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The burglars Hollywood learns from, or is it the other way round?

Last updated on: July 30, 2013 16:41 IST

The burglars Hollywood learns from, or is it the other way round?

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They are the dogs of the Balkan wars, and now they carry out robberies that are the stuff of heist blockbusters. They wear florid shirts to work (that is robbery, of course), they break out of high-security jails and they hide super expensive rings in jars of face cream. Meet the Pink Panthers, who are believed to be behind the sensational and daring daylight robbery in Cannes, France, on Sunday.

It’s straight out of a Hollywood heist film.

One of the world’s top jewellers is holding an exhibition of staggeringly expensive gems – diamonds and other precious stones – in one of the world’s most luxurious hotels in one of the world’s most glamorous locations.

It’s the French Riviera, where the world’s movie stars pirouette down the red carpet in outfits that probably cost almost as much as the GDP of the world’s poorest countries.

About a week earlier, the 34-year-old ring leader of one of the biggest jewellery robbing gangs breaks out of a high-security Swiss prison. The gang – a bunch of about 200 mostly East European former soldiers battle hardened in the Balkan wars -- has been stealing precious gems since 1993, and is believed to be behind 150 robberies in at least 10 countries. Their total haul over the years is believed to be worth over Rs 30 billion.

The gang storms the jail in a van, and rescues its leader, Milan Poraic of Serbia -- lodged there for a high-profile jewellery robbery in Switzerland -- and a convicted kidnapper in a hail of automatic weapon fire. This isn’t the first time the kidnapper, Adrian Albrecht, has broken out of that prison; he did it in 1992 as well. And this year in May, a third member of the gang escaped from another Swiss prison.

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Image: A police car parked outside the Carlton hotel in Cannes, from where gems worth Rs 8.2 billion were stolen in an audacious heist
Photographs: Eric Gaillard, Reuters

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Cut back to the French Riviera, where Leviev Diamonds, named after its billionaire, Soviet-born Israeli founder, is holding its annual exhibition at the Carlton International hotel in Cannes.

It’s hot, sunny, as a man in dark clothes and concealed face -- some reports mention a helmet, others say his face was hidden under a cap and scarf -- walks into the hotel lobby with a handgun. He holds up the exhibition, and flees a minute later with gems worth Rs 8.2 billion in a suitcase.

The gang calls itself the Pink Panthers -- a tongue-in-cheek reference to the heist-film-spoof series starring the bumbling French Inspector Jacques Clouseau.

And it is the gang believed to be behind the daring heist – no, it was not from any film -- that you just read about.

Cannes is no stranger to jewel thieves, fictional or real. At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, two separate robberies saw jewels worth almost Rs 277 million stolen from two hotels.

And the Carlton was where Alfred Hitchcock set his jewellery heist film To Catch A Thief.

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Image: Police officers stand guard outside Carlton hotel in Cannes
Photographs: Eric Gaillard, Reuters

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The Pink Panthers’ ways are also totally Hollywood-ish. Sample this, from London’s Daily Mail: ‘After a 2002 raid on Graff’s, a Mayfair jeweller, one gang member, Milan Jovetic from Montenegro, hid a £500,000 blue diamond ring in his girlfriend’s jar of face cream -- a ploy used in the Pink Panther comedy.’

The British tabloid report goes on to add that in one heist in Tokyo in 2007, Pink Panther gang members fled on bicycles through rush hour traffic. In another robbery in 2005, in St Tropez, France, the gang members fled in a speedboat, wearing face masks and florid Hawaiian shirts. In yet another heist, in Biarritz, France, they put wet paint on a bench opposite their target (a jewellery store, duh) so that no one would sit on it and see the crime first-hand.

They have also dressed up as women, driven limousines and used prosthetic make-up in other robberies.

If you’re thinking, as a Hollywood scriptwriter would, of a twist in the tale, how about this: Suppose there was no Cannes heist. What if it’s all an elaborate ploy to claim insurance?   

London’s The Telegraph rules out that angle, quoting what it calls the ‘well-connected daily newspaper Nice-Matin’… citing a source close to the investigation as noting that the stolen gems were insured for only half their true value.’

Just in case you are curious, the world’s biggest jewellery heist happened in 2003, in Antwerp. Belgium. That was worth Rs 30 billion.

And no, it wasn’t the Panthers. It is believed to have been carried out by another gang, that calls itself the School of Turin.


Image: A police officer stands guard on the balcony of the Carlton hotel in Cannes
Photographs: Eric Gaillard, Reuters

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