In the movies, high stakes robbers are flamboyant. They drive flashy cars and lead an exciting lifestyle in the playgrounds of the world’s rich and famous while meticulously plotting their master crimes. We may not know much about their personal lives at the end of the day, but when it comes to the crimes themselves, it turns out the movies aren’t really that far from the truth. Naturally, we can’t condone a life of crime, but if you’re going to go, you may as well go large, and for these crooks, the sky’s the limit. When you’re risking your life and liberty, the score has got to be worth it. A huge payday often consists of jewels, cash or priceless works of art. A busy high-end department store in Paris or an upscale event with plenty of rich folks decked out in their finery on the Riviera, oftentimes the occasion is anywhere that money and easy to carry valuables like jewelry gathers in numbers. Next, add a plan and skilled personnel with the nerve and the ingenuity to pull it off, and no one’s valuables are safe.
From disguises and security guards on the payroll to jet ski getaways, robbery gangs are pretty ingenious as well as highly organized. While the public may never know all the details, it’s clear that daring daylight heists are plotted weeks or even months in advance, with gangs of thieves working out all the details until the day of that adrenaline pumping smash and grab. These thieves put it all on the line in daring daylight robberies that netted them hundreds of thousands and even millions of dollars worth of jewelry, art, and cash in a single heist. Here’s a look at the crimes, and in some cases the punishment.
15. The $114 Million Cannes Heist
The Carlton Intercontinental Hotel in Cannes is one of the most prominent venues in town, situated in prime real estate on the Promenade de la Croisette that skims the Mediterranean beach along the French Riviera. It’s a favorite among the legions of movie stars who descend on Cannes each summer for the film festival. During the 2013 Cannes Festival, it was also the temporary home of an exhibit that showcased the fabulous jewels of Israeli billionaire, Lev Leviev, creating a unique opportunity. A lone gunman entered the lobby on a Sunday during the Festival in broad daylight and left less than a minute later on foot with a suitcase full of pink and yellow diamonds, emeralds, and sapphires. The total of the heist was a haul of over $114 million USD. That makes it one of the biggest jewelry heists in history. The 2013 Cannes Film Festival was ripe territory for thieves. Chopard, a high-end jewelry line, kept a suite in town full of the jewelry that it lent out to A-listers for their red carpet appearances. Thieves ripped a safe out of a wall and made off with a collection worth more than $855,000. Another elusive thief managed to evade 80 security guards in an upscale hotel to make off with a necklace by renowned jewelry maker, De Grisogono, valued at $2.6 million.
14. Masters Of Disguise – The Paris Double Jewelry Heists
The Harry Winston jewelry store on Avenue Montaigne in the upscale Paris neighborhood of Champs-Elysee was a target of a group of canny thieves who hit the store twice. In October 2007, four men dressed as painters were let in by a security guard and spent the night in the store. In the morning, they overpowered employees and took off with about $36 million USD in jewelry and watches. They came back for seconds a year later in October 2008. This time, some of the gang were dressed as women, complete with wigs, ostensibly to try on jewelry. To add insult to injury, they addressed the employees by name, just before bashing them with their revolvers. They managed to make off with rings, necklaces and watches as they cleared out the window display and a back room for a haul worth over $99 million USD. High end jewels can be difficult to unload, however. Some of the proceeds were actually found later in a storm drain in a Paris suburb in 2011. Dogged police work resulted in arrests and the gang was tried and convicted of the crimes in 2015.
13. A Theatrical Robbery
Sometimes, it’s not so much a case of a meticulous plan as it is the brazen courage to pull off such an amazing heist. You also have to have enough fire power (or at least make people believe that you do, at any rate). Back in August of 1994, 3 thieves discovered that a little theatricality can go a long way when it comes to executing a successful heist. The trio burst into a jewelry store in the Carlton Hotel in Cannes on the French Riviera during business hours, creating a deafening noise by spraying the inside of the store with machine gun fire. Employees and customers dove for cover as the robbers smashed and grabbed their way to $45 million worth of high-end jewels before making their getaway. Naturally, the police were called but when they arrived, the detectives discovered an astonishing fact: there were no bullet holes in the walls or anywhere else in the store. The thieves had been firing blanks. To date, the thieves and the loot have never been found.
12. Rio Carnival $20 Million Art Heist
Crowds of partygoers gather in Rio de Janeiro every February for the spectacular Carnival, but the crowds and the conglomeration of wealth make it a magnet for thieves too. In 2006, the Chacara do Ceu museum was hosting a major exhibition to coincide with Carnival time and take advantage of the crowds. While the noise and celebration of the streets served as a distraction (and while 32,000 police were busy deployed in crowd control) four armed men entered the museum during open hours and forced staff to disconnect the building’s alarm and camera systems. They then made their selection of about $20 million in artwork, including “The Dance” by Picasso along with a book by the Spanish Cubist entitled “Toros”,”Marine” by Monet, “Garden of Luxembourg” by Matisse and “Two Balconies” by Dali. Two of the museum’s security guards were injured when they tried to intervene, and to date, none of the paintings have been found.
