‘You have a very strong grip, the kind a burglar needs,’ Grace Kelly coos at Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 classic, To Catch a Thief. Full of romantic intrigue, thrill hunting, and a notorious man of mystery, the film acts as a picturesque backdrop for a woman’s insatiable desire for danger, and diamonds. But tales of jewelry thieves rarely end with such orgasmic fireworks, and a heist is no mere robbery. It is a feat of patience and engineering that yields some of the biggest payouts in history, and also some of the longest prison sentences.
Daring jewel heists aimed at the world’s most storied and expensive diamonds have been carried out for more than 700 hundred years, but no matter how carefully planned, how audacious, or how many exquisite Grace Kelly’s are rooting for the (most usually) well-dressed and dapper-looking thieves; blindsided by ego, the mimetic men almost always get caught. Almost always. And the Middle Ages were no exception.
“As long as there’s been jewelry, there have been thieves at the ready to steal it – sometimes successfully, sometimes not,” said jewelry historian Diana Singer, who explained with a hint of veneration that it was 1303, when England’s King Edward I was at war with William Wallace (of Braveheart fame) just north of the Scottish border that the Crown Jewels were pilfered in one of history’s first recorded jewelry heists.
Despite being tucked away safely behind ironbound doors in Westminster Abbey, one hundred and sixty-two dollars’ worth (at the time, more than a year’s tax revenue for the entire Kingdom of England) of gemstones and silver was stolen by Richard de Pudlicote, a former merchant who was bored and struggling for money.
The Pyx Chamber at the Abbey was for centuries considered the most secure room in the entire island of Great Britain. Its walls are 13-feet thick, and originally the only entrance to the room was via a tiny, cramped, and booby-trapped stairway. To avoid stumbling into a small hole, where you would either starve to death or await arrest, a wooden ladder was needed to traverse several broken spots – and only the Abbey’s monks were privy to these death traps.
Pudlicote, the perspicacious type, set out to become friendly with the monks and after several months he was padding around the Abbey and its grounds unsupervised. What happened next is between Pudlicote, the monks, and the walls of the Abbey. According to his later confession, the merchant had planted hemp seeds around the Abbey’s outside wall, and five months later, when those seeds had grown into decent cover, he spent weeks chiselling away at the masonry to avoid the booby- trapped staircase. On April 24, 1303, he found himself in a room filled with jewels, silverware and gold florins. He remained hidden inside the chamber for two days gathering as much as he could carry, before escaping unnoticed – until treasure began appearing all over the country.
A fisherman on the Thames found a bejewelled silver cup in one of his nets. Diamonds were found by boys playing in a field. Jewelry and foreign coins began appearing at goldsmith’s shops as far away as York, and a pile of treasures were found hidden in the Abbey’s churchyard, for what one can only assume was safekeeping. As word spread, Pudlicote was eventually captured and sent to his death in the Tower, where the King had his skin removed, and nailed to the door of the Abbey as warning to other sticky-fingered merchants.
Not that anyone listened. Three hundred years later, when Charles II reigned and a civil war dragged on, another opportunist would attempt their luck at the Crown Jewels. This time it was a colonel named Thomas Blood, who had a bone to pick with the king for confiscating his land in Ireland.
During the late 17th Century, the public was able to view the jewels one day a week in the Tower of London for a small tip, paid to the only person watching over the treasures from his apartment above – Mr Talbot Edwards, a 77-year-old man. For months, Blood befriended the man, stopping by every week to banter. They talked families, told jokes, until Edwards spoke of his unwed daughter. Blood saw an opening, and exclaimed that he, too, had an unwed nephew – he was to bring him to the Tower on a day that the jewels were closed to the public, so Edwards could meet him.
On May 9th, 1671, Blood entered the Tower with a man posing as his nephew. Once inside, they swiftly bound and gagged Edwards, stabbing him to subdue his screams. A reinforcement of men arrived, and together they stuffed as many jewels into their clothing as possible; Blood crammed the Black Princess Ruby into his pocket, while the King’s crown was flattened and slipped into the front of his belt. Edwards’ shouting ensured the men were captured before they reached the Tower’s Iron Gates, but unlike Pudlicote, Blood was spared his life – not only was he pardoned, but he was also given back his land in Ireland. “Historians widely believe the king feared an Irish uprising in revenge by followers of Blood, if he had hanged him” offered Ms Singer.
England’s Crown Jewels, I’m sure, were lovely; but stacked against Marie Antoinette’s diamonds, the collection paled in comparison. Until 1792, no one had ever attempted to steal the French Crown Jewels, but during the Revolution -with riots in the streets and no guards to watch the diamonds, which sat in display cases in the Royal Treasury behind thick iron bars – it’s not surprising six men were able to make off with (adjusting for inflation) three hundred and thirty-three million dollars’ worth of unmounted jewels and forty-eight million dollars in mounted diamonds over a six-day robbery spree.
