All That Glitters: The All-Time Biggest Jewelry Heists

2009 August 24

Not just the stuff of movies, jewelry heists actually do exist, although they aren’t that frequent or easy as the movies would leave you to believe. However, they do take a lot of time, patience and precision. Nabbing that much loot isn’t done by chance—it takes a lot of skill and planning. Read below for some of the biggest jewelry heists in history, and, shocker, they all take place in the last 15 years!

Remember, diamonds really are a girl’s best friend, after all.

The Museon Museum Jewel Heist

In December 2002, jewelry thieves pulled off one of the most mysterious diamond heists of all time. The Museon, a science museum in The Hague, Netherlands, was putting on a diamond exhibit intended to educate the public about the gems. There were royal pieces on display, including a wedding gift given by King William III to Queen Mary II of England in the 1600s.

Museum officials came in on Tuesday morning to find that six of the diamond exhibit’s 28 display cases were empty. The pieces disappeared either Sunday night or Monday morning, and because the museum is closed on Mondays, the theft went undetected for at least a day.

The Museon had 24-hour security guards monitoring all entrances and exits as well as 24-hour surveillance-cameras that covered every inch of the exhibit. The cabinets were in a motion-detection zone, and the displays that housed the most valuable pieces were made of reinforced glass.

Today, no one still has any idea how the heist happened. Nothing showed up on the video footage, the guards never saw a thing, the motion sensors never went off and the display cabinets had no evidence of tampering. The only signs of a break-in were the smashed window leading into the museum—and, of course, the empty cases. The precision of the heist suggests inside information was used, but investigators haven’t been able to make any connection between the robbery and museum staff.

The museum eventually put a price tag of about $12 million on the robbery, but since many of the stolen pieces had historical significance, the haul is really priceless. The gems will probably never turn up for auction because they’re too famous to go unnoticed by anyone in the jewelry world. Finally, detectives were forced to close the case because the lack of leads.

Harry Winston Jewelry Heist

While not with the same finesse of the Museon heist, one of the biggest jewelry heists in history struck the Harry Winston store in Paris when, on December 4, 2008, $118 million worth of jewelry was stolen.

Four armed robbers arrived at the store just before closing time and requested entrance over the intercom. Out of the four robbers, three were dressed in drag, with long blond tresses, sunglasses and winter scarves.  They strolled in with a small suitcase on wheels, then pulled out a hand grenade and a .357 Magnum, smashed display cases, shouted orders to employees, many of them by name. In less than 20 minutes they made off with millions of dollars worth of emeralds, rubies, and very large diamonds.

Members of the Pink Panthers gang that operates out of the Balkans and have been involved in some other high-profile jewel thefts were originally suspects, but were ruled out when on June 22, 25 suspects were arrested. There has been no word if any of the jewels have been recovered yet.

Carlton Jewelry Store

Also taking place in France, one of the biggest heists of its time occurred at the Carlton Jewelry Store in Cannes in 1994. With a much smaller loot of $60 million, this heist played much more like a gangster movie when three men burst into the Carlton Hotel’s jewelry store firing machine guns into the air. As store employees and customers panicked, the thieves quickly packed nearly $60 million worth of jewels into bags and made their escape.

Later on it was discovered that the rounds were in fact blanks. The thieves and the jewels are still at large.

Antwerp Diamond Heist

Antwerp is one of the two diamond capitals in the world. The other one is Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. Eighty percent of the world’s uncut gems go through Antwerp, and many of them are stored in the underground vault of the Antwerp Diamond Center building.

The largest diamond heist ever took place in Antwerp, Belgium, in 2003. With a value of at least $100 million in stolen jewels, this crime goes down in the history books as one of the biggest hauls.

At least four people had been planning the theft for years. They rented office space in the building in 2000, analyzed the alarm system and learned exactly how to bypass it. Now that’s patience. It’s still not exactly known how they pulled off the heist. The vault was thought to be impenetrable. It was protected by 10 layers of security, including infrared heat detectors, Doppler radar, a magnetic field, a seismic sensor, and a lock with 100 million possible combinations. They obtained keys to the vault and made copies. On the day of the break-in, they recorded over the security cameras and inserted fake tapes into the surveillance system to cover their movements.

Of the 189 safety deposit boxes where diamond brokers leave their stones while brokering deals, only 100 were emptied. The thieves had too many diamonds to carry, so they were forced to leave 37 vaults unopened, and Diamond Center employees came in to find loose diamonds strewn about the vault (see photo above).

The gang was identified as a group known as the School of Turin, a gang of thieves known for not using violence. The investigation led to Italy, and most of the group was arrested. Apparently, one of the thieves had left his DNA on a half-eaten sandwich among diamond-carrying bags dumped in a ditch near the crime scene. Another thief’s DNA was found in the vault. The leader, Leonardo Notarbartolo acted as a diamond merchant for years, apparently storing stones in the Diamond Center, and had somehow passed all of the Center’s background checks. He was released from prison earlier this year due to a short sentence based on circumstantial evidence.  Read more about Nortarbartolo.

The $100 million worth of gems they stole have never been found.

The Damiani Jewelry Heist

One of the most unusual heists in recent history could have easily been averted. A woman in Milan complained to police at least once about early-morning noise in her neighborhood. But because there was a construction project going on nearby, nothing came from her complaints. The police assumed that the noise was coming from the workmen. No one considered that the woman lived practically next door to the Damiani jewelry showroom.

Damiani is a world-famous jeweler. Its building was secure, with a high-tech alarm system and an armed guard at the front door. But, since the thieves had been drilling a hole every morning through the 4-foot wall that separated the showroom basement from the basement next door all the security didn’t matter.

The store had been preparing for a private showing, so there were no customers in the showroom. The thieves wore fake police uniforms and popped up in the showroom through an unguarded entrance. Unarmed they asked to see certain store records and then acted quickly, tying and gagging the staff. The operation took about a half hour, netting about $20 million in diamonds, rubies and gold.

There was one flaw in this heist though—the thieves would have made off with much more loot had it not been Oscar time. Some of the most valuable pieces were out on loan to Hollywood’s stars, including Oscar winner Tilda Swinton, who wore Damiani’s “Sahara Bracelet,” bearing 1,865 diamonds totaling more than 47 carats.

The investigation is ongoing. Police suspect an inside job as the timing was just too perfect.

If you’re scoffing at the amount of money these bandits have absconded with, perhaps you should be investigating a career change as a professional jewelry thief.

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