There are many ways of getting enough money to live on as you wish – working hard all your life, gambling, or being born into royalty are all possibilities…or you could steal it.
That’s the route taken by the people on this list, who have managed to pull off the most audacious and impressive heists in the history of heist-ing. Some of them got caught, some didn’t, but they were all, for a time, insanely rich.
You can find out more in our Top 15 Most Famous Heists in history.
15. The Isabella Gardner Museum Heist – $500 mil, 1990
One of the biggest art thefts ever and one of the most famous unsolved crimes. The scene was the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston, and the date was March 18, 1990.
Two apparent policemen walked in during the night while St Patrick’s Day celebrations were in full swing outside and tricked the security guards into leaving their posts. The thieves then tied the guards up and made off several major art pieces, including Rembrandt’s “Storm on the Sea of Galilee” and his self-portrait.
The works have never been recovered, and the museum is still offering a reward of $5 million for information that would lead to their return. It is estimated that they are worth around $500 million, but, of course, you can’t really put a price on art.
There are a few puzzling things about the case, such as why the thieves passed by valuable Botticellis and didn’t take them, but maybe it will all be solved one day.
The new Netflix docuseries “This Is A Robbery” explores the history of the still-unsolved Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist.
14. Mona Lisa – $1 mil, 1911
On Aug. 21, 1911, former workman Vincenzo Peruggia waltzed into the museum and stole the Mona Lisa, then valued at $1 million, by ripping it from the wall while no one was looking, stuffing it under his shirt, and waltzing right back out.
Two years later, police captured Peruggia and recovered the painting thanks to an honest art dealer in Florence who reported Peruggia to the police after unsuccessfully pawn it.
Even so, the Mona Lisa exhibit remained popular during its disappearance; thousands of museum visitors lined up to see the space where it would have been hanging. Today the painting has a high-security room all to itself.
13. Stockholm helicopter robbery – $5.3m, 2009
In 2009, police were stunned by Sweden’s first helicopter robbery. A stolen chopper landed on the roof of a cash depot building in Stockholm just after 5 am. Thieves smashed in with sledgehammers, blew out security doors with explosives, and raided vaults flush with cash. The helicopter loitered overhead, on standby to hoist up bags of cash and haul the men up.
Authorities couldn’t use their own helicopters because a bag marked ‘bomb’ was placed in their hangar. Police cars speeding to the building found their tires blown out by spikes on the road. Ten men were charged in the $5.3m robbery. None were sentenced to more than seven years, and the money was never recovered.
12. The Graff Diamonds Robbery – $65 million, 2009
Now, this is an example of how the most elaborate plans can go wrong. The men who robbed the Graff Diamonds jewelry store in August 2009 had taken a lot of care to escape detection – they engaged the services of a professional make-up studio and had prosthetic faces attached, telling the make-up artist that it was for a music video.
Then they walked into the store, brandished their guns, and escaped with 43 pieces of jewelry worth an estimated £40 million ($65 million). They even took care to keep changing getaway vehicles to shake the police off their trail.
But one of them left his mobile phone in the car, which allowed the police to track, arrest and jail them. The gang leader – Aman Kassaye – is currently serving 23 years, with the other three robbers serving 16 years each. None of the jewelry has so far been recovered.
11. The Stardust Casino Heist – $500K, 1992
It’s widely acknowledged that robbing a Vegas casino is among the toughest of heists to pull off. But several people have tried, and some have succeeded. The most successful was Bill Brennan, a man no one knows anything about outside his impressive feat.
Bill Brennan is on the FBI’s most-wanted list, and his picture and story have appeared on America’s Most Wanted, but he’s never been found.
He worked in the Stardust casino, and midway through a shift in September 1992, and he went to lunch. That’s not remarkable. What is remarkable is that he never came back. And has never been seen since.
Oh, and there’s also the small matter of the $500,000 in chips and cash that he had stashed in his rucksack. It’s the biggest casino theft ever and almost glorious in its simplicity.
Some say he was in cahoots with a security guard, who later killed him, explaining both his disappearance and the ease with which he walked out with the money. Again, it may never be explained.
10. The Banco Central Burglary ($71 million, 2005)
The holder of the Guinness World Record for the biggest bank heist in this 2005 Brazilian theft. The haul was R$ 164,755,150 (about $71.6 million), carried off in 50-Real notes, which weighed about 3.5 tons altogether. The money was not insured.
