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The Jewel Heist That Wasn't There — An EW true crime story

The luxurious Carlton Hotel — home of the Cannes Film Festival and setting of Hitchcock's 'To Catch a Thief' — is the scene of two robberies that are too spectacular to believe.
April 18, 2019 at 08:00 AM EDT

Act 1 — The Story

Three masked gunmen walk into a luxury hotel and start blasting machine guns.

It’s August 1994, and outside the historic Carlton Cannes, it’s a quiet afternoon on the French Riviera. Sidewalks bustle with the usual deep-pocketed shoppers and snapshot-seeking tourists as sunbathers frolic on the hotel’s golden Mediterranean beach across the street.

Inside the hotel, guests and workers plunge to the ground for cover as fire and noise rip the air overhead. In the hotel’s jewelry store, diamonds and other gems reported to be worth between $43 million and $77 million are roughly liberated from their display cases and stuffed into bags, soon to vanish forever — along with the trio of assailants.

As the smoke clears, the victims rise back to their feet. Is anyone dead? Anyone injured? 

It appears not. The only harm must have been to the belle epoque hotel, built in 1911, long renowned as the heart of the annual Cannes Film Festival and a lavish home away from home to some of the most wealthy, beautiful, and famous people in the world.

Except… there were no bullet holes. The walls, light fixtures, and columns were unmarked. Like so many who flock to Cannes, flaunting their jewels and themselves, it was all for show. The robbers had been firing blanks.

 

Have a drink in the Carlton lobby during the annual film festival in May and someone will likely regale you with the story. It’s still discussed by hotel workers, who sometimes fret to journalists about their safety amid luxury goods that attract such vicious criminals.

JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images

Starting in 1996, the Guinness Book of World Records ranked the crime as the costliest jewel heist in history, and the incident has been recounted by National Geographic, Britain’s BBC, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, and countless other news outlets, usually in the context of other costly or daring heists.

This violent episode in the Carlton’s otherwise elegant past has become part of its legend. Even the hoax aspect of fake gunfire added to the ironic allure. Except…there are no articles about the caper before the Guinness ranking, not even in the local Cannes-area newspaper Nice-Matin.

There are no articles or TV reports with photos of police at the hotel. No quotes from investigators or witnesses. No descriptions of suspects or the purloined gems. Nothing.

Even the Carlton owners, InterContinental Hotels Group, tell EW they can’t find a record that it happened. Did it?

Representatives of Guinness acknowledged they published the story for several years, but they can’t find any material backing it up either. Local police say they aren’t aware of the case.

Yet the story continues to be repeated—by tourists, journalists, and local shopkeepers—even though nearly 20 years later an even more audacious armed jewel heist did take place within the walls of the hotel, this one far outdoing that legendary haul and setting an actual record for the costliest robbery ever, totaling about $136 million in stolen gems.

It was pulled off in less than one minute. By one man. And like its seemingly apocryphal ancestor, the closer you look at this crime, the more unreal it becomes.

Act 2  — The Stage

Maybe you’ve never visited the Carlton hotel, but it has visited you.

Sebastien Nogier/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

Most memorably, the now-108-year-old grand palace was the setting of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 classic To Catch a Thief. Grace Kelly starred as an American heiress who stays there when she becomes entangled with Cary Grant’s reformed cat burglar, who’s desperate to prove to the police that he’s not the one pinching necklaces and rings from the vacationing elite along La Promenade de la Croisette, Cannes’ idyllic crescent-shaped beachfront. 

The Carlton is also where Kelly stayed during the Cannes Film Festival that same year when she first met and fell in love with Prince Rainier III from neighboring Monaco, beginning her storybook journey from Hollywood screen queen to actual princess. 

Reality and fantasy often intermingle at the Carlton in beguiling ways. Elton John and a menagerie of painted dancers cavorted outside the hotel in the video for 1983’s “I’m Still Standing.”

In the early ’70s, the terrace of the Carlton is where George Lucas, then a destitute film student crashing on his friend Francis Ford Coppola’s couch, struck a deal with United Artists to begin developing American Graffiti. (They also bought his proposal for a space adventure taking place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but later decided it wasn’t going to work and dropped it.)

For all the cinematic stories surrounding the Carlton, To Catch a Thief still defines the hotel like no other, and vice versa.

