Everybody be cool… this is a robbery!
10 of the most famous (or infamous) robberies, raids and heists of all time…
- Banco Central Burglary
Stolen: $70 million in cash
Brazil’s Banco Central Burglary has gone down as one of the most successful cash robberies of all time, with the thieves making off with an eye watering 164,755,150 Brazilian Reais (around $70m or £39m). And these ‘green fingered’ thieves certainly planned the robbery down to a tee!
The story goes that after renting a commercial property in the middle of the city and posing as landscapers (selling turf among other things), the criminal masterminds then spent over three months digging a 256-foot tunnel to a prime spot directly underneath the Banco Central (every good heist has a cunning tunnel, right?!).
Once they were in position, over the course of one weekend, they tunnelled up through 1.1 metres of steel reinforced concrete into the bank’s vault and skilfully removed 3.5 tons of Brazilian currency. The theft remained unnoticed until the Monday, by which time the loot was long gone.
Despite extensive investigations covering the length and breadth of Brazil, only around R$20m have ever been recovered. A handful of arrests have been made, however, several suspects have also wound up dead, including the alleged mastermind of the scheme, Luis Fernando Ribeiro, 26, whose body was found on an isolated road 200 miles west of Rio de Janeiro riddled with bullets following his kidnapping. A direct result of his involvement with the heist it has been said.
- Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Burglary
Stolen: €200m worth of jewellery
Described as the ‘largest burglary in English legal history’ the massive Hatton Garden safe deposit burglary certainly has a dash of Oceans 11 about it, most notably due to the fact that it was carried out by a gang of elderly and experienced thieves, who were dubbed, among other things, as ‘The Diamond Wheezers’, ‘Dad’s Army’, or, as they are known in the French press, “le gang du papys” (the grandads’ gang).
Following an impressively executed assault on the building via the roof and elevator shaft, the gang used heavy cutting equipment to get into a vault at Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Ltd and ransacked 56 safe deposit boxes full of jewellery. What makes the robbery even more astounding is that CCTV footage showed some of the gang members arriving in a white van and unloading their tools on April 2nd. However, they were thwarted when they were unable to gain access to the vault after discovering it was blocked off by a metal cabinet. Astoundingly two nights after their previous attempt went undetected, they returned with different equipment to finish the job.
Initially it looked like the gang had got away with it, however, a wave of arrests soon followed and in early 2016 many of the gang involved in the heist were sentenced to stretches of varying degrees, up to seven years, at Woolwich Crown Court.
- Gardner Museum Robbery
Stolen: $500m worth of art
Boston’s acclaimed Gardner Museum is home to some of the world’s most prized and priceless works of art, attracting art lovers from all over the world who marvel at the celebrated collections. However, on the night of March 18th 1990 the museum lost several of these masterpieces in a perfect crime, with a value totalling in excess of $500m.
At precisely 1.24am, whilst the Irish influenced city was drunkenly preoccupied with St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, a pair of thieves posing as Boston police officers gained entry to the museum. They pretended to arrest the security guards on duty, before they handcuffed and stashed them out of the way, allowing them to conduct their dastardly crime spree.
Over the course of the next few hours the thieves absconded with 13 pieces of art totalling $500m. Thefts included Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee (1633), A Lady and Gentleman in Black (1633) and a Self Portrait (1634); Vermeer’s The Concert (1658–1660); Govaert Flinck’s Landscape with an Obelisk (1638); Edouard Manet’s Chez Tortoni (1878–1880) and five Edgar Degas’ impressionist works.
To this day no one knows who the robbers were, where the precious works of art are, how the heist was conducted, or indeed anything of note at all! The statute of limitation for the robbery is now up and yet the frames where the artwork originally hung remain empty on the walls of the museum.
Due to the mystery that shrouds the whole incident, the Gardner Museum robbery is regarded as one of the most enigmatic and successful heists of all time.
- Central Bank of Iraq robbery
Stolen: $1billion in cash
In 2003, as the Middle East began its descent into anarchy and Iraq was engulfed in war, the country’s embattled leader Saddam Hussein, ‘authorised’ his son, Qusay, and a close advisor to make a large cash withdrawal of $1 billion dollars from the Central Bank of Iraq, in what would become the largest bank heist in recorded history.
Saddam’s authorisation was handed to his son on a signed hand-written note, and due to the fact that Hussein ran the country as his own personal fiefdom, this note was seemingly enough to pave the way to remove $1bn from the country’s central bank.
