For some criminal masterminds, the bigger the target, the better the payday... Here's four of the world's most shocking heists...
Dramatic heist movies have long been a Hollywood staple – Ocean’s Eleven, Snatch, The Italian Job, to name a few. There’s something glamorous about a large-scale crime that’s so clever, innovative and gutsy, it seems impossible. Especially considering the incredible sums of money involved.
In the films, we’re often on the side of the genius masterminds behind the elaborate, impressive schemes – cheering when they pull them off and get away with it. What the movies tend to gloss over, though, is that there’s no such thing as a victimless crime.
But Hollywood didn’t invent heists. In fact, it was the other way round, with many of the movies inspired by or based on real-life crimes that were astounding.
The infamous 1963 Great Train Robbery sparked films, TV shows and books, centring on criminal Ronnie Biggs.
Before he died, in December 2013, Biggs maintained that he had few regrets about his part in the crime. In fact, he went further, saying, ‘I am proud to have been one of them. I am one of the few witnesses – living or dead – to what was the crime of the century.’
It goes to show that the criminals responsible aren’t simply motivated by greed, power and ingenuity, but by infamy, too.
Some real-life heists have twists more incredible than the movies. Here’s four of the world’s most shocking heists…
Belgium: Antwerp Diamond Heist
The team: a mastermind, a strong man, a locksmith and an electrician.
The target: Antwerp World Diamond Centre’s ‘impenetrable’ vault.
It was protected by 10 levels of security mechanisms, including a lock with 100 million possible combinations; a seismic sensor; infrared heat detectors; Doppler radar; a magnetic field and a security team.
For two years, mastermind Leonardo Notarbartolo posed as a diamond trader, renting an office in the Centre.
He had 24-hour access to the building, and his own safe-deposit box in the vault beneath it.
One night in February 2003, Notarbartolo’s team entered the vault, then broke into and plundered 123 of the 160 security boxes.
The gang made off with around $100m worth of gold, diamonds and jewellery. Unluckily for Notarbartolo, a farmer discovered a bag of discarded rubbish, including receipts for some of the gear used in the heist, and a half-eaten sandwich with Notarbartolo’s DNA on it.
Notarbartolo was jailed for 10 years, but the diamonds were never found.
Later, in an interview with Wired magazine, he claimed a diamond merchant hired them for the heist as part of an insurance fraud.
He said the gang had used a replica of the vault, along with a highly sophisticated tricks similar to those in heist movie Ocean’s Eleven.
USA: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum theft
In the early hours of 18 March, 1990, the city of Boston, USA, was still caught up in St Patrick’s Day celebrations. Posing as police officers, two men rang the bell to the employees’ entrance of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
They were buzzed in by one of two nightwatchmen, after saying they were there to investigate a disturbance.
Once inside, the pair overpowered the two guards and tied them up. They then cut 13 priceless paintings – including three Rembrandts, a Manet and a Degas – from their frames and made off with them.
The haul was estimated to be worth $500m (around £318m), but its true value can never be known.
In the 25 years since, the FBI has searched basements and attics, conducted elaborate stings and tracked thousands of leads all over the world – the USA, Japan, England, Ireland, Russia, Canada, Spain…
The thieves have never been caught, the paintings never recovered. Empty frames still hang where the paintings were, in homage to the missing artworks – and in the hope they will one day be returned.
UK: The Knightsbridge Security Deposit robbery
The Knightsbridge Security Deposit robbery was one of the largest bank heists in history. It was masterminded by Italian gangster Valerio Viccei, to fund his playboy lifestyle.
On 12 July 1987, Viccei walked into the Knightsbridge Safe Deposit Centre with an accomplice, posing as a potential customer.
After being shown into the vault, they threatened the manager and security guards with handguns.
After placing a ‘closed’ sign on the Centre door and letting in further accomplices, they broke open 114 safe-deposit boxes owned by royalty, millionaires, celebrities and criminals.
After the two-hour raid, they escaped with loot worth around £60m, leaving the vault’s foot-thick steel door ajar.
A bloody fingerprint at the scene was traced back to Viccei. Several of his accomplices were arrested and jailed, but he fled to Latin-America.
Viccei’s downfall came when he returned to England to pick up his favourite Ferrari.
He was arrested, convicted and sentenced to 22 years in prison, which he was deported to Italy to serve.
But he came to a sticky end in April 2000 when, while on day release, he was killed during a shootout involving him, an accomplice and police.
Officers had found him, armed, in a stolen car, waiting to ambush a bank’s security van.
Brazil: Banco Central robbery
On the weekend of 6 August 2005, robbers tunnelled into Banco Central in Fortaleza, Brazil, and stole $160m (equivalent to £36m). Three months earlier, they’d rented a commercial property in the city centre purporting to be a landscaping company.
Neighbours described seeing vanloads of soil being removed daily, but assumed this to be a normal activity of the business.
Meanwhile, the gang was digging a tunnel, 78m long, underneath the bustling city to a spot beneath the bank.
The tunnel was 28in wide, shored up with wood, covered in plastic and lit with electric lights.
That final weekend, they broke through 1.1m of steel- reinforced concrete to enter the bank vault, managing to evade or disable the bank’s internal alarms and sensors. It would’ve taken a considerable amount of time to remove and transport the money, which was all in bills.
The heist wasn’t even discovered until the Monday morning.
In the tunnel, officers found electric chainsaws, drills and a welding torch.
They said the gang had used sophisticated equipment, including GPS, as well as experts in mathematics, engineering and excavation.
Police have so far made a handful of arrests and recovered a fraction of the cash.
But the main suspects remain at large. It’s now known as Brazil’s biggest bank heist.