$136-million French Riviera jewel heist may be biggest in history

Police outside the Carlton hotel in Cannes, France, which has been the scene of jewel heists both theatrical and all too real.
(Lionel Cironneau / Associated Press)

A lone jewel thief who struck the lavish Carlton International Hotel in the French Riviera resort of Cannes made off with $136 million in diamond-encrusted watches and gems, making it one of the biggest jewel heists in history, French authorities reported Monday.

Initial estimates of the stolen jewels after the brazen midday theft on Sunday put their value at $53 million. A subsequent inventory disclosed that more had been taken from a poorly guarded hotel room, where other items were being stored for a diamond exhibit by Dubai-based Leviev diamond house, Philippe Vique of the regional prosecutor’s office told local media.

Nice Matin, a leading newspaper in the region, speculated that the heist might be the most costly in history, eclipsing a $119-million take from a 2008 robbery at a similar jewel exhibit in Paris. [Link in French]


Security for the diamond exhibit, which opened July 20 and was to continue through August, was grossly insufficient, the newspaper said. It quoted unnamed detectives as saying the Carlton is difficult to protect because its doors open onto the Croisette promenade, which is teeming with tourists and celebrities during the spring film festival and throughout the summer.

On Sunday, a sole man wearing a ball cap and a scarf across his face broke in to the landmark hotel -- which featured prominently in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 film “To Catch a Thief,” starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly -- and made off with bags of Chopard diamond jewelry that were in the private room of an American employee of the famed jeweler, news agencies reported.

The spectacular raid, which occurred swiftly and without gunfire or injury, raised suspicions among investigators and security analysts that the notorious “Pink Panthers” jewel thieves were rebuilding their network. Two recent prison breakouts freed three key members of the gang that Interpol says has stolen more than $400 million in jewels over the past 15 years.

Accomplices of the gang were believed to be behind the Thursday night assault at a Swiss prison in Orbe, near the French border, that freed Milan Poparic, a 34-year-old Pink Panther from Bosnia serving a nearly seven-year term for a 2009 jewelry store robbery in Switzerland. Two other members of the Pink Panthers, which Interpol says consists mostly of thieves from the former Yugoslavia, were broken out of the Bois-Mermet prison in May.

Interpol dubbed the jewel thieves’ network the Pink Panthers in reference to the 1963 movie by the same name starring Peter Sellers as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau and David Niven as a wily jewel thief.

Jonathan Sazonoff, U.S. editor for the Museum Security Network website, told the Associated Press in Paris that Sunday’s audacious theft in Cannes bore the hallmarks of the Pink Panther gang.

“The possibility of the reemergence of the Pink Panther gang is very troubling and taken seriously by law enforcement worldwide,” Sazonoff told the news agency. “The theft of high-value diamonds is exactly what they do, so it’s not a great leap to assume they are on the warpath again. They are a crime wave waiting to happen.”

Cannes was the target of two significant jewel thefts during this year’s film festival, including a cache of necklaces and earrings worth $1.4 million that were intended to be loaned to movie stars to wear to the festival’s swank parties and premieres.

The Carlton hotel hit Sunday was also the venue of a stunning raid in August 1994, when gunmen firing what later proved to be blanks burst into the hotel’s jewelry store and made off with $77 million in valuables.


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