5 Great Jewel Heists (and what you can learn from them)

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The biggest players on the professional jewel thief circuit are a sophisticated bunch. Their connections run deep and they're tapped into a network of attorneys and "fences" who can smuggle valuables undetected to other parts of the world within days. But just because you don't have those sorts of contacts, it doesn't mean you should be dissuaded. According to the the Jeweler's Security Alliance, approximately 80% of the $100 million in gold, silver and precious gems stolen annually are pilfered by amateurs. If you're looking to be a jewel thief, here are 5 tips to get you started.

Tip #1: Don't Hide your Stash in a Piece of Fruit

aconde.pngWay before it was stolen (and then returned), France's Condé diamond already had quite a history. The story starts with King Louis XIII, who was so impressed with his commander Louis II's performance that he gave him a gift: a 9.01 carat pink diamond. Because Louis II also went by the title the Prince of Condé, the gem became known as the Condé diamond. Then, in 1892, the Condé family gave the gem to the French government. But they had one condition: they asked that the precious jewel remain on display for the public to see. The French government complied, and to house the legendary diamond, a Condé family chateau was turned into a museum.
While the gem quickly drew crowds, it also drew the attention of two amateur jewel thieves in their twenties. One October night in 1926, Leon Kauffer and Emile Souter went for it. The duo used a makeshift ladder and a hammer wrapped in cloth, and broke in to an upper window. Then they somehow plucked the diamond and escaped without anyone's noticing them. The duo's plan was simply to smuggle the giant gem out of the country and to have it broken down into smaller pieces for resale.

Amazingly, the whole thing would have worked if it wasn't for a pesky chambermaid named Suzanne Schiltz. While doing her rounds at the Hotel Metropole, Suzanne started to get really hungry when she spotted a bowl of fruit the two gentlemen had stashed in their closet. There was so much fruit in the basket, and the apples and pears looked so tempting, that she finally caved. After all, Suzanne figured that the men wouldn't notice if just one piece of fruit went missing.
But when she took a bite, she nearly broke her tooth. Schiltz examined the apple and discovered that it had been hollowed out and a large gem of some sort had been tucked inside. She reported her finding to the hotel manager and was fired for stealing from a hotel guest. On the upside, she did get a reward from the French government for recovering their priceless treasure.

Tip #2: Talk to Stupid People

astar.pngThe Star of India is a Ceylonese blue sapphire weighing 563.35 carats and is considered to be the largest of its kind in the world. It was donated to New York's American Museum of Natural History in 1900 by J.P. Morgan, which is where, in 1964, former surfing champion Jack Murphy admired it and also noted the lack of security surrounding it. While chatting up a security guard, Murphy found out that the battery for the alarm hooked up to the protective case was dead and had yet to be replaced. He also found out that a second-story window was usually left open at night for ventilation. An experienced "cat burglar," Murphy recruited two accomplices and entered the museum in the middle of the night via the open bathroom window. They walked off with not only the Star of India, but also the Eagle Diamond and the Delong Star Ruby and several other precious gems. Total value of the heist: a cool $400,000. "Murph the Surf" and his two pals were apprehended two days later in Miami (according to Murphy, Interpol identified them because they were spending too much money and they were "partying too strong." The Star of India was recovered from a locker in a Miami bus station.

Tip #3: Choose Trustworthy Partners

Ernest Oppenheimer, who'd made his fortune in mining gold and diamonds, lived with his son and daughter-in-law on a 20-acre estate in a suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa. During the summer of 1955, the Oppenheimers hired a crew of workmen to re-roof their stately home. One of those workers was a British WWII veteran named Donald Miles who had worked as a saboteur during his years of military service. Donald could climb along a window ledge with stealth and jimmy a door lock with a piece of celluloid tape. While working at the Oppenheimer home, he noticed how lax security was: Bridget Oppenheimer kept over a half million dollars' worth of jewels in a wall safe, the key to which she kept in a satin box in her closet. On the evening of December 7, 1955, the Oppenheimers went to a dinner party. When they returned, Bridget noticed one of the pillow cases was missing from her bed. Giving no thought to it, she retired for the evening only to discover the next morning that all $600,000 worth of diamonds, emeralds and sapphires had been taken from her safe.

The police were stumped. There were no signs of forced entry, and the safe's key was still in its box. Of course, here's where tip #2 comes in: Miles might never have been caught if it hadn't been for the greed of his trusty pal William Pearson. Pearson had agreed to help Miles fence the jewels for a price, but he changed his mind when he caught wind of the $42,000 reward being offered by the Oppenheimer's.

Tip #4: Finish Your Food

amug.pngLeonardo Notarbartolo is probably spending much of his time in prison kicking himself. Notarbartolo was the mastermind of an audacious robbery that took place in 2003, at Belgium's renowned Antwerp Diamond Center. It all started when Leo and several of his cohorts set up a bogus company and rented office space in the same building. Then they spent three years "casing" the place. During that time they managed to make copies of the master keys and learn the schedules and routines of the security guards. They even figured out how to break past the internal magnets in the 12 inch thick steel doors that protected the vault and triggered the alarm system. On February 16th, the group put their plan into action and plundered 123 vaults. They also knew enough to steal the accompanying authenticity records for the gems as well, making resale a whole lot easier.

So, why is Notarbartolo behind bars? Well, partially it's because he didn't eat all his food. The big break in the case came when police found a discarded paper bag along Antwerp's main avenue that contained video tapes and a half-eaten sandwich. The tapes were security tapes from the vault. But there was also enough DNA from the sandwich to put Leo and his accomplices behind bars. That doesn't mean the police found the jewels, though. As of this writing, none of the stolen gems have been recovered.

Tip #5: Find a Great Costume

ahw.pngNot all jewel thieves bother to work under cover of darkness; on December 5, 2005, a group of four robbers dressed in women's clothing and wearing wigs entered the Harry Winston boutique in Paris and confronted employees at gunpoint. They ordered all the display cases (which were filled with glittery gifts in order to tempt Christmas shoppers) emptied into their bags. They also made off with the contents of the store's safe, for a total haul of approximately $108 million in diamond jewelry. Surveillance tapes have led investigators to believe that the thieves are part of a group that calls itself the Pink Panthers and who have been responsible for jewel thefts in 19 countries in the past 10 years.

June 10, 2009 - 11:35am
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