You only need to watch the news or buy a newspaper to realize that robberies are an ever present threat in our society.
While in some countries crime rates have fallen over recent decades, statistics prove the popular perception that robbery continues to be a real problem. Figures from the year 2006, the latest year for which they were available, compared robberies reported by the police in over 70 countries. The top 14 countries, including the United States, Spain and Argentina, all had more than 100 recorded robberies per 100,000 people, meaning that they are carried out at a rate of more than 1 in 1,000.
Perhaps it’s because robberies are a part of every society that they play such an important role in popular culture. Of course, none of us would want to be involved in one if we can help it, but many people nonetheless enjoy the excitement and entertainment provided by stories based around these crimes. We only need to mention movies like Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing or Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run, or shows such as The Sopranos to get the idea. However, often it’s real life stories that can give us the most entertainment. The following list contains 10 of the greatest robberies in history.
10 Bank of Pennsylvania Heist
The first bank robbery in American history took place on August 31st, 1798, in Philadelphia. A total of $162,281 was stolen from the Bank of Pennsylvania’s vaults, an enormous sum in those days. Having just replaced the locks for the bank a few days earlier before leaving town on holiday, blacksmith Pat Lyon was immediately the prime suspect, but as things turned out, he actually had nothing to do with it. The heist had been carried out by Isaac Davis, a member of the Carpenter’s Company which owned the building where the bank was based. This fact only emerged some months later, when Davis tried to deposit some of the stolen money in the same bank, where he had stolen it from. After he confessed to having committed the crime and agreed to pay all of the money back, Davis was never sent to prison for his crime. Lyon spent three months in prison before being cleared.
9 The Mona Lisa
The theft of this world famous painting helped contribute to its legendary status as probably the world’s most recognizable work of art. In 1911, Vincenzo Peruggia, a handyman who had been hired by the Louvre in Paris to make glass cases for some of its most famous works, simply had to hide in a closet overnight in order to gain access to the painting. He tucked it under his coat and was let out of the door by an unsuspecting plumber. Even more remarkably, it took 24 hours until anyone realized the painting was missing, probably because it was not uncommon for exhibits to be removed for restoration or cleaning. The police took over two years to locate the painting.
8 Nazi Looting of European Art
Between 1933 and 1945, the National Socialist government in Germany had a policy of confiscating art from Jews and countries that came under their rule. The theft of the continent’s artistic and cultural heritage was planned on a grand scale, with Hitler intending to set up a massive art museum in his hometown in Austria. When the war broke out in 1939, teams were sent to France, Belgium, the Netherlands and other countries, to create an inventory of the works that were desired. The total value of art stolen is impossible to estimate, since many works were unfortunately never recovered. But to give some idea, the German authorities seized over 1100 paintings from an elderly art dealer in Munich in 2011, whose father had worked for the Nazis. The total value of these works alone was put at over $1 billion.
7 Great Train Robbery
The 1963 theft of £2.6 million ($3.9 million) from a Royal Mail train in Buckinghamshire, England, was one of the most famous robberies ever in Britain. It was planned meticulously over many months and carried out by a large gang of 16. They altered the signals on the train tracks, forcing the train to stop, and then seized a number of sacks from the high value packages carriage. Although the money was never recovered, most of the gang members were captured by police in the subsequent weeks. However, four of the perpetrators were never discovered. The ringleaders of the gang were sentenced to 30 years in prison, but in the years that followed, five of them escaped and fled the country.
6 Dunbar Armoured
The largest cash theft to take place in the United States was at Dunbar’s facility in Los Angeles, in 1997. The seizure of $18 million was planned by Alan Pace, while he worked at the company as a safety officer. A day prior to the raid, he had been fired from his job. Dressed in ski masks, Pace along with a group of friends, got into the depot late at night, using a key Pace still had. They were able to overpower the guards before they could raise the alarm. The police initially had no luck with their investigations, until a fatal error was committed by one of the gang members when he paid an associate with a bundle of money that still had the company’s bands on it.
5 Millennium Dome
The raid in London in 2000, aimed to seize £350 million ($529 million) of rare diamonds from the Dome, in what would have been the largest robbery in history. But the gang members involved in the plot were seasoned criminals who had previously come to the attention of police. So when police noticed that they were showing an unusual interest in the De Beers diamond exhibit, they put in place plans to foil the heist. A selection of fake diamonds were manufactured so that the real collection could be removed from the scene. After they managed to break through the perimeter fence in a digger, a large number of police officers managed to arrest all of the gang members.
4 Antwerp Diamond Heist
The extraordinary theft of over $100 million of diamonds, gold jewelry and money was described as the “heist of the century” by investigators after it took place in February, 2003. This was not only due to the amount stolen, but because of where it was stolen from. The vault in Antwerp’s diamond district, an area where billions of dollars of diamonds pass through every year, was broken into during the night and a large proportion of its contents stolen. Leonardo Notarbartollo was arrested and convicted with involvement with the crime, although he always denied the charge of orchestrating the operation. According to him, he had been set up by a diamond dealer.
3 Stephane Breitwieser
Breitwieser became one of the most notorious art thiefs ever, for a series of robberies he carried out between 1995 and 2001. He stole a wide variety of artistic works, including paintings, pottery, jewelry and other collectibles from museums, castles and churches in seven countries across Europe. The estimated value of the items he took amounts to $1.4 billion, with the most expensive work being Sybille, Princess of Cleves valued at between $5-6 million. Breitwieser explained that instead of stealing to make a profit, he had done so for the love of art. He kept all of his stolen treasures at his mother’s house in Strasbourg. Unfortunately, when he was caught by police, all of the works were destroyed by his mother to cover up his crimes, so they are lost forever.
2 Dansk Værdihåndtering
Between 60 and 62 million Danish crowns (around $9.7 million) were stolen from a security firm, Dansk Værdihåndtering, in Brondby. The heavily-armed gang of 16 men carried AK47 weapons when they seized the cash, and had three vehicles ready to be used in a getaway. During the robbery, the gang put in place an elaborate plan to prevent the police from gaining access to the area by setting at least eleven garbage trucks on fire in the surrounding streets. Five were apprehended several days later at a hotel in Copenhagen, and over subsequent months, more arrests were made.
1 Graff Jewelers
Posing as customers, Aman Kassaye and his accomplice arrived at Graff Jewelers, in New Bond Street, London, on August 6th, 2009. They forced the staff at gunpoint to open the shop’s display cases. In all, diamonds and other jewelry valued at close to £40 million ($65 million) were taken from the store. The pair spent four hours in a makeup studio to change their facial features and hair before the robbery. They fled the scene in a blue BMW before making several vehicle switches during their getaway. None of the stolen items were ever recovered, and it may have been that the two criminals would have escaped as well, had they not left a phone in one of the cars they jumped out of in a hurry. Through this phone, the police were able to identify them and trace their movements.