In 1950, when a gang of thieves broke into the heavily guarded offices of the Brinks Mat's armored car company in Boston, the headlines heralded it the crime of the century. The building was considered impenetrable, but the thieves managed to walk out with $2.8 million in cash, checks and money orders. The crime shocked even then-FBI head J Edgar Hoover, who theorized that it might be a communist plot.
Today, the Brinks bandits seem like petty crooks robbing a 7-11. Over the past several years, a spate of high-netting robberies has fascinated crime aficionados. The burglaries are innovative, meticulously planned heists.
To break into a bank vault in Brazil, a gang of thieves spent three months digging a 260-foot tunnel under a busy city avenue. The work paid off: They lifted $81.6 million over the course of a weekend in August 2005.
A year later, a team of British thieves tracked down the wife and 8-year-old son of the manager of a cash deposit facility in Kent, England. The family was used as hostages in a complex plan to pressure the manager into giving the thieves access to the warehouse, run on behalf of the Bank of England by Swedish security company Securitas. They walked away with over $100 million in cash.
These crime stories often turn into mysteries, particularly when art is involved. Much of the work stolen in the biggest art thefts--be it from museums, galleries or homes--remains missing. Thirty works taken in the 1990 heist of Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum have never been seen again--despite a $5 million reward offered by the FBI. Rumors have variously implicated terrorist groups, drug dealers and organized crime in the heist.
The disappearance of the paintings isn't that shocking. Really valuable contraband art is hard to unload. After all, the more famous the work, the more recognisable it is, and serious buyers will certainly know they're paying millions for stolen art. "Most people aren't going to buy a Rembrandt without checking out its history," says law professor Patty Gerstenblith, director of DePaul University's program in cultural heritage law. "Buyers are concerned about where the work is coming from. Presumably no one could sell stolen work on the market openly."
Lack of liquidity doesn't seem to stop the criminals. University of Missouri-St. Louis criminology professor Richard Wright calls the heisters "super-criminals." They tend to start small and move up, often getting recruited in prison. "It's a really rare talent," says Wright. "So many people play and so few are pros."
Common street criminals, the kind who commit muggings or holdups at convenience stores, tend to be desperate, undisciplined and lack self-control. "They never stop talking about their criminality," says Wright. But big heists take a very different kind of person, someone who's extraordinarily organised, trustworthy and, above all, discreet. Bragging about an uber-crime will certainly end with jail time. "These crimes fly in the face of everything we know about criminals," says Wright.
Maybe that's exactly why we love them. Big crime heists are a favorite Hollywood motif, be it Ocean's 11 or The Italian Job. Real-life bandits are even more fascinating. We love the ballsy criminals, complicated schemes and huge payouts. "These are rare events," says Wright. "That makes them remarkable."
In compiling our list of the world's most remarkable heists, we stuck to the jobs that truly amazed--and were successful, at least for a time. Simply lifting a whole lot of cash wasn't enough to make the cut. We also ruled out war looting, identity theft schemes and corporate crimes. For the best comparison, we adjusted the takes to 2006 dollars.