(Click above to listen to this article read aloud.)
Gems and jewels have drawn robberies and thefts since the beginning of time. Anywhere there is a large stash of treasure, you can be sure someone has tried to steal it. Museums are filled with precious stones, some containing millions of dollars worth. It’s easy to understand why they’re a target.
Here we look at some of the most infamous gem heists of all time, some were successful and the thieves are still at large. Others less so, but made this list because the subterfuge is impressive, and so were the methods used to catch the criminals.
Antwerp Diamond Heist
The Antwerp Diamond Heist took place in 2003, and has been called ‘the heist of the century’, which is impressive considering it happened only three years in.
First, let’s set the scene. The Antwerp Diamond district is one of the largest in the world, almost 80% of the world’s diamonds pass through the three-square blocks. In 2003 alone there were gem sales totaling $3 billion. However, those are only the legitimate ones. There are plenty of underhand deals being made simultaneously.
Suffice to say, it’s a place with plenty of diamonds and precious gems. It would be an easy target for any would-be criminal. Except it wasn’t. The Antwerp Diamond Center had a ‘super secure’ vault that people thought was impenetrable. Although, that’s just asking for trouble. People said the Titanic was ‘unsinkable’, and look what happened there.
Obviously, given it features in this article, the center was not impenetrable. But, they had plenty of security measures. There was a lock with over 100 combinations, infrared heat detectors, seismic sensors, plenty of video cameras, and a private security force hired just to protect the building alone. That was on top of the heavy security detail that patrolled and monitored the Antwerp diamond district.
But these criminals were smart. Leonardo Notarbartolo, a notable jewel thief, rented an apartment beside the center three years in advance, giving him access to the area 24/7. He posed as an Italian gem merchant, making small deals and sales of precious gems while meticulously planning the heist.
Photography was strictly forbidden in the area, but Notarbartolo used a camera in a pen to take photos of the area. As he was visiting regularly with no issue, security trusted him. However, Notarbartolo is adamant he didn’t complete the heist on his own, and asserts that a diamond dealer recruited him to test the vault’s security, and offered 100,000 Euros.
The vault itself was barricaded with a three ton steel door built to withstand 12 nonstop hours of drilling. They couldn’t force their way inside, instead they needed the combination. The team installed a small camera above the door to monitor the guards as they input the combination. Methodically, the team disarmed sensors and detectors using aluminum plates, and one trick involves spraying the heat sensor with hairspray and temporarily rendering it useless.
Reportedly, the entire team practiced in a replica vault prior to the robbery. They also claimed to have made a duplicate of the vault key (previously thought impossible to duplicate). But on the night, one member of the team went into the utility room and found the original vault key, so they used that instead. They gained access to the building via a balcony attached to the private garden.
The team had memorized the layout of the vault, and could break into over 100 security deposit boxes. When detectives discovered the robbery, there were diamonds and jewels all over the floor. There had been too much for them to carry away. They made off with over $100 million worth of jewels and diamonds.
Unfortunately for the criminals, one member of their team had a panic attack when it was time to discard their rubbish and it ended up strewn all over a forest. The landowner called the police, and detectives could match Notarbartolo to a sandwich receipt that was discovered among the trash as he was caught on CCTV buying it.
Police caught all the members of the team except one. They all served prison sentences. Notarbartolo was released in 2009, then recaptured for violating his parole in 2013 and served his sentence until 2017.
Most of the loot was never recovered.
The Green Vault Museum Robbery
This one was more recent, taking place in 2019 at the Green Vault in Dresden Castle. It’s one of the oldest museums in Europe, originally being founded in 1723.
As a distraction, they started a fire on a nearby bridge which also destroyed a power box. This shut off all the alarms and streetlights, but the CCTV still worked. The thieves were recorded breaking into the vault at 4.57am on 25 November 2019, cutting around the iron bars to squeeze through a window.
The thieves smashed the glass cases with an axe and stole priceless artifacts, including the Star of the Order of the White Eagle, an ornate breast star of rubies and diamonds created in 1746-1749. They also made off with an 18th century sword with a diamond encrusted hilt, and various other diamond items.
As they left, they replaced the bars to delay the detection of a robbery. However, the security guards realized right away and called the police, 16 cars were dispatched at 4.59am. But they didn’t catch the criminals.
Across 2020 and 2021 there were special operations aimed at catching those responsible, and arrests began in late November 2020. By September 2021 the police had apprehended their sixth suspect, and believed the crime was tied to the Remmo Clan, a well-known German crime family.
When the Green Vault Museum reopened the curators deliberately left the case empty. The items have never been recovered, and investigators believe they were broken down and sold on.
The trial began in early 2022, and is ongoing. It’s expected to come to a close in October.
The London Millennium Dome Raid
This is a robbery that was unsuccessful. Thieves tried to break into the Millennium Dome in London back in 2000 and steal some of the priceless precious gems on display, but someone tipped off the police in advance. If successful, they would have made off with $761 million worth of jewels.
However, they weren’t.
Operation Magician involved over 200 police officers who were involved. They replaced all the workers at the Millennium Dome with police officers and had others stationed around the River Thames to monitor and prevent any escape attempts from the robbers. Also, all the diamonds were replaced with fakes.
The robbers were successful with their break-in attempt, using smoke bombs, sledgehammers, and nail guns to get past the perimeter fence and break into the building. Police ambushed the men as they tried to break into the display case, and they apprehended all of them. Additional arrests were made nearby where someone was waiting on a boat, and they suspected another of listening to police frequencies.
Harry Winston Heist in Paris
In 2007 and 2008 two incredibly bold jewelry heists were carried out at the Harry Winston jewelry store in Paris. It’s well-known for selling rare jewels, occupying a prime retail spot in the Champs-Élysées in Paris.
October 2007: four hooded thieves successfully stole millions of dollars worth of gems and jewels from the store. One emerald necklace alone cost $3million, they took it along with everything else in a robbery that only took 30 minutes.
A security guard and employee opened the store as usual in the morning – employees could never enter alone – and the thieves were already inside. As the employee walked into the office they attacked, disguised in repair men’s overalls. There had been repair works carried out on the building in the previous weeks.
Additional employees were apprehended and tied up in the bathroom on their arrival while the robbers filled their bags and made off with the jewelry. The pieces taken that day have never been found.
Next time, the four men walked right through the front door when the shop was open. Three were disguised as women, wearing heels and wigs. They got away with $73.3 million worth in jewels, in just 20 minutes. It was one of the most expensive jewelry heists in France.
The crimes were attributed to the Pink Panthers, an international network of jewel thieves comprising up to 200 members. Several men were arrested later, but the jewelry was gone for good.
The Carlton Hotel Robbery
The final heist on this list was another brazen robbery carried out in daylight during the busy Cannes Film Festival. In 2013 a lone gunman targeted the hotel and stole $136 million worth of jewels. Initial estimates sat at $56 million until detectives realized a poorly guarded hotel room was also raided.
However, this wasn’t the first heist to take place at The Carlton Hotel. In 1994, three gunmen entered the hotel and opened fire on the lobby. After a round of gunfire from semi-automatic weapons that saw guests and staff throw themselves to the ground, the men looted the hotel’s jewelry store and ran away with up to $77 million in jewels.
Once the smoke cleared and the men were gone, the survivors were startled to see not one bit of damage to the historic building. The thieves were firing blanks.
No suspects have ever been caught, and again these crimes have been potentially attributed to the Pink Panthers.
No suspects have ever been caught, and again these crimes have been potentially attributed to the Pink Panthers. To this day it remains unsolved.
And that concludes our list of the top gem heists of all time! We wonder where those missing jewels ended up!