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Drag queens, fake beards and chocolates: Notable diamond heists

By Ivana Kottasová, CNN
July 30, 2013 -- Updated 0057 GMT (0857 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • $50 million worth of diamonds were stolen from a plane on Brussels Airport
  • It is one of the biggest diamond robberies in the history -- only a few thieves stole more
  • In 2003, $100 million worth of diamonds were snatched from Antwerp Diamond Center

London (CNN) -- It was just like a scene from the Alfred Hitchcock crime caper "To Catch a Thief." The same hotel. The sparkly jewels. The robbery.

Only this was real life.

A robber, his face covered by a hat and a scarf threatened to shoot attendees at a exhibition in Canne's Carlton Hotel, setting of the 1955 movie, on Sunday. Within minutes he had escaped with $136 million worth of jewels: security guards at the show were unarmed, while the man had a semi-automatic pistol.

The robbery is the third high-profile jewelery heist in Cannes in Southern France in only three months. During the Cannes film festival in May, a necklace worth $2.6 million (2 million euros) was stolen from a hotel party shortly after more than $1 million worth of jewels were stolen from a safe in a hotel room.

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The high-profile thefts follow a brazen heist in neighboring Belgium in February. A gang of eight men managed to snatch $50 million worth of diamonds from a plane on Brussels Airport -- within only eight minutes.

"It comes as a big surprise that something like this is possible," said Jan Van der Cruysse, a spokesman for Brussels Airport. "But of course, this is rather connected to banditism and organized crime rather than aviation security."

Yet such incidents have a history.

From 1960s gangster film-style armed robberies to elaborate stunts involving drag queens and fake beards, thieves from around the world have tried almost anything to get hold of diamonds. Here are some of the biggest heists they pulled off:

On Valentine's Day weekend in February 2003, $100 million worth of precious stones were snatched from the Antwerp Diamond Center.

The thieves, headed by Leonardo Notarbartolo, reportedly managed to penetrate some of the most advanced security measures, including hi-tech combination locks, motion and heat sensors -- and 18-inch steel doors.

The gangsters even changed the tapes of the security cameras in the building to avoid being identified. They did, however, make one mistake: they left behind a half-eaten sandwich with DNA samples on it. They were arrested after months-long police operation involving detectives in several countries. The jewels were never recovered.

The sensational robbery inspired a book "Flawless -- Inside the Largest Diamond heist in the History."

In March 2007, a man using the name Carlos Hector Flomenbaum adopted an unorthodox approach to robbery. Swapping weapons for chocolates and charm, Flomenbaum became a frequent customer at ABN Amro bank in Antwerp. Befriending the bank staff, who believed he was a successful diamond trader, he gained their trust and acquired a key to the bank's vault.

Once he had the key, he simply let himself in and walked out of the front door with 120,000 carats of diamonds, worth $28 million.

In mid-May 2008, four armed robbers -- two disguised as women -- walked into a jewelry store in Paris. Once inside, they pulled out their weapons, forced the customers and employees into a corner, and grabbed jewels out of display cases and safes.

Swiping an estimated 80 million euros ($102 million) worth of jewels, the "drag queen robbery" became one of the biggest heists in history.

On New Year's Eve 2008, two armed men casually walked into a shop called Dialite Imports, one of New York's diamond district shops. Dressed in traditional Orthodox-jewish clothing accessorized with fake beards, they quickly gained access to the store's safe, spray-painting two security cameras in the process. They disappeared with $4 million in diamonds and other jewels.

The heist later turned out to be an elaborate inside job set up by the store's co-owners, who were $1 million in debt, six months behind on their rent and acquired a new insurance policy shortly before the robbery.

In 2009, two sharp-suited men walked into Graff Jewellers on central London's New Bond Street. In the middle of the afternoon, with people walking on the streets outside, they threatened employees with handguns and managed to steal 43 items, with a value of about £40 million ($65 million).

In 1994 three men armed with a machine gun stormed into the Carlton Hotel in Cannes, France. They stole jewels valued at £30 million ($43 million) from a jewelry shop in the hotel. Reportedly, the rounds they had been firing were blanks -- which did not prevent them from gaining the world's biggest gems robbery record in Guinness Book of Records.

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