11. Handbag Knock Off
The exclusive shops of the Avenue Montaigne in Paris serve the world’s financial elite with designer goods of all kinds. As any fashionista knows, a good handbag can be pricey, and when you’re talking about designer bags, you’re looking at purses that can retail anywhere up to $10k and more each. The Paris Chanel boutique has been hit twice in 2016 already. In September, 3 men entered the boutique just after noon, wielding pump-action shotguns and axes. After ordering the store’s employees to the floor, they smashed the store windows and grabbed Chanel bags to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The men fled in a car that was parked right outside (how they managed that feat was not explained). Back in April, thieves used just a Jeep Cherokee to smash through the window and make off with another haul of luxury handbags, torching the vehicle to flee on scooters through the Paris streets.
10. The Pink Panther Gang
The Pink Panther Gang got their name after Paris police found a stolen jewel hidden inside a jar of face cream after a diamond store robbery in an upscale district of London (just like a scene in the old movie, The Return of the Pink Panther). The gang of brazen thieves arose from the vicious Balkan wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and had their heyday until about 2010, declining in recent years. Reports put their toll at 341 armed robberies and thefts committed from Tokyo to London for a total of about $340 million in mostly jewelry, with about 200 or more members at their peak. In 2007, hidden cameras caught a scene out of a Hollywood movie in a ritzy Dubai shopping mall as two Audi S8s smashed through glass doors. The first was a white car being driven in reverse, and the second was a black car driven by a woman in forward gear. The cars drove through the atrium to the Graff jewelry store. As store employees fled in terror, men armed with guns and pick-axes demolished the display cases and made off with $3.4 million worth of jewels in less than 3 minutes. The gang, whose members have been interviewed in print and have appeared in a documentary about them, claims while they may scare people, they’ve never hurt anyone in all their well-planned robberies.
9. Stealing The Scream
The painting, “The Scream” by the Norwegian artist, Edvard Munch, is an iconic work of modern art and is considered to be priceless. Painted in 1891, by 2004 the painting, along with another called “Madonna” was owned by the city of Oslo, the Norwegian capital. At the time of the theft in August 2004, the paintings were on display at the Munch museum in Oslo. Two masked gunmen entered the museum during daylight hours and overpowered an unarmed guard. They ended up swiping the two paintings in front of staff and visitors. A third man drove the getaway car, a black Audi that was waiting outside. The return of the paintings is an even better story. The thieves were caught and successfully prosecuted two years later in August 2006. Yet, the paintings were still missing. Telephone surveillance led police to a farm where the masterpieces were being kept. Two of the men were ordered to pay compensation to the tune of more than $98 million to the City of Oslo.
8. Madonna Of The Yarnwinder Daylight Theft
Drumlanrig Castle in Dumfriesshire is the ancestral home of the Duke of Buccleuch, one of the wealthiest men in Scotland. Among other treasures, the Duke owns a number of historic paintings, including works by Rembrandt and Holbein. Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Madonna of the Yarnwinder” is a very small oil painting on wood, completed between 1500 and 1510 and was valued at about $40 million USD. It was hanging in a stairway on public view in the castle in October 2003 when 4 thieves entered the castle, two of them posing as tourists. They overpowered staff and made off with the painting in a shabby white VW, found nearby the next day. The painting is very well known and documented; rather than trying to sell it, the thieves tried to hold it for ransom, demanding over $5.5 million from the Duke’s family and insurance company to return the work of art. Five men eventually went to trial for the extortion bid, and the painting was recovered in Glasgow in 2007. It went back on display on loan to the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh in 2008.
7. Schiphol Airport Diamond Heist
In February of 2005, a large shipment of uncut diamonds was on the tarmac at the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. It was on the way to being loaded into a plane bound for Antwerp, Belgium, which is one of the world’s largest diamond markets. Thieves dressed as KLM Airline employees, driving a KLM cargo truck, intercepted the truck carrying the diamonds. The robbers forced security staff out of the truck and made them lie on the ground. After boarding the truck, the thieves drove off unchallenged. Uncut diamonds are difficult to value, but the estimated worth of the robbery was over $118 million, making it possibly the largest diamond heist in history. The thieves were never caught, although police theories favored an inside job. As uncut diamonds, the jewels could have ended up literally anywhere in the world as cut stones and in pieces of jewelry.