The Regent diamond, Hortensia diamond, Sancy diamond and the French Blue diamond of the Charlemagne Crown – now known as the cursed Hope diamond – were all taken. When guards finally realized a large chunk of King Louis XIV’s jewels were missing, a reward was put out to catch the offender. It didn’t take long for the men to turn each other in; many of the larger diamonds were eventually found under roof beams and at the bottom of trees, but most were never recovered. Twenty-one years later in 1812, however, a large, deep blue diamond appeared on the market. It was purchased by an unassuming banker, Henry Phillip Hope, and at the time of his death in 1839, it was found to be the very same French Blue; surreptitiously re-cut into the shape of a Pigeon’s egg.
But as vaults replaced iron bars, and surveillance systems became around-the-clock guardians, stealing diamonds became a lesson in quantum and computational physics as much as it did furtiveness and conniving secrecy. Or sometimes, just dumb luck.
When a charming, tall, sandy-blonde Chess prodigy, Jack Roland Murphy, visited New York’s Museum of Natural History from Florida in 1964, he happened to overhear a student discussing the building’s sloppy security surrounding the Star of India, Eagle diamond, and the Midnight sapphire. He hatched a plan to steal the jewels, not because he necessarily needed them money, but because “he enjoyed the thought of the challenge’” explained Ms Singer.
With two buddies in tow, the now notorious ‘Murph the Surf’ climbed the museum’s wall on Manhattan’s West 77th St – the alarms of which had been short-circuited by a storm the night before – and entered through a window that had been left open for ventilation. The trio walked in, took the jewels, and strolled out; but it wasn’t long before their luck gave way to stupidity.
Smug, their blood racing with testosterone-filled adrenaline, the three men walked into a bar, sat down next to two women, and bragged about their evening’s accomplishment. Once the disbelieving women saw the next day’s front-page news, Murph the Surf never made it back to Miami.
In Belgium, where eighty per cent of the world’s uncut diamonds pass by the Antwerp Diamond District‘s café’s every day, travelling from office to office in briefcases and coat pockets, one of the densest concentrations of wealth in the world was robbed of one hundred million dollars in jewels.
The bold and baffling heist counts as one of the largest jewelry thefts ever, dwarfing the Pink Panther’s 80 million euro Harry Winston heist in December 2008, and the sixty-five million dollars of jewels they snatched from London’s Graff Diamonds eight months later.
Matching the Pink Panther’s renowned brutality for intricate cleverness, Leonardo Notoberto – a warm, voluble Italian man – acted the part of an ideal tenant. For three years from 2001, he visited the vault of Antwerp’s Diamond Centre, a grey, 14-story fortress on the south end of the district, where hundreds of diamond brokers’ gems are locked up in safety deposit boxes in an underground vault each night. He became intimately acquainted with the guards; analysing the alarm systems as he opened his own safety deposit box two floors below the building.
Protected by ten layers of security, including infrared heat detectors, Doppler radar, a magnetic field, seismic sensor, and a lock with 100 million possible combinations, the vault was believed to be impenetrable. But on February 16, 2003, using Styrofoam boards to circumvent the sensors, hairspray to cover heat detectors, new videotapes to cover the surveillance system, delicate wirework for the alarms, an original key to the three-tonne vault door which they found hanging in an adjacent utility room, and plastic gloves, Notoberto and three highly skilled men (nicknamed the King of Keys, the Monster and the Genius) broke into 109 out of the vault’s 189 safety deposit boxes
It was the heist of the century, until one of the men threw a bag of garbage out the car window into what he wrongly assumed was an abandoned stretch of forest off the highway. “Spools of the vault’s old videotape clung to the branches like streamers on a Christmas tree,” wrote Wired Magazine’s Joshua Davis, who interviewed Notoberto from prison in 2009. “Israeli and Indian currency skittered past a half-eaten salami sandwich. The mud around the car was flecked with dozens of tiny, glittering diamonds.”
Believing that the strewn garbage came from “a bunch of hooligans,” as Ms Singer tells it, the property owner called the police. And waiting patiently for the officers was an invoice for a low-light video surveillance system next to envelopes stamped Antwerp Diamond District. The buyer: Leonardo Notarbartolo. A few feet away, the DNA of ‘the Monster’ sat on the half-eaten sandwich.
Unaware, Notarbartolo drove straight to his wife, who was waiting patiently in Italy. But when the pair returned to the apartment in Antwerp a few days later (“If the police were looking for tenants who had disappeared, he wouldn’t be on the list,” explained Ms Singer), the authorities had already set up their ambuscade.
The diamonds were never recovered, and Notarbartolo, who is serving a ten-year sentence (the two other men each finish five-year sentences during 2013, and the King of Keys was never apprehended), refuses to reveal their whereabouts. Because, as he said to Mr Davis in the smooth words of Cary Grant to Grace Kelly, “For what it’s worth, I never stole from anybody who would go hungry” – that, and the fact it is probably “something best discussed” once he is out of prison.
In the meantime, while Marie Antoinette’s few recovered diamonds now sit in the Louvre and the Smithsonian, the Star of India sparkles from its perch in the Museum of Natural History, and the Pink Panthers continue to wreak havoc with violent precision, the diamonds of Antwerp’s underground could very well be waiting for Notarbartolo’s own elegantly-orchestrated ending, somewhere on the French Riviera.
Photos: movie stills from To Catch A Thief (1955) – (top left to right) civilizedme.blogspot.com, doctormacro.com, ccine10.blogspot.com;(bottom right) Paramount Pictures Corporation (1954)