Most men have probably had a fantasy or two about pulling off a “once in a lifetime” kind of heist worth millions. Fortunately, most of us are sane enough not to let it get further than a thought. Below are a few men who were not. The only criteria for entry on this list is that they must have gotten away with it, at least temporarily. Anyone caught in the act does not qualify for this list. Whether it be cash, jewels, art or anything else worth big bucks, you can bet there is someone, somewhere, planning on stealing it. All values are in US$ or UK£, which bear in mind, are worth more than US dollars. I have roughly adjusted for inflation of some of the older robberies to show where they compare to some of the modern monster hauls. Incredibly, no one was killed during any of the below robberies (as far as I can tell), the mark of true professionals. Feel free to add any others I may have missed in the comments section. This list was originally sent in as a top 20, but it has been broken up due to the size of the items – the second installment will appear in the future.
Four armed men entered the upmarket jewelry store (“Jeweler to the Stars”) shortly before closing time, 3 of whom were dressed in wigs and women’s clothing. After cleaning out the display cases, they forced staff to loot the storage area, as the millions worth of jewels in the display cases just wasn’t enough for these guys. They cleaned the place out, without firing a shot. Harry Winston stock fell 9% the next day after word of the robbery got out. The store had been robbed the previous year, where thieves netted 10 million euros worth of jewels. One would think that perhaps it would be cheaper hiring some armed guards than getting robbed on a yearly basis. 25 people have since been arrested for the crime, aged 22 to 67. Good to see there is no age discrimination among thieves.
80% of the world’s uncut diamonds go through Antwerp, and don’t thieves know it! The city has seen its fair share of heists, but this one was incredible in both dollar value and the method with which it was executed. This haul was so large that the thieves literally couldn’t carry all their booty out of the vault, but still managed to empty an impressive 123 of 189 deposit boxes. Leonardo Notarbartolo, a 30 year career thief, was the leader of this stylish gang. The robbery was years in the making, with at least 4 people involved. They had rented office space in the building 3 years earlier, where Leonardo posed as an Italian diamond merchant to gain trust and credibility. He set up meetings and did small deals, no one ever suspecting a thing. When it was finally time to move, they inserted fake tapes into the security cameras to cover their movements. The vault was protected by 10 layers of security, including infrared heat detectors, Doppler radar, a magnetic field, a seismic sensor, and a lock with 100 million possible combinations. The robbery was called the heist of the century, and even now the police can’t explain exactly how it was done. Notarbartolo was caught after one of his accomplices failed to burn a garbage bag of evidence. The $100 million worth of gems has never been found and Notarbartolo is currently serving a 10 year sentence. Interestingly, Notarbartolo has claimed that a Jewish diamond merchant hired them for the heist and that they actually only stole roughly $20 million worth, with many of the deposit boxes already lying empty. He believes that he and his gang were used as part of a huge insurance fraud.
Whilst $30 million may not seem like much compared to the other monsters on this list, bear in mind that this occurred back in 1972. By today’s standards, it would be worth more than $100 million. At the time, it was a world record amount. A group of 7 men from Ohio, led by Amil Dinsio, broke into a branch of the United California Bank in Laguna Niguel, California, and looted the safe deposit vault. Due to the nature of safe deposit boxes and their undeclared contents, only an estimate is possible. They were eventually apprehended by the FBI. One of the men involved, Phil Christopher, has written an account of the robbery in the book Superthief. I couldn’t dig up too much information on this robbery, as even the FBI website does not have an account of the robbery or investigation, so if anyone wishes to add more information in the comments, feel free.
This haul is the largest diamond heist in history. $118 million is the estimate, as many of the stones were uncut, which make them much harder to value (and trace.) Whilst many of the other robberies on this list involve elegant planning and flawless execution, this was more akin to a smash and grab. 2 weeks prior to the robbery, 4 men stole a KLM cargo truck and KLM uniforms to divert suspicion until the last moment, so that they could move around the secure areas of the airport unhindered. (KLM is a major Dutch airline.) On February 25th, the thieves drove right up to a KLM truck that was carrying a large haul of uncut diamonds intended for delivery to Antwerp. In full view of many witnesses, they ordered the drivers out at gun-point and simply got in the truck and drove it away. Due to the fact that they knew exactly which truck to target, police suspect an inside job. It was the second time in 6 months that the airport terminal had been breached. Several men have been arrested in connection to the robbery.