It took a huge team of workers over two hours to load the bank notes onto THREE tractor trailers ahead of their removal.
Of course we all know that things didn’t end too well for Saddam who was later captured by US troops and executed after being convicted of crimes against humanity by the Iraqi Special Tribunal. His son Qusay was killed by US forces. Due to the extreme turmoil in the region it’s unclear how much of the total missing cash has been recovered, but it’s believed that around $650m was discovered hidden in the walls of one of Saddam’s palaces. However, hundreds of millions of dollars still remain unaccounted for.
- The Great Train Robbery
Stolen: £2.6million (approximately £40m today)
It’s a heist that has been romanticised in British criminal history, spawning movies, books and making celebrities out of its perpetrators, so it’s only fair that the Great Train Robbery has come to be regarded as a crime classic.
And it was a crime as simple as it was effective. A gang of 15 robbers executed the now legendary plan to intercept a Royal Mail train en route from Glasgow, that they knew (thanks to an informant known as ‘The Ulsterman’) to be full of high value packages. The simplistic plan involved the rigging of trackside signals to stop the train in a remote location, where the conductor (Jack Mills) was knocked out and the contents of the train liberated.
Led by Bruce Reynolds, other gang members included Gordon Goody, Buster Edwards, Charlie Wilson, Roy James, John Daly, Ronnie Biggs, Tommy Wisbey, Jim Hussey, Bob Welch, Roger Cordrey and Jimmy White, as well as three men known only as “1”, “2” and “3”. The bulk of the stolen money was never recovered, however when police later found the gang’s hideout, the incriminating evidence discovered there would eventually lead to the arrest and conviction of most of the gang. The ringleaders received 30 year jail terms.
Following their incarceration several of the gang managed to escape from their various prisons, including Charlie Wilson and Ronnie Biggs who headed to Paris for plastic surgery before fleeing to south America. Their escape was yet another dramatic twist in the fantastical train robbery saga that truly captured the public’s imagination.
- The Antwerp Diamond Centre robbery
Stolen: $100 million+ of diamonds
In a city that sees 80% of the world’s uncut diamonds go through it each year, Antwerp has certainly seen its fair share of high profile heists. The Antwerp Diamond Centre robbery in 2003 overshadows them all, both in terms of the value of goods stolen and the cunning methods employed by the criminal gang involved. So much so that it has become one of the most referred to heists in modern history.
There’s no doubt that the gang involved in executing this sparkling crime were a slick and stylish bunch. Headed up by Leonardo Notarbartolo, a 30 year old career criminal, the robbery was years in the making, demonstrating a huge level of cunning and patience. In the late nineties the gang rented office space in the same building as the Antwerp Diamond Centre. Leonardo posed as a diamond merchant, where he set about building his profile and gaining trust and credibility, doing small deals, but never once raising any suspicious eyebrows.
When the time came to execute their plan, Notarbartolo’s crew, a gang of Italians dubbed the ‘La Scuola di Torino’ (the ‘School of Turin’), accomplished one of the most elaborate heists in history — inserting fake tapes into security cameras, using copied keys, outsmarting infrared heat detectors, Doppler radar, a magnetic field, a seismic sensor, and even a lock with 100 million possible combinations!
To this day the police can’t explain how they did it and the $100m worth of gems have never been found. Notarbartolo was only caught after one of his accomplices failed to effectively dispose of a bag of rubbish and his DNA was found on a half-eaten sandwich. He received a ten year sentence.
- Harry Winston diamond robbery
Stolen: €80m of jewellery
The exclusive Harry Winston jewellery boutique in Paris is situated on the fashionable Avenue Montaigne and attracts a wealthy clientele from around the world, including royalty and film stars. However, the boutique has also developed a nasty habit of getting robbed, with two high profile heists in 2007 and 2008, the second of which resulted in a record breaking haul of €80m worth of sparkling jewels for the unusually attired thieves.
In what must be one of the more bizarre heists in history, several drag queens (dubbed ‘The Pink Panthers’), armed with sawn off shot guns held up the exclusive diamond retailer, herding customers and employees into a corner, whilst they smashed up the display cases and ransacked the hidden safes. Within minutes the store was empty of gems and the gang escaped on motorbikes without a shot being fired.
