamonds.” In the brief moment when the jewels were being moved discreetly from a secure carrying case into an even more secure showcase by three unarmed security guards, a gun-toting thief entered the otherwise empty room from an unlocked terrace and compelled the guards to hand over 34 high-carat, unblemished gems worth more than $130 million. The operation took less than a minute from beginning to end, drawing comparisons to the fabled Pink Panther for its stealth and ingenuity. Ironically, the Carlton was where Alfred Hitchcock ﬁlmed the 1955 Cary Grant/Grace Kelly classic To Catch a Thief. EDGE
2015 • PEARL JAM
The Academy Awards broadcast is also “showtime” for the world’s celebrity fashion-watchers, where designers get to strut their stuff on the red carpet. In 2015, the most head-turning creation was a Calvin Klein dress worn by Lupita Nyong’o, which was adorned with 6,000 hand-sewn pearls. The actress, who won an Oscar for 12 Years a Slave the year before, called her dress a “timeless, priceless work of art.”