Real-life jewelry heists can be every bit as dramatic as those shown in the movies. Take the brazen daylight holdup at a posh French hotel. Or the intricately planned robbery in the diamond capital of the world. Or the trio of surfer dudes daringly breaking into a famous New York museum’s fourth-floor window. Here’s a closer look at six times thieves stole millions of dollars worth of diamonds, gems, watches and more.
American Museum of Natural History
New York City, October 1964
By day, Jack Murphy (a.k.a. “Murph the Surf”), Allan Kuhn and Roger Clark were a trio of well-dressed, 20-something surfer dudes from Miami, hanging out in a Manhattan hotel penthouse suite. But on the night of October 29, 1964, they put weeks of planning into action, breaking into the American Museum of Natural History and pulling off the biggest jewel caper in New York City history. While Clark served as lookout below, Murphy and Kuhn scaled a fence, climbed a fire escape, inched along a narrow ledge, hung a rope and swung themselves into the fourth-floor window outside the museum’s J.P. Morgan Hall of Gems and Minerals. Thanks to those windows (left open for ventilation), along with non-working display case alarms and just one security guard on duty, they were able to enter the Hall of Gems and use a glass cutter and duct tape to steal $410,000 worth of rare jewels (valued at around $3.9 million in 2023). They proceeded to make off with the 563-carat Star of India sapphire, the 100-carat DeLong Star Ruby and the 116-carat Midnight Star black sapphire, along with other gems. After being tipped off, police arrested the men two days later, and most of the gems were eventually recovered. After receiving much media attention as celebrity folk heroes, the thieves each served about two years in prison for the crime.
READ MORE: 5 of the Most Daring Bank Robberies
Antwerp Diamond Center
Antwerp, Belgium, February 2003
On February 16, 2003, thieves broke into the subterranean vault of Belgium’s Antwerp Diamond Center, long considered an impregnable fortress in one of the world’s busiest diamond hubs—and one of the densest concentrations of wealth on the globe. Once inside, burglars spent four to five hours relieving some 100 safe deposit boxes of their contents, ultimately absconding with an astounding $100 million worth of diamonds, gems and cash (valued in 2023 at roughly $159 million). The thieves disabled many of the vault’s security systems, such as heat and motion sensors, using common household goods such as hairspray, styrofoam and tape. Other security measures they foiled included Doppler radar, a lock with 100 million possible combinations and two-foot-thick metal doors installed with magnets that, when pulled apart, automatically signal the police. Along with gathering all the cash and valuables they could carry (and leaving behind a lot they couldn’t), the perpetrators also made off with security camera footage, making it impossible to be identified by investigators. Before long, however, bags of trash they left in a forest along the highway during their escape provided myriad clues, leading police to Leonardo Notarbartolo, a canny lifelong Italian criminal who’d been posing as a diamond merchant to case the joint. Convicted of orchestrating the heist, Notarbartolo served 10 years in prison before being released on parole, but the plunder he and his accomplices stole has never been found.
Amsterdam, Netherlands, February 2005
At Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport on February 25, 2005, four men dressed as KLM employees and riding in a stolen KLM cargo vehicle ambushed an armored truck carrying jewels about to be loaded onto a plane bound for Antwerp, capital of the world’s diamond trade. Brandishing guns, they forced out the drivers before speeding away. Since many of the gems they filched were still uncut, it’s unclear how much the booty was worth—though estimates have put the figure at $72 million. Authorities intercepted a phone call of the hijackers discussing the crime, leading to the arrest of seven men in 2017; four were jailed in 2019, and sentenced to up to seven years. Following the heist, $43 million in diamonds were recovered in the getaway car, but the rest of the booty remains missing.
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Paris, France, December 2008
When three well-dressed women buzzed into the Harry Winston jewelry store on Paris’s ritzy Avenue Montaigne on December 4, 2008, employees thought nothing of it. That changed when the seemingly ordinary customers—who turned out to be male thieves in blond wigs, skirts, stockings and heels—pulled out handguns and a grenade, attacked several clerks and collected about $100 million worth of jewelry and watches. The cross-dressing robbers then calmly strolled out and drove off. In 2015, eight people were convicted of the crime (as well as a 2007 robbery at the same location), with prison sentences ranging from nine months to 15 years.
WATCH: A preview for History’s Greatest Heists With Pierce Brosnan, premiering Tuesday, February 7 at 10/9c on The HISTORY® Channel and streaming the next day.
London, UK, August 2009
On August 6, 2009, makeup artists became unwitting accomplices to Britain’s biggest gem raid when they aged two men by 30 years with the help of latex prosthetics and wigs. The pair of disguised thieves strolled into London’s posh Mayfair jeweler, Graff Diamonds, flashed their guns and forced employees to lie on the floor while one of their colleagues gathered some 43 pieces of jewelry worth $65 million at the time—including one necklace with 272 diamonds, according to police. The robbers then drove off in a series of getaway cars, shooting and missing a security guard in the process. After one car crashed, they handed the jewel bag to an accomplice on a motorcycle, who gave police the slip. A cell phone found in one of the vehicles helped police identify the gang of criminals behind the robbery, and several of the men were convicted. None of the lost baubles have turned up.
Carlton Intercontinental Hotel
Cannes, France, July 2013
In just 30 seconds, on July 28, 2013, a single thief made away with $136 million in jewels from the luxury Carlton Intercontinental Hotel in Cannes, on the French Riviera. The famed space was hosting a temporary diamond exhibit from the Leviev diamond house, owned by Uzbek oligarch-turned-Israeli billionaire Lev Leviev. But with no armed security guards present, the lone bandit—shown on security footage brandishing a gun and wearing a baseball cap and bandanna over his face—was able to quickly fill a duffel bag with 72 items in broad daylight, including a 55-carat diamond ring, 30-carat emerald and 29-carat sapphire. He remains at large. The hotel featured prominently in the 1955 Alfred Hitchcock film To Catch a Thief, starring Cary Grant as a reformed cat burglar trying to clear his name in a series of jewel thefts.