History’s Unsolved Heists

A short compendium of stolen loot, stashed about the globe and waiting to be discovered.

In August 2005, a crew of thieves spend three months digging a tunnel underneath a busy city street, then bust their way into a bank vault and nab a whopping $67.8 million in cash. To date, police have recovered just $7 million. This is not uncommon. For many large-scale robberies, the total loot is rarely found. Billions of missing currency, paintings, jewels, and gold bars floats in limbo around the world. So where is the rest of it? In Switzerland, the Cayman Islands, the bottom of a lake in Austria? Or melted down into the earrings of a woman riding the Manhattan subway? Here are some highlights of unsolved heists throughout history:

In January, New York thieves break into the new security system of the Northampton National Bank in Massachusetts, stealing cash and bonds worth over $26 million today. A month later, they write a ransom note to the bank, offering to sell the bonds for cash. The bank negotiates for nearly a year before detectives arrest and convict the gang. The money is never recovered.

As Hitler’s empire collapses in April, the infamous Nazi gold collection, a $3.34 billion collection of gold bars, stolen foreign currency and jewels, suddenly disappears from Reichbank vaults. It is called the world’s largest bank robbery in history. Over the years, portions are found in Switzerland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Turkey. But much of it remains missing. Search teams still hunt for Nazi gold, from the coast of Greece, to bank vaults in Brazil, and the bottom of an alpine lake in Austria.

In January, after two years of planning, armed robbers use copied keys to break into the “burglar-proof” Brinks Building in Boston. They nab $2.7 million in cash, checks, and money orders. The Great Brinks Robbery is labeled the “crime of the century.” It takes until 1956 to charge and sentence all eight thieves. Most of the money is rumored to be hidden in the hills outside Grand Rapids, Minnesota.

In August, 15 men tamper with train signals and stop the Glasgow to London mail train, stealing £2.6 million without firing a shot. Thirteen suspects of the Great Train Robbery are arrested and imprisoned. Three escape jail and become folk heroes, one of whom gets his life made into a movie starring Phil Collins. The lost money is never recovered.

On December 11, a gang of thugs slips into the Lufthansa Airlines cargo terminal at New York’s JFK airport, stealing $5.8 million in cash and jewelry. Unfortunately for police, the currency consists of dollars which had been exchanged overseas, and is impossible to trace. One suspect is sentenced, several are murdered. Only $20,000 is ever recovered. The heist is portrayed in the 1990 mobster film Goodfellas.

In November, six thieves break into the Brinks Mat warehouse at Heathrow Airport, hoping to steal £3 million and instead discover a safe filled with ten tons of gold bullion worth £26 million. The haul is so large and heavy, gang members actually leave the airport to retrieve a larger vehicle. A handful are eventually jailed. Three tons of gold remain unaccounted for.

In March, just after St. Patrick’s Day, two men overpower guards at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and steal 13 paintings by Rembrandt, Degas, Manet, and others. Some works are crudely cut out of their frames. Officials estimate the total loss at roughly $300 million. Despite a $5 million reward, no artwork has been found, and no arrests. The museum continues to display the empty frames.

In September, crooks break into the Dunbar Armored car depot in Los Angeles, and within half an hour stuff $18.9 million in cash into a waiting U-Haul. After some years, all are caught and confess, including the ringleader, a Dunbar employee. The Dunbar Armored Robbery remains the largest cash robbery in U.S. history. $10 million remains missing.

In February, during a tennis tournament, an Italian gang slip inside the Antwerp Diamond Center and empty 123 deposit boxes of gems, leaving 37 still untouched. Loss is eventually calculated to be an astonishing 100 million Euros (then worth $107 million). DNA from a half-eaten sandwich leads authorities to its first suspects. One now awaits trial in prison. No jewels have ever been found.

In December, robbers plunder £26.5 million in cash from the Northern Bank headquarters in Belfast, Ireland. Authorities blame the meticulously planned Northern Bank Robbery on the IRA, who categorically denies any involvement. Five suspects have been arrested. Only £2 million has been recovered..

(A version of this story first appeared in American Way magazine)