Money & Power

8 of the World's Greatest Heists and Robberies

From the royal crown jewels to priceless art, here are eight of the most intriguing heists in history.
IMAGE WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
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History is full of thieves. People do crazy things for money and sometimes, crazy people do extraordinary things to get it. In many cases, their exploits become some of the most fascinating stories told—inspiring songs, books, and movies that captivate us.

While the inspiration they give us does not make any of their acts correct or legal, the stories behind the world’s greatest robberies manage to make us richer, at least by way of our imaginations. Here are eight of the most intriguing heists throughout history:

1. Lufthansa Heist

The violent aftermath of the real-life inspiration for Goodfellas is as riveting as the heist itself. On December 11, 1978, members of the Lucchese crime family—with the help of an inside man providing keycards—gained access to John F. Kennedy International Airport. Their target was a large shipment of untraceable money, flown in via Lufthansa Airlines.

Armed with guns, they ordered airport staff to open vault doors without triggering any alarms. In the span of 64 minutes, they were able to steal nearly $6 million in cash before authorities could be notified. This was thrice the amount they had expected to steal, and it eventually led to the deaths of several of their accomplices.

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The amount netted the culprits more police attention than they had expected, along with rising paranoia that they’d turn on each other after learning the real value of their haul.

Jimmy Burke, the mastermind behind the robbery, feared there were too many loose ends involved with the case, and promised to kill anyone who might implicate him in the crime. Burke allegedly killed nine people in his “Witness Elimination Program,” and five others involved in the case met violent deaths as well.

As a result, authorities were never able to gather sufficient evidence to indict Burke, and he remained clear of any involvement with the case until his death in 1996.

2. Gardner Museum Heist


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On March 18, 1990, two robbers dressed as police officers arrived at Boston’s Isabella Gardner Museum, informing security that they were responding to reports of a disturbance in the area. The guard on duty broke protocol and allowed the “officers” to go inside through the employee entrance. In the span of 81 minutes, the two thieves were able to handcuff the security guard and his partner in the basement and get away with roughly $500 million worth of art—including works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Flinck—making it the biggest art theft in history. Included in the haul was Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, Rembrandt’s only known painted seascape.

Despite efforts over the last 28 years, the case remains unsolved. Today, the paintings’ empty frames continue to be on display at the museum as a sign of hope for their safe return. The museum is currently offering a $10,000,000 reward for any information that directly leads to the recovery of the stolen art.

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3. United California Bank Robbery

In 1972, a nearly perfect robbery was foiled by a dirty dish.

The United California Bank Robbery, at the time, proclaimed the “Heist of the Century”, was a surgical smash-and-grab executed by a crack team of experts, much like the Ocean’s 11 films. The crew was composed of professional burglars, a security systems expert, an explosives expert-slash-tool inventor, and a getaway driver.

On a Friday night, the crew blew a hole into the bank’s ceiling using dynamite, gaining access into the vault. They quickly shut down the alarm system and began searching for their target haul: A stash of Nixon’s money, allegedly from under-the-table deals. The money, however, was at another bank, and so the thieves took what they could over the course of three evenings. When bank officials returned to work on Monday, they found that the door to the vault was jammed from the inside. After finally getting the door open, they saw that the place was completely ransacked.

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The thieves made sure their getaway was absolutely immaculate, scrubbing clean everything in their hideout. Unfortunately, they forgot to turn on their dishwasher before abandoning the apartment. When authorities were tipped off on the location, the investigation yielded fingerprints on the unwashed dishes, revealing the culprits’ identities and ultimately leading to their arrest.

4. Antwerp Diamond Heist

The world’s biggest diamond theft took three years in the making. In 2000, Leonardo Notarbartolo rented an office at the Antwerp Diamond Centre, posing as a gem trader. The front gave him legitimate access to the vault, and he used his time to case the joint, familiarizing himself with all its security systems. According to accounts, the guards were so used to his presence that they never noticed him covering the vault’s heat and motion sensors with hairspray, which prevented their ability to detect any fluctuations in temperature.

Notarbartolo and his gang snuck into the Centre at midnight on February 15, 2003. They covered security cameras with plastic bags, and disabled the vault door’s magnetic plates through clever use of aluminum slabs. Notarbartolo had recorded the code to the vault’s combination lock with a mini camera that he brought out during one of his visits. Having accounted for all security measures, the gang simply waltzed in and stole the contents of 109 safety deposit boxes, with a total value of about $100 million.

