Jewel Heists, Past and Present

There’s been even more commotion than usual on 47th street this week, all stemming from an armed robbery that occurred on Tuesday afternoon (thank goodness nobody was seriously injured). As the details start to leak out (word on the street is that the robbers were sent by a rival jewelry store (!)) we are reminded of some famous jewel heists from history and the rumors that follow.

Howard Carter exploring King Tut's sarcophagus.

Howard Carter exploring King Tut's sarcophagus.

As long as people have been gathering and storing precious jewels, enterprising individuals have sought ways to relieve the rightful owners of their carefully guarded treasures. Even the famous tomb of Egyptian King Tutankhamun was rifled through by at least two waves of ancient burglars. When the tomb was rediscovered by archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922 (spurring a whole awesome trend of Egyptian revival jewels, by the way) he found hundreds of objects had been broken and tossed around in disarray. The big mess was the handiwork of burglars anxious to leave the scene before discovery. It’s hard to blame these ancient thieves for their haste, as the punishment for robbing a royal tomb was a severe beating followed by impalement. After checking the contents of the tomb against ancient inventories, Carter estimated that about 60% of the tomb's jewelry contents had been looted in antiquity.

The Hope Diamond, which lives at the  Smithsonian.

The Hope Diamond, which lives at the Smithsonian.

Another royal robbery of great renown occurred in September 1792; this time the victims were the ill-fated King and Queen of France. Unlike the Egyptian tomb robbers, the French thieves had the luxury of time. Taking advantage of the revolutionary chaos around them, they spent five leisurely days removing the jewels from the practically unguarded royal treasury. Though most of the jewels were recovered in the years following the revolution, the fate of many of the royal treasures of France remains a mystery. Most notably, it’s suspected that a giant diamond known as the French Royal Blue was recut and now lives at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History as the Hope Diamond.

The trash left by the Antwerp Diamond Center jewel thieves, which  helped police identify them.

The trash left by the Antwerp Diamond Center jewel thieves, which helped police identify them.

And of course we can’t leave out one of the most brazen heists in recent memory: the 2003 robbery of the Antwerp Diamond Center. In the middle of the night, a team of five highly-experienced gem thieves finagled their way through the Diamond Center’s state of the art defenses and made off with an estimated $100,000,000 in diamonds and jewelry from the enormous vault. Though the “Ocean’s 11”-style robbery went off without a hitch, the thieves made one very silly mistake. The drivers of the get away car carelessly disposed of garbage along their route, and a grumpy retiree called the police to report the litter. Among the debris were receipts, tiny diamonds and a half-eaten salami sandwich; a literal trail of breadcrumbs that allowed police to identify the culprits (incriminating DNA was found on the sandwich). Though several of the culprits were sentenced to serious jail time, the loot is still at large.