Over the weekend of Feb. 15–16, 2003, thieves stole loose diamonds, gold and other jewelry valued at more than $100 million from the Antwerp World Diamond Centre, the world’s primary diamond trading center, located in Antwerp, Belgium. This is considered the largest diamond heist in history. In fact, it’s been dubbed, “the heist of the century.”
It was a crime everyone thought would be impossible to pull off. Eighty percent of the world’s uncut diamonds go through Antwerp, and many of them are kept in an underground vault two floors beneath the Diamond Centre, situated in the city’s gem district. The vault holds 160 safe-deposit boxes where diamond brokers can leave their gems while negotiating deals with jewelers. The level of security needed for that volume and value would understandably be legendary.
The vault was protected by the most sophisticated security systems available at the time. These included a lock with 100 million possible combinations, infrared heat detectors, a seismic sensor, plus a Doppler radar with magnetic field. In addition, the Diamond Centre had its own private security force. Needless to say, accomplishing a heist here would be no mean feat!
It took the mastermind of the heist, Leonardo Notarbartolo, four years to assemble his team and plan the perfect heist.
He rented a sparsely furnished office for approximately $700 per month in the Diamond Centre two and a half years prior to the robbery. Part of the appeal of this rental was that it included a safe-deposit box located in the vault beneath the building!
It also included a tenant ID card that gave Notarbartolo 24-hour access to the building. Posing as an Italian diamond merchant to gain credibility, Notarbartolo became a familiar and trusted part of the local business community.
It is believed that a five-man team led by Notarbartolo carried out the robbery. To do so, the team had to penetrate eight different levels of security to reach the vault. To accomplish this, they learned how to bypass the alarm system, as well as the security guards’ routine, which tipped them off to where the key to the vault was hidden. They also inserted fake tapes into the surveillance system so their activities would not be detected. After the robbery, Notarbartolo and his team stole security footage to conceal their identities.
More than 123 of 160 safe-deposit boxes were forced open, each of which was made of steel and copper. The reason 37 boxes were left untouched is because the robbers were unable to carry any more diamonds!
The Perfect Crime?
It certainly appeared so. But, incredibly, after such thorough planning, it was pure carelessness in the aftermath of the heist that caused the team’s demise. They were caught after being connected to the crime by DNA evidence found on uneaten food tossed away with bags from the heist and receipts from the Diamond Centre.
Although most of thieves were caught, the diamonds have never been found.
Leonardo Notarbartolo was found guilty of orchestrating the heist. He is considered to be the leader of a ring of Italian thieves called “La Scuola di Torino” (The School of Turin). He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and was only recently released on parole.
The heist is the subject of a book, Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History. Paramount Pictures has acquired the film rights and hired renowned producer J.J. Abrams to coordinate the project. So what are your thoughts about “the heist of the century?” Are you intrigued to read the book or perhaps see the movie? Does the heist make you question how safe your valuables are in a safe-deposit box? Let us know.