Everett Collection

“The component of the south of France really contributed to the film’s success worldwide, because people only heard about those places and rarely saw them aside from the news. They saw them in movies,” says French-born author and filmmaker Laurent Bouzereau, who directed the 2002 documentary The Making of To Catch a Thief. “The setting of the French Riviera, and particularly the Carlton and the casino, all makes it very alluring for the viewers, especially back then.”

There has been an undeniable aura of mystique around the Carlton since it first opened its doors. What Stephen King’s fictional Overlook Hotel is to terror, the Carlton is to romance.

The seven-floor, 343-room hotel is framed at either end of La Croisette by twin cupolas, said to be modeled on the body of Carolina Otero, a Spanish actress and dancer who was renowned as the most beautiful woman in all of Europe during the turn of the last century. As the star of the musical revue Folies Bèrgere in Paris, she was known for dancing with her breasts covered in diamonds and pearls.

If you look at the domes of the Carlton compared to old publicity photos of her, the homage becomes apparent. For years, the penthouse restaurant in the hotel was named for her: La Belle Otero.

World War I began just a few years after the hotel opened, and the locale remained an icon of dignity and elegance throughout that gruesome conflict. In 1922, the League of Nations met there to map out a plan for enduring peace in Europe, which, obviously, failed horrifically.

During the Nazi occupation of France in World War II, the beach outside the Carlton was pocked with land mines and strung with barbed wire to stave off Allied attacks. A year after the Nazis were defeated, France established the Cannes Film Festival in 1946 as a way to rebuild tourism in the Riviera region, and the Carlton soon became a way station for cinematic glitterati from around the globe flocking to the world’s chicest industry event. (This year’s festival kicks off May 14.)

“The history of that hotel is why Hitchcock chose it,” says Bouzereau, who has written three books about the filmmaker, including 2010’s Hitchcock, Piece by Piece. “He knew that people would dream of going to Cannes, dream of that life. It really brought magic to a story that, set in another random hotel, would have missed that layer of glamour.”

The Carlton is somewhere that, at least culturally, still has its barbed wire and barricades up. It’s not a place of welcome, except for those who have the money or the beauty to gain entry beneath its sculpted archway. Still, interlopers find a way to slip through. “It’s a contrast of the haves and the have-nots right there, from the lobby to the rooftop,” says Bouzereau.

That can create as much resentment as admiration. As Grant’s cat burglar says in Hitchcock’s film: “For what it’s worth, I only stole from people who wouldn’t go hungry.”

No one goes hungry in the Carlton. It’s a place of decadence, opulence, and appetites. That’s what also makes it a prime location for crooks, both small-time and grandiose. If you can spare 1,000 euros a night for one of the suites, thieves bargain that you can be separated from more.

Actors, film executives, critics, and other festivalgoers often swap stories of being targeted by pickpockets or hotel thieves, but during the 2013 festival, the region was hit by a rash of higher-profile robberies. Chopard jewels valued at $1 million were stolen from a safe in the Novotel hotel, and a $2.6 million diamond necklace vanished from a Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc party thrown by jeweler De Grisogono. The crime spree built to a crescendo with the record-setting $136 million jewel heist that struck the Carlton on July 28 of that year.

“A big diamond company wants to show off their wares, and they say they want to go to Cannes, because Cannes has a touch of magic and celebrity attached to it, because of the film festival, and because of the rich and famous who summer there,” says robbery expert Scott Andrew Selby, co-author of Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History, about a 2003 raid in Antwerp, Belgium, that netted $108 million in loot.

“So you rent out a space that used to be a restaurant in the Carlton hotel, and you put on an exhibit about how great your diamonds are. That’s where you go to really get the buzz. Get the magazines to write about you, get the celebrities to see you, get the crazy-rich people to buy it.”

Selby invokes the Depression-era American stickup hoodlum Willie Sutton to explain why Cannes was so vulnerable to earth-shattering smash-and-grabs.

“Willie Sutton allegedly said he robbed banks because ‘That’s where the money is,’ ” the author notes. “These guys robbed Cannes because that’s where the diamonds are, that’s where the jewels are, because that’s where the stars are.” 

By the way, Selby adds, Sutton never really said that. The robber always claimed the quote was made up by the newspapers.

Act 3  — The Action

The most shocking theft in Cannes history took approximately 30 seconds.

