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The 5 Most Successful Thieves of All Time

Updated on January 28, 2018
K S Lane profile image

K S Lane is a student of science and is passionate about the psychology of criminals.

The lives of professional thieves can seem glamorous and intriguing from an outside perspective. From daring heists to genius escapes, some of the accomplishments of the most prolific larcenists look like scenes straight out of an action film. Listed below are five of the most criminally talented thieves who’ve pulled off some of the most bold and risky jobs in history. They’re all terrible people who were or still are a drain on society, but that doesn’t stop them from being kind of awesome.

Thieves don't generally look like this, but it's a nice drawing anyway.
Thieves don't generally look like this, but it's a nice drawing anyway. | Source

5. Vincenzo Peruggia

Peruggia was a fairly unremarkable career criminal until he pulled off a truly spectacular job which has been described by commentators as being the greatest art theft of the 20th century. What, you may ask, did he steal? A famous sculpture?A Rembrandt? A Picasso? The truth is much better than any of that; this guy stole the Mona Lisa! In 1911, Peruggia hid in plain sight by disguising himself as an ordinary Louvre worker and snuck into the gallery through a staff-only entrance. Once the 'Salon Carre,' the gallery where the Mona Lisa hung, was empty he simply grabbed the painting and took it to a stairwell, where he removed the protective frame and walked out with it. He was finally arrested two years late in Italy after presenting the painting to an art gallery in his home country with the expectation that he’d receive some kind of monetary reward for 'bringing the painting home.' The whole fiasco helped boost the Mona Lisa’s popularity and international reputation because hey, if a painting is important enough to be stolen by some second-rate thief then I guess it deserves some recognition.

A police photo taken of Vincenzo Peruggia. Nice moustache, dude.
A police photo taken of Vincenzo Peruggia. Nice moustache, dude. | Source

4. The School of Turin

The School of Turin is an infamous crime gang lead by Leonardo Notarbartolo that, in 2003, pulled off the biggest diamond heist the world had ever seen. The gang targeted a vault in the Antwerp Diamond Centre that was two floors below ground level, was protected by a lock with 100 million possible combinations and had infrared detectors, a seismic sensor, a private security force guarding it and Doppler radar to boot. In short, it was widely regarded as being impregnable. The full story of this incredible robbery isn’t known, however Police did discover that Notarbartolo had rented an office in the building that the heist took place in, and had also purchased a safety deposit box that had meant he had a key-card and 24-hour access to the building. The group broke into the vault and made off with roughly 100 million dollars worth of diamonds. The leader of the group was eventually arrested on suspicion and sentenced to 10 years in prison, but the diamond loot has never been found and the other members of the gang weren’t charged. Basically, it was the perfect crime.

The School of Turin made the Antwerp Diamond District (pictured) their target.
The School of Turin made the Antwerp Diamond District (pictured) their target. | Source

3. The Pink Panthers

The Pink Panthers are a Serbian group of jewel thieves who have successfully robbed one hundred and twenty stores since 1993. They earned their iconic name after their first robbery, in which they hid a diamond in a jar of face cream, an act which greatly resembled one of the scenes in the famous movie Return of the Pink Panther. The gang is renowned for their flashy robberies and extreme attention to detail. Their antics include driving stolen limousine through jewellery shop windows, dressing up as women with James Bond style prosthetics, and making daring escapes in speedboats. Sounds like something from a movie, doesn’t it? There have been many arrests made on gang members but since they’re estimated to have 200 members worldwide the police just can’t manage to bring them down. There was a brief moment when their alleged leader, Dragan Mikic (awesome name) was incarcerated, but he escaped using nothing but a rope ladder while his fellow gang members provided a subtle distraction by firing machine guns at the walls of the prison. The gang is still at large today.

Despite the name, the real Pink Panthers aren't as cute and fuzzy as this guy.
Despite the name, the real Pink Panthers aren't as cute and fuzzy as this guy. | Source

2. Charles Peace

Charles Peace is quite possibly the most renowned cat burglar in history. He was a small man, standing at just 162 centimetres (or 5’4), and he used his slight stature and skills as a gymnast to his advantage as he slipped into the most secure houses in London completely unseen. While it’s likely that this man was ever able to steal the sheer amount of money that some of the thieves earlier on this list did, he was incredibly skilled at his craft and paved the way for future generations of burglars (I’m not sure whether that’s really something to be admired, but still). He was eventually caught and hung in 1879.

Charles Peace only robbed the most wealthy looking houses, like this one.
Charles Peace only robbed the most wealthy looking houses, like this one. | Source

1. Albert Spaggiari

Albert Spaggiari, nicknamed Bert, was a French thief who made his name with what is perhaps the most famous bank robbery of all time; the raid of the Société Générale bank in Nice, France. After gathering up a crew Spaggiari utilised the sewer system in Nice to gain access to the bank, tunnelling eight meters through the sewer wall and into the vaults themselves. Then, on Bastille Day 1976, Spaggiari crawled through his tunnel and broke into the bank, opening 400 safety deposit boxes and stealing an estimated 30-60 million francs (31-61 million USD). The gang of thieves was safe for several months, until one of the members was captured and cracked under interrogation, giving up all of his partners, including their leader. However, during his trial Spaggiari managed to pull off a daring escape by literally jumping out of the window of the courthouse and driving away on a motorcycle (I’d really have liked to see that). The thief remained free for the rest of his life, probably hiding somewhere in Argentina, and died in 1989 under mysterious circumstances.

A nice snap of Albert Spaggiari, bank robber extraordinaire. If I'd just managed to come across 60 million dollars I'd probably be smiling too.
A nice snap of Albert Spaggiari, bank robber extraordinaire. If I'd just managed to come across 60 million dollars I'd probably be smiling too. | Source

And there we have it, five of the most successful thieves of all time. Of course, the list could go on and on, and that’s only the ones that have been caught! The truly prolific criminals are the ones who haven’t been captured, and who still remain as shadowy figures that leave unsolved robberies in their wake.

If you’re interested in learning about some other skilled criminals check out my hub on the five worst serial killers ever caught! It’s a lot more gruesome than this one, but just as fascinating.

Which thief do you think is the coolest-er, I mean, the most destructive?

See results

© 2018 K S Lane

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