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After he was caught, Notarbartolo was sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment, and his accomplices were slapped with five of their own. The diamonds, however, are yet to be found.

5. Thomas Blood Steals the Crown Jewels


On May 9, 1671, adventurer Thomas Blood was caught inches away from taking home England’s crown jewels, and yet was rewarded handsomely for his exploit by no less than King Charles II himself.

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The theft was the endgame of a weeks-long con by Blood. In the spring of that year, he had endeared himself to Talbot Edwards, who kept watch over the jewels, starting with a fake fainting by an actress Blood had hired to play his wife during a viewing of the jewels. Edwards attended to her, and Blood befriended him for his kindness.

Blood used their relationship as an excuse to visit the Tower of London frequently, secretly casing the joint. At the same time, he brought up the idea of setting his son up with Edwards’ unmarried daughter, a proposition that Edwards was eager to explore. The two set up a meeting on the day of the heist.

Blood arrived at the Tower with four accomplices, who quickly dispatched Edwards and made their way to the jewels. In order to make their haul less detectable, the crew mangled the crown jewels, flattening the crown, cutting the scepter in half, and stuffing the orb down their breeches. Fortunately, they hadn’t counted on Edwards’ son coming to the scene of the crime, and they were eventually subdued.

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Authorities brought Blood to the King himself for sentencing, but rather than death, Blood was awarded land in Ireland and a job working as a political operative for the Throne. There are several conspiracy theories as to why Blood received favorable treatment despite his treason, including the idea that he was hired by the cash-strapped King himself as part of a scheme to steal public funds that would’ve gone towards the replacement of the “stolen” jewelry.

6. Västberga Helicopter Heist


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In a raid lifted straight from a Hollywood movie, a team of thieves leapt out of a stolen helicopter and onto the top of a G4S cash service depot in Västberga, Sweden, blew the security doors open, and flew out with an estimated $146 million in cash. The incident, which took place on September 23, 2009, is considered one of the biggest robberies in Swedish history, as well as the first to involve a helicopter.

The thieves were well-prepared, and prevented any police intervention by placing caltrops near the building’s perimeter, as well a decoy bomb on a nearby police helipad, cutting off the officer’s chances of pursuing them by land and by air.

Since then, 7 arrests have been made in connection with the crime, although it is suspected that there were at least 10 more accomplices involved. As of October 2016, a film starring Jake Gyllenhaal recounting the sensational heist is in development at Netflix.

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7. Wilcox Train Robbery

Perhaps the highest-profile train robbery of the Wild West, the Wilcox Train Robbery involved two of American history’s most infamous outlaws: Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. Although the actual amount stolen, $36,000 (equivalent to roughly $900,000 today), pales in comparison to modern-day heists, the manner in which the robbery was pulled off remains the stuff of legend.

Before dawn on June 2, 1899, the Union Pacific Overheard Flyer was flagged down by two men with lanterns performing what looked to be some sort of safety advisory. As soon as the train’s first section stopped, 2 to 6 men (depending on the account) boarded and demanded that the engineer take it over a nearby bridge. Nearly immediately after they cleared it, the gang ignited dynamite that was set up on the bridge, preventing the train’s second station from following them.

The robbers then quickly ordered the engineer to uncouple the passenger cars, leaving them free to rob the mail and express cars uninterrupted. Using dynamite to blow through doors and a safe, the bandits made out with a fortune in bank notes, cash, and assorted jewelry.

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8. Saddam’s Billion-Dollar “Withdrawal”


Few robberies could ever match the brazenness of this “heist”, in which Saddam Hussein ordered his son to walk out of the Central Bank of Iraq with about $1 billion dollars in cash.

In the early hours of March 18, 2003, the day before the US began its missile strikes on Baghdad, Qusay Hussein walked into the bank with a note signed by the dictator himself, instructing staff to load $1 billion in US Dollar and Euro notes onto the backs of three trucks waiting outside. According to an interview with the New York Times, an unidentified bank official said the request was processed without resistance, stating, “When you get an order from Saddam Hussein, you do not discuss it.”

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Following Saddam’s death in December 2006, only $650 million of the amount was recovered; the remaining $350 million remains unaccounted for.

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About The Author
Marco Sumayao
Contributing Writer
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