It was a late Sunday morning in 2013. The exterior terrace of the Carlton flapped with pink vinyl banners. “Leviev,” they read. “Extraordinary Diamonds.” Billionaire Lev Leviev, an oligarch from Uzbekistan who became an Israeli citizen and has strong ties to Vladimir Putin and Russia, had done a great job advertising his French Riviera exhibition, but he didn’t do much to safeguard his collection.

Police outside the Carlton Hotel in Cannes after the 2013 raid. Leviev's pink banners are draped on the building.
Lionel Cironneau/AP/REX/Shutterstock

No one told police when the jewels were going on display, and no one hired armed security to stand watch outside the exhibition room, which opened onto the sidewalk.

As a result, an estimated $136 million in precious stones were carried away in about the time it takes to ask someone how to pronounce the merchant’s name properly. (It’s Luh-VY-ev.) “It wouldn’t have been difficult to have somebody out front to prevent that from happening,” says John Shaw, the Paris-based insurance adjuster whose firm, S.W. Associates, was hired by Lloyd’s of London to investigate the claim.

On the surveillance video, the first sign of distress is an interior security guard standing near the curtains, who stumbles backward, raising his hands in surrender.

The thief, wearing a bandanna over his face and a black baseball cap, steps in through the doors of the patio, which are just below one of the “Otero” domes on the Carlton’s eastern corner. The thief strides quickly around the center display boxes with the gun extended rigidly. An open white satchel, perhaps where he hid the gun, sways at his side. 

In the back of the room, a man and a woman have just begun unpacking the jewels for the exhibition. When they see the gunman, the man drops to his knees, arms in the air. The woman freezes and cups her face in her hands, like a child pretending you can’t see her because she can’t see you.

The robber hefts a black duffel bag from behind the counter and hurries away. Then, as if yanked by a tether, he halts at the sight of two trays of jewels that have already been laid out. He scoops those up with his gun hand and fast-walks out of view of the camera.

Along with him went 72 pieces, about half of them designated “exceptional” due to their flawless-ness and astonishing value.

One was a 55-carat diamond, which—judging by its platinum ring—was about the size of a “Fun Size” Snickers. When you look at old pictures of it, staring into the crystal is like looking down a hall of mirrors.

There was also a 30-carat emerald, a 29-carat sapphire, and an array of necklaces, earrings, brooches, and rings—each worth vastly more than most people’s lifetime salaries.

SW Associates/Roskin Gem News

The efficiency of the theft suggests that someone knew exactly when to arrive, what to expect, and how to get away. “It was very good timing,” says Shaw. “He went out a small window at the back. There’s a small service area going to a side street, so he jumped out of that.”

The robber’s commands were terse. “He must have said something, but it was pretty restricted,” Shaw says. “I don’t think we got any accents.”

While Cannes police and prosecutors from nearby Grasse conducted their own investigation, Shaw — who describes his job as “cause and cost ”— launched a parallel probe. “We’re instructed as agents for the insurance company,” says the adjuster. “So when something goes wrong, they send us out into the field to say, ‘What’s happened here? Is it genuine? Worthy? Recommendations and security recommendations respected? Do we pay? And if we pay, how much do we pay?’”

Ultimately, Shaw determined the claim was valid, but Lloyd’s ended up paying Leviev only about $80 million. “You’re insured for the replacement cost,” Shaw notes, not the full $136 million. “That’s the retail value that people get carried away with.”

At such a posh locale, you’d expect there to be wall-to-wall camera footage throughout and around the Carlton. But you’d be wrong. There’s actually less. “You can’t,” Shaw says, “because the high rollers don’t want to be filmed everywhere they go.”

Act 4 — The Chase

Shaw can’t say everything he learned. Even six years later, the investigation remains open.

Does he think a lot of mistakes were made? “I don’t know if mistakes is the right word. There’s a mystery as to how the door to that exhibition room was unlocked,” he says, adding ruefully, “and it’s too bad that the hotel at the time couldn’t account for all of the keys.”

In response to questions from EW, the Carlton’s owner, InterContinental Hotels Group, offered this statement: “We take the security of our guests and colleagues extremely seriously. We are constantly evolving our security measures to ensure we offer the best possible protection, in line with the latest technology solutions available. For security reasons it would not be appropriate for us to comment further on the details of these measures.”

There are a variety of theories about who committed the robbery, but the thing they all share is a belief that the crime was at least partly an inside job. It was all too clockwork, all too easy.