6. The Madrid Wristwatch Robbery
The largest jewelry heist in the history of Spain went down in December of 2012 in Madrid when a large gang of criminals made off with more than $31 million in wristwatches. The gang leader’s nickname was The Troll, and the highly skilled robbers used cutting-edge laser equipment to cleverly break into a distribution center during working hours without triggering any alarms. Once inside, the thieves were able to work undetected for about four hours as they helped themselves to over 1,700 high end Swiss watches. About 300 were later recovered as the gang, many of whom were Chinese nationals, attempted to sell them on the black market in Shanghai. The trouble with getting away with a sizable heist is that the sudden influx of cash can be hard to explain. The Troll had been living the high life in the legendary Spanish beach town of Ibiza, and it was big ticket purchases like high end holiday trips and yacht rentals that triggered an investigation and, eventually, the arrest of 17 gang members.
5. London’s Graff Jewelry Heist
It took less than two minutes for a gang of four to pull off Britain’s biggest jewelry heist to date in August of 2009, but the planning had obviously been going on for very much longer. The four men had carefully cultivated the look of legitimate customers, using heavy make-up and wearing suits as they approached the counter of the Graff jewelry store in London. The armed robbers forced staff to hand over jewels worth about $52 million. While they got away at first, releasing their hostage in the process, the thieves made a series of fatal mistakes. Two of them arrived by cab, leaving the driver a huge tip he readily remembered when police questioned him later on. Fleeing in a car, two of the thieves crashed into another car at a nearby intersection. One left a cell phone wedged near the handbrake in a car that was abandoned and later recovered by police. There was a shotgun and shells in the trunk. The thieves were caught, but only one of the pieces was ever recovered.
4. Bill Brennan And The Lunchtime Las Vegas Heist
Bill Brennan was a cashier at the Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas, a splashy property that has since been demolished. One day in September 1992, he left after his shift, never to return. He’d made off with more than $500,000 in cash and chips that he’d hidden in a bag he had casually draped over his shoulder. Bill had worked at the casino in the sports book desk for about four years. In those four years, he obviously began coveting, plotting, and scheming. He was able to navigate around the holes in the casino’s security system, and stole the cash and chips during his lunch break. He then casually returned to work for the afternoon, leaving that evening with the loot. He’d managed to pull off the whole deal without getting caught by security cameras, and it took the casino’s employees hours to figure out that he was the culprit. By that time he was long gone. In the years since then, Brennan has been featured on America’s Most Wanted and has appeared on the FBI Most Wanted List, but to no avail. He and the loot remain unaccounted for, and it remains the only successful casino heist in Las Vegas history.
3. The Great Antwerp Diamond Heist
Antwerp, Belgium is the center of the global diamond trade. More than $200 million worth of stones move in and out of the city each and every day, and its diamond district is under police surveillance 24 /7. What was dubbed the world’s largest diamond heist at the time occurred in February of 2003. A gang of Italian thieves broke through 10 layers of security which included heat sensors, Doppler radar, a magnetic field, a seismic sensor, and a lock with 100 million possible combinations. The end goal was to access a vault located two floors underneath the Antwerp Diamond Center. The gang posed as diamond merchants, renting offices nearby. They broke into the vault on a weekend and left with a haul that included cash, loose diamonds, gold, and jewelry estimated at over $100 million. The stash was never recovered, but one of the thieves lost his cool and dumped a bag of incriminating evidence, including cash, notes, and a half-eaten sandwich with one of the robber’s DNA on it, by the road on the way home to Italy. The crime was solved by Antwerp’s specialized “Diamond Police” and while the stash was never found, the robbers were nevertheless tried and convicted on circumstantial evidence.
2. The Seattle Inner Tube Robbery
A Seattle thief may have made off with “only” tens of thousands and not millions when he robbed an armored car in September of 2008, but he certainly deserves extra points for creativity. Dressed in a blue shirt, safety vest, particle mask, and work boots, the 28-year-old pepper-sprayed the armored van driver and made off with his bag of cash. Here’s where it gets interesting. Prior to the robbery, the thief had placed a Craigslist ad ostensibly looking for landscaping workers at $28.50 an hour. It asked respondents to gather near the bank parking lot, dressed in a blue shirt, safety vest, particle mask, and work boots, effectively creating a diversion for police. During his getaway, the thief used an inner tube to float either himself or the loot down the river. Despite his cleverness, however, the thief was caught after dropping various items along the way, including a wig, sunglasses, and the particle mask, which contained forensic evidence.
1. The Great Train Robbery
It happened more than five decades ago, but the Great Train Robbery still stands out in the scope of its planning and execution. Early in the morning of August 8, 1963, a gang of 15 robbers executed the spectacular takedown of a Royal Mail train that was traveling from Glasgow to London. The gang tampered with the line signals, slowing down the train near the Bridego Railway Bridge in Buckinghamshire. The gang was operating with insider information from a postal worker who knew details of the mail runs and the amounts in transit, and netted a haul of over £2.6 million, equivalent to over $63 million USD adjusted for inflation. After a clean getaway, the gang hid out at a farm. They’d paid someone to clean out the farm and torch it after they left, but the accomplice failed to hold up his end of the bargain. It was there that police would discover evidence that led to the eventual capture and conviction of most of the gang members.