Beyond the Parisian incident, some law enforcement agencies suspect that the group is responsible for robberies in Dubai, Switzerland, Japan, France, Liechtenstein, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain and Monaco, totalling over US$500 million. Furthermore, the wider criminal group could be home to hundreds of members scattered across Europe. Following the Paris raid, 25 members of the group were arrested and in 2015 eight men were convicted for their role in the robbery, receiving sentences that ranged from nine months to 15 years.
Some of the jewellery from the heist was recovered after a major 2009 investigation and then in March 2011, police recovered $20 million worth of jewellery from a drain in a Parisian suburb. However, much of the loot has never been recovered and is considered lost.
- The theft of King Charles II crown jewels
Stolen: Priceless crown jewels of England
Way back when in the 17th Century, Colonel Thomas Blood, was regarded to be as Machiavellian as his name would indicate. Known for his trickery and deviousness, he was widely considered to be someone that was not to be trusted, thanks in large part to changing sides during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms and generally exhibiting treasonous, anti-royalist behaviour that many felt he should have been executed for.
However, in 1671 he outdid himself entirely and attempted to steal King Charles II Crown Jewels from the Tower of London. The heist was a well thought out and patiently planned affair that involved months of preparation executed by Blood and several accomplices. For several months Blood visited the Tower of London disguised as a parson, accompanied by a female co-conspirator who posed as his wife. The duo befriended the elderly keeper of the jewels and his family, regularly returning to cement the friendship and rise above suspicion.
Eventually Blood persuaded the keeper of the jewels to show him, and some of his co-conspirators (three male accomplices posing as family members), the jewels in private. However, once they were shown the jewels a violent tussle ensued, the keeper was bludgeoned and stabbed and the thieves escaped the Tower with their loot.
But the robbers didn’t get far as the alarm was soon raised and the conspirators were captured outside the Tower and brought before the King to hear their judgement. What happened next however was particularly strange in an era known for its grisly executions on counts of treason – Blood was pardoned! Not only was his life spared but the King also granted him lands in Ireland. No one is entirely sure of the King’s motives, however, many have speculated that he feared a reprisal attack against him should he execute the Colonel.
- The theft of the Mona Lisa
Stolen: Leonardo da Vinci’s priceless Mona Lisa portrait
Before the most famous museum in the world, the Louvre, became the hi-tech fortress it is today, a lowly museum employee managed to steal arguably the most iconic painting in history, the Mona Lisa, and get away with it for over two years!
Italian Vincenzo Peruggia was a handyman who had been hired by the Louvre to make protective glass cases for some its famous works – including the Mona Lisa. In a theft of supreme ease, after hiding in a closet overnight, Peruggia simply removed the painting, hid it on his person, and walked out of the building.
For over two years Peruggia hid the Renaissance portrait in a false bottomed trunk, where it stayed until he was arrested in 1913 trying to sell the painting to an Italian art dealer. Peruggia claimed to have stolen the Mona Lisa in order to return her to her native Italy where she belonged. He hoped to be feted as a national hero for his endeavours, however, he was simply regarded as a little unhinged and sentenced to seven months in jail.
Today the Mona Lisa resides behind bulletproof glass and is protected with endless sensors, detectors and alarms, which when you consider the painting is now valued at upwards of $1 billion, is a worthwhile investment.
- The theft of Shergar
Co. Kildare Ireland
Stolen: Shergar, the acclaimed Irish racehorse
Not all great robberies involve truckloads of cash, famous artworks and priceless jewels – sometimes animals are the intended target. And in the case of one of the most infamous Irish thefts of the last century – it was a world famous racehorse, the acclaimed Shergar, who was owned by the Aga Khan, the billionaire spiritual leader to 15 million Ismaili Muslims.
The mystery of Shergar is one that has attracted international attention in the media for decades. For the uninitiated, Shergar was an Irish racehorse who enjoyed massive success in the early eighties before being stolen at the age of five from the Ballymany Stud in Co. Kildare by the IRA, never to be seen again.
Initially there were several ransom demands from the kidnappers, however, in the midst of a massive media storm, a bungling police investigation and reluctance from Shergar’s owners to pay a ransom, the thieves soon realised that they were unlikely to ever receive their money and that Shergar was too large, and famous, a hostage to transport stealthily. And so his execution was ordered.
Horrific reports indicate that Shergar died slowly and painfully at the hands of IRA machine guns.
However, Shergar’s body has never been found and the thieves have never been identified.