Sandie Navarra, a journalist with the Nice-Matin newspaper that covers southeastern France, assisted EW in reporting this story and spoke with a source close to the 2013 investigation who wished to remain anonymous because their case remains active, too. One possibility explored by French police and prosecutors: “Leviev was the target of knowledgeable competitors about this diamond show,” she says. Another: “The thief [was an outsider] who benefited from internal complicity at the hotel.”

Scott Wintrow/Getty Images

An unscrupulous diamond rival to Leviev (pictured above) might have the means to recut and resell the gems, but not the inside knowledge of the timing of the display. And outlaw hotel employees who decide to risk it all by snatching the jewels would have trouble with the second part of such a theft — cashing in.

“They wouldn’t have the wherewithal to get the jewelry out of the country into the right hands,” says Robert Wittman, a 20-year veteran of the FBI who helped create its Art Crime Team, which seeks to recover rare stolen artifacts. “It takes more sophistication to sell something for that high value. The theft itself is what it is. Most of these individuals are very good thieves. They’re not good businessmen. It’s difficult for them to monetize their swag. But the fact that this has been gone for six years, it sure tells me that they had some way of getting rid of this jewelry.”

Now in private practice as a theft recovery expert, and author of the book Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stollen Treasures, Wittman says investigators around the world became activated by this case — especially after Shaw and Lloyd’s of London announced a $1.3 million reward, about1 percent of the value of the stolen loot.

Wittman checked in with a source living in Budapest: “I heard that it was the Pink Panthers, that they were the group that had been involved. They had a French connection in Nice, and the material went back to the Balkans.”

The “Pink Panthers” is what international law enforcement calls a Serbian-based organized-crime network that has been responsible for a vast number of brazen jewel heists around the world. The nickname, like so many elements of this story, has a connection to the movies — it’s the title of the Blake Edwards jewel-heist comedies starring Peter Sellers as bumbling Inspector Clouseau.

Wittman says he trusts the source because the source was so…untrustworthy. “He was a jewel thief,” Wittman says. “A Hungarian national. He stole jewelry in New York, went to state prison, then got out and went back to Budapest. I had been involved in his investigation when he was arrested, and at that time, he was in Budapest and talking about it.”

Still, the 2013 heist doesn’t match precisely with the Panthers’ MO. They tended to send in large teams on audacious raids, not a single person who slipped in and out.

Act 5 — The Twist

Navarra’s source in the investigation says there is one final theory that French police are exploring: “The jeweler Leviev organized this robbery because he owns the entire diamond-extraction sector from the mines until the sale, and can therefore resize his stones and put them back on the market while getting his hands on the insurance money.”

Shaw, the Lloyd’s of London adjuster, says he explored this possibility too. “Yes, yup. What can I say to that? Lev Leviev is a very experienced man. I don’t think it’s his first legal case. The wheels of justice grind very slowly. So getting different jurisdictions to speak to each other takes a long time.”

Leviev is currently believed to be in Moscow, where he, like all Russian oligarchs, is a close associate of Vladimir Putin and safely insulated from outside prosecutors. His diamond company is currently facing investigation in Israel after six employees, including his son and brother, were arrested in November 2018 for allegedly smuggling $80 million worth of gems into the country.

The case took a horrific and tragic turn last Nov. 11, when a woman named Mazal Hadadi, a bookkeeper for Leviev’s company, was repeatedly questioned by police and then later fell to her death from the 10th floor of Leviev’s office building in the Tel Aviv district. Leviev’s firm blamed investigators for driving her to suicide, and police have said there is no apparent foul play, but her family doesn’t believe she took her own life.

Leviev has denied any wrongdoing, but has also refused to return to Israel for questioning in the case. Israeli newspapers have suggested possible motives:

“Leviev’s alleged motivations are also a mystery, since diamonds entering Israel only need to be declared and inspected rather than immediately taxed,” noted the Times of Israel on Dec. 4, 2018. “One reason to smuggle could be that the stones were of dubious origin; either their seller had no license to market them; or they were mined illegally,” the newspaper Haaretz reported on Nov. 5.

Israeli investigators believe the alleged smuggling dates back at least 16 years, which means it would have been in operation when the Carlton-theft gems would have needed to be laundered.

Whether the diamonds snatched from the hotel in 2013 were taken by daring employees, a ruthless competitor, the militarized Pink Panthers, or Leviev himself, the case is merely the latest chapter in the book of mysterious Carlton robberies that were never solved.

Or never happened at all.

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