Jewellery heists and epic diamond robberies seem straight out of the pages of gripping thriller novels. It’s hard to comprehend that some of these James Bond style escapades actually happened, but believe it or not, we have seen some gobsmacking heists over recent years.
Earlier this very week, we witnessed a robbery of unbelievable proportions. The three sets of diamonds stolen in the Dresden Green Vault robbery on the 25th November were described as “priceless” by head of the Dresden state museum, Marion Ackermann. According to the German newspaper, Bild, however, the estimated worth of the stolen jewels is €1bn (£855m). In light of this unbelievable robbery, let’s rewind through the last few years and consider where, when, and most importantly, how it’s been done before.
Some of these schemes are truly wacky. They involve every trope of the genre from fake ‘aging’ makeup, to being caught out by a literal breadcrumb trail of clues. They even include an infamous gang of thieves known throughout Europe as the ‘Pink Panthers’. This criminal group, who took their name from the classic 1963 comedy adventure film, has been at the centre of some of the most brazen luxury goods crimes of recent years. After hundreds of heists, this gang has stolen approximately $1 billion (£779,405,000) overall and remains a constant threat to the international jewellery community.
Between the Pink Panthers and other perpetrators, some devastatingly high-loss heists of both new and antique jewellery have taken place. Let’s take a look at the incidents that topped the charts in both cost and craziness.
1. The Graff Diamond Heist
Total loss: £40m
The Graff Diamond Heist took place in New Bond Street, Mayfair, central London, in broad daylight. Posing as customers, two gunmen entered the prestigious diamond shop, forced staff and customers to the floor, and ordered people to help empty the display cabinets of all their precious contents. Earlier that day, the pair had visited a makeup studio in Covent Garden and had been plastered with latex stage make up in order to make them appear old (under the guise that they were taking part in a pop video). After discarding the makeup soon after — due to concerns that it wasn’t realistic enough — the two thieves instead donned greasepaint and powder to disguise their faces and headed to the high-end diamond shop in a taxi.
All seemed to have gone to plan and they even whizzed away in a strategically placed getaway vehicle. They made some fatal mistakes however, in leaving criminalising evidence on the scene, including a pay-as-you go mobile phone and a loaded sawn-off shotgun. This led to their imminent arrest and the recovery of the precious jewels.
2. The Brussels Airport Heist
Total loss: $50m (£38,939,750)
This gang of thieves had the idea of conducting an epic robbery on the go. They decided to strike as $50m worth of diamonds were about to be transported by plane from Brussels to Zurich. Taking a rather rudimentary approach, the thieves cut a hole through the fence to get onto the runway and then, dressed as policemen, drove up to the plane and loaded 130 bags of luxury goods into their vehicle.
Despite over 30 people being arrested for this crime in three different countries, most of the loot still hasn’t been recovered.
3. The robbery of the Harry Winston Store in Paris
Total loss: $107m (£83,342,300)
This heist features another set of reportedly unconvincing disguises. In December 2008, four men dressed up as women entered the Parisian diamond store wielding handguns. Menacingly, they threatened staff members using their first names, causing distress to everyone at the store. It was clearly a meticulously planned plot as the thieves seemed to know exactly where each safe was located and the whole thing was over within a record-breaking 20 minutes.
After initially getting away with a whopping $107m, eight of thieves were later jailed.
4. The Antwerp Diamond Heist
Total loss: $118m (£91,863,000)
Often described as the heist of the century, the Antwerp diamond robbery of 2003 was carefully planned and expertly executed (well, almost). Somehow, the group of Italian thieves managed to break into a well-guarded vault, two floors below the Antwerp Diamond centre. After outsmarting ten tight layers of security (including infrared heat detectors, doppler radar, a magnetic field, a seismic sensor, and a lock with 100 million possible combinations) they smuggled away around $118m worth of diamonds, which still haven’t been recovered.
The ringleader, Leonardo Notarbartolo, was later arrested for being at the centre of this plot, which was four years in the making. So, what gave the carefully crafted plot away, leading to multiple arrests? The DNA evidence found on none other than a half-eaten sandwich discarded at the crime scene.
5. The Robbery of the Carlton Hotel, Cannes
Total loss: $136m (£105,922,920)
Finally, topping the diamond heist chart, we have the infamous robbery of the Carlton Hotel in Cannes. What is most incredible about this heist, on top of the value of the loot, is the fact that it was carried out by just one individual. One man, disguised by wearing a uniform of a baseball cap and a bandanna, simply walked into the hotel’s exhibition room brandishing a gun. This simple approach allowed him to walk away with an overwhelming $136m worth of diamonds, owned by the Israeli billionaire Lev Leviev.
Although no one knows for sure, the main suspect of this crime is Milan Poparic, a known member of the Pink Panthers gang who made a dramatic escape from prison earlier that year. Whether known to the perpetrator or not, the Carlton Hotel was also the setting for the Alfred Hitchcock film, “To Catch a Thief”, which told the thrilling tale of a jewellery heist. Coincidence? Or the Pink Panthers’ idea of a joke?
Although these heists sound like works of fiction, jewellery thieves and gangs such as the Pink Panthers pose a very real threat to the international luxury goods community. Be sure to keep your eyes wide and never be fooled by a man in a mask (or one in terrible makeup).