The method was a classic bank-robbing one – the robbers tunneled under the bank from a building 78 meters away and somehow got through a meter of reinforced concrete to get into the vault and get away with the money. After three months of digging from a nearby farmhouse (during which time neighbors innocently noticed vanloads of material being hauled away daily), the robbers crawled beneath two city blocks to the bank, where they blasted their way through a final meter of steel-reinforced concrete during the weekend of Aug. 6-7.
After that, it all got a bit nasty, with the body of suspect Luis Fernando Ribeiro turning up two months after the robbery in an apparently related murder. Several other suspects were kidnapped by police officers (Brazil is not above immoral policing). Only around R$20 million of the money has ever been recovered, prompting rumors of a police cover-up. Another one that will run and run.
9. The Damiani Showroom Robbery – $30 million, 2008
This 2008 robbery has many things in common with the other thefts on the list – the use of a tunnel to break in (in this case, to a Milan jewelry showroom), the robbers wearing fake police uniforms..and a fatal flaw.
The fatal flaw, in this case, was that some of the most valuable pieces weren’t in the Damiani showroom at the time – they were adorning A-listers in Hollywood. The thieves had picked Oscar night to strike, knowing that the showroom owner would attend the ceremony in L.A. but seemingly not realizing that the most expensive pieces would be going as well – like the 1865-diamond bracelet Tilda Swinton was wearing (above).
Still, the thieves got away with up to $30 million worth of jewelry, so they probably weren’t too upset….at least not until they were arrested the following December.
8. The Securitas Depot Robbery – $87 million, 2006
The biggest cash robbery in British history now is the £53,116,76 (approx $87 million) stolen from a Securitas depot in February 2006. The manager of the depot was pulled over by what he thought was a police car (robbers seem to use that trick a lot) and kidnapped before being taken to join his already-kidnapped family.
They were then taken to the depot, where the robbers took the cash and left them and 14 members of staff tied up. Eventually, five men – Stuart Royle, Jetmir Bucpapa, Roger Coutts, Lea Rusha, and Emir Hysenaj – were found guilty of the robbery and given life sentences, but at least one suspect – Kayenide ‘Kane’ Patterson – remains at large, presumably with the money as only $150,000 of the stolen cash has been recovered.
7. The Great Brink’s Robbery – 1950
It’s another Boston-based crime and one that was described as “the crime of the century,” although the criminal masterminds involved all eventually got themselves arrested by the FBI.
The robbery took place on January 17, 1950, at the Brink’s building. The robbers had practiced the heist for around two years and spent a long time choosing the optimum time of date to commit it.
Eventually, it was 6:55 PM when the robbers walked in with their copied keys, tied the staff up, and left with $1,218,211.29 in cash and $1,557,183.83 in checks. It took six years for the FBI to pin them down, but all were tried, except for the ones who had died in the interim, and eight of them received life sentences. The crime of the century fell flat at the end, it seems…
6. The Antwerp Diamond Heist – $100 million, 2003
Another crime is to claim the title “Heist of the Century,” although it’s a different century from the last one. The robbery took place in Antwerp in February 2003, and the robbers, led by Leonardo Notarbartolo, stole $100 million worth of diamonds, making it, at the time, the world’s biggest diamond heist.
Notarbartolo had meticulously planned the crime, hiring an office in the diamond center for two and a half years before the robbery to gain both credibility and a 24-hour resident’s access card.
Unfortunately, he made a mistake – he left a half-eaten sandwich at the crime scene, and the police could trace him using DNA testing. He was jailed for 10 years but released on parole and claimed that someone else paid him to do the robbery. You can read more details about the Antwerp Diamond Heist here.
5. The Lufthansa Raid – $6 million, 1978
Many of our heists have inspired movies, but the biggest movie of all of them has to be Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas,” which took part of its inspiration from the 1978 Lufthansa Raid. The target was a vault at JFK airport, which stored American currency flown back from service members in West Germany.
The heist was planned by Jimmy Burke, who was associated with the Lucchese crime family and carried out almost flawlessly by his associates, who walked away with $6 million, three times what Burke was expecting.
Then it all went wrong. Parnell “Stacks” Edwards was supposed to dispose of the van used in the robbery but instead left it in a no parking zone, covered with his fingerprints. The FBI knew that Edwards was connected to Burke and started closing in, but Edwards was murdered before talking.