The 1970s saw the rise of the PLO, a terrorist group led by Yasser Arafat, whose aim was to carve out a homeland for the Palestinian people. They were at war. And wars cost money. Lots of it. Lebanon was in the midst of a civil war, and amid the chaos, a group associated with the PLO broke into a dozen banks, the largest of which was the British Bank of the Middle East. The group made off with a staggering £25 million worth of gold, jewels, stocks and currency, valued at much more than $100 million in today’s money. The group blasted the wall of the bank that was shared with the Catholic Church next door. With the assistance of Corsican locksmiths, they opened the vault and plundered the contents over the course of 2 days. Some of the stocks were later sold back to their owners.
Valerio Viccei migrated to the UK from Italy in 1986, where he was wanted for over 50 armed robberies. He decided to continue his successful trade in his new homeland, where he and an accomplice entered the Knightsbridge Safe Deposit Centre and asked to rent a Safe Deposit Box. After being led into the vault, they subdued the manager and the guards. Valerio hung a sign outside stating that the Deposit was temporarily closed to deter more customers, and then went about letting in more accomplices. The gang then plundered the safe deposit boxes at will and netted an estimated £60 million, which translates approximately into a whopping $174 million in today’s money. The police were not alerted until an hour after the robbery, giving the team plenty of time to flee the scene. Valerio fled to Latin America whilst his accomplices were arrested, then foolishly returned to England sometime later to retrieve his beloved Ferrari, where he was subsequently caught. He was sentenced to 22 years in prison. One would think that with the better part of $174 million, you would just buy another Ferrari. Or two. He was killed in 2000 while on day release in Italy, as a result of a gunfight with police.
Employees of the Dar Es Salaam bank showed up to work one morning to find that the doors were unlocked, the vault open, and all the money was gone. It is believed that 3 guards at the bank made off with a staggering $282 million in this whopping haul. Yes, more than a quarter of a billion dollars! That’s more money than the entire economies of some small countries. It is unclear why the bank had such a large amount of cash on hand, but it was all in US currency. It is suspected that the guards had the assistance of militias, to avoid detection at security checkpoints around Baghdad, as having a lazy $282 million in the boot of your car might raise suspicions. No one has been brought to justice for this brazen crime and none of the money has been recovered. The robbery received surprisingly little media coverage.
Number 3 on our list is also considered the biggest art heist in history. Two men dressed as police officers convinced 2 inexperienced security guards at the Gardner Museum that they were responding to a disturbance. Contrary to museum policy, the 2 guards let the “officers” into the premises, where they quickly learned that they had been duped after being handcuffed by the men in the basement. Amazingly, the 2 men managed to do this despite having no visible weapons whatsoever. The men spent the next 81 minutes calmly selecting 12 pieces of art with a combined value of over $300 million, and this was 20 years ago. Among the paintings stolen were 3 Rembrandt’s and a Vermeer. The two then took the surveillance tapes and departed, never to be heard from again, though in 1994 an offer was made to return the paintings for $2.6 million and immunity from prosecution, but the writer was never heard from again. The men appear to possibly be amateurs, as they made no effort to avoid damaging the paintings and left even more valuable works behind. The case has never been solved and there is a $5 million reward for any information pertaining to the return of the artworks. Also, authorities have announced that they will not prosecute anyone who has the paintings and offers to return them.
John Goddard was a 58 year old messenger working for broker Sheppards, who was mugged whilst carrying a briefcase on a quiet London side street. However, the contents of that briefcase contained £292 million in bearer bonds. Goddard was delivering Bank of England Treasury bills from banks and building societies. Due to the nature of bearer bonds, whoever is carrying them is deemed the owner. They are as good as cash. He was held at knifepoint, whilst his assailant made off with 301 Treasury bills, most valued at £1 million each. Keith Cheeseman was arrested in connection to the crime and received a 6 and a half year sentence. Police believe that the mugging was carried out by Patrick Thomas, but he was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head before he could be charged. All but 2 of the bonds were recovered after police and the FBI infiltrated the gang responsible. It’s amazing that the second largest robbery in history was carried out by a low level thief brandishing only a knife on an insignificant back street.
Some robberies require careful planning. Others use brute force. But the largest in history was as simple was it was effective. Saddam Hussein treated Iraq as his own personal fiefdom, so it’s no surprise that he would feel that the Central Bank of Iraq was his personal bank account. The day before Coalition forces began bombing Iraq, he sent his son Qusay to make a withdrawal on his behalf with a handwritten note. Qusay oversaw the withdrawal of boxes stuffed with $100 bills in a five-hour operation which netted the dictator about $1 billion in US dollars. It didn’t get him very far, as he was caught sometime later hiding in a hole in the ground whilst his son was killed by US forces. Approximately $650 million was later found by US troops hidden in the walls of one of his palace’s, though the remaining $350 million has never been recovered and is considered lost.