Police believed it was an inside job masterminded by mobster “Jimmy the Gent” Burke, who was immortalized by Robert De Niro in the 1990 Martin Scorsese film Goodfellas. Below you can watch the trailer of the movie inspired by the Lufthansa raid:
But justice caught up with Burke eventually, and he was convicted of the murder of Richard Eaton in 1985 and died of lung cancer in 1996. The $6 million, equivalent to $23.3 million in 2020, was never recovered.
4. British Bank of The Middle East’s Robbery Beirut – $50 mil, 1976
In the heat of Lebanon’s civil war, a group associated with the Palestinian Liberation Organization blasted through the bank’s walls through a church next door and hired a crack team of locksmiths to bust open the vault. Once finished, they reportedly walked away with up to $50 million worth of gold, cash, stocks, and jewels.
Today the loot is valued to be more than three times what it was worth in 1976.
3. The Great Train Robbery – £2.6 million, 1963
When it comes to famous heists, however, there’s only one that everyone knows, and that’s the 1963 Great Train Robbery that took place in Buckinghamshire, England.
The 15 robbers, including the famous Ronnie Biggs, got away with £2.6 million, which is around £46 million in modern money, and the method they used was almost unbelievably simple. They tampered with the signals, waited for the train to stop, and then boarded it and demanded the money from the guards.
Twelve of the 15 men were captured and arrested, including Ronnie Biggs, who engineered his own jailbreak in 1965 and later spent almost a decade hopping continents and going under the knife to avoid being caught by police. Scotland Yard investigator Jack Slipper found a much-altered Biggs in Brazil in 1974 and greeted him by saying, “Long time no see, Ronnie!” But Brazilian authorities refused to extradite Biggs; he finally surrendered to British police in 2001.
But they are assured of their place in the history books as the most famous robbers ever.
I recommend you to watch on Netflix the movie Robbery – 1967, which is a very well-made near-reconstruction of the Great Train Robbery, taut, brilliantly directed and acted, with excellent casting. Check the trailer below:
2. Dar es Salaam Investment Bank in Baghdad – $282 million, 2007
The largest bank robbery took place on 11 July 2007 at the Dar es Salaam Investment Bank in Baghdad, Iraq. The theft was reportedly an inside job, with two (or perhaps three, reports vary) of the bank’s security guards involved. The thieves made off with $282 million in US Dollars and 220 million Iraqi Dinars (worth around $173,000 at the time).
According to Reuters, the police said the thieves were three guards who worked at the private Dar Es Salaam bank in Baghdad’s Karrada district. They said that when bank employees arrived for work on Wednesday, they found the front door open, and the money had gone.
The Dar Es Salaam Bank (70% owned by HSBC between 2005 and 2013) remained in business for over a decade after the heist but seemed to have shut down in 2018.
1. D.B. Cooper – $200,000, 1971
This one is undeniably one of the most spectacular heists in history. Before Thanksgiving in 1971, a man who identified himself as “Dan Cooper” boarded a Northwest Airlines flight in Portland, Ore., wearing a suit and tie. He ordered a bourbon and soda before passing a note to the stewardess saying, “I have a bomb in my briefcase. You are being hijacked.” The demand: $200,000 in unmarked bills, two parachutes, and a fuel truck. The equivalent of the money is around $1.3 million today.
After conveying his instructions, Cooper ordered a second bourbon and soda and paid his tab, telling the stewardess to keep the change.
When the plane landed at Seattle-Tacoma Airport, Cooper exchanged the hostages for the money and parachutes and told the flight crew to fly low at minimum speed toward Mexico City. But 30 minutes into the flight, Cooper deployed the back stairs of the airplane, jumped, and was never seen again.
The FBI scoured the area and pursued more than 1,000 leads but came up empty. Then, in August 2011, a woman came forward saying that her uncle Lynn Doyle Cooper, a logger from Oregon, was the hijacker. And though a Portland grand jury indicted “John Doe, a.k.a. D.B. Cooper” for air piracy in 1976, Lynn Doyle Cooper has been dead for more than a decade.
Many of these heists were the products of meticulous planning, and it’s incredible just how elaborate they became. One might think that the most successful occurred in a time where fingerprinting and DNA were distant ideas, but the still-unsolved case of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum occurred in the ’90s. Though not all of them ended with a cash cow, they were all successful in scoring a place in history.