Popular Culture

10 Greatest Crimes of the Twentieth Century


As Valerio Viccei said: “Some people are too fast to live.” They cannot abide by the rules imposed on them by society, especially when a world of riches can be snatched away from someone else. To them, the valuables stowed away in museums, banks, and jewelry stores are too tempting to pass by. So they painstakingly plot, plan and study to pull off the greatest and most glamorous heists humanly possible. Here’s our top 10 of the twentieth century.

10. The Stealing of the Mona Lisa, 1911

For centuries Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa has lived in France. Napoleon had her in his bedroom, Louis XIV brought her to Versailles, and eventually she graced the walls of the Louvre. An Italian Louvre employee was resentful of the fact that this painting wasn’t in its homeland. To restore the Mona Lisa to Italy, Vincenzo Peruggia hid her under his coat when the museum closed for the day and took her to Florence. Two years later, Peruggia was caught and the Mona Lisa was returned to Paris. Peruggia, unlike most robbers, was hailed as a patriotic hero and given a mere 7 months in jail.

9. The Brinks Security Theft, 1983

It certainly takes guts to rob the headquarters of a world-renowned private security firm. Brinks, based in Boston, was the target of a group of 11 criminals who meticulously planned and executed their crime. One night the gang broke into the building, tying up the night watchmen and stealing $1.2m in cash and an additional $1.5m in checks and securities. The men went undetected for years until one thief shot another in a feud over who got the bigger cut. When the victim, ‘Specs’ O’Keefe, lay in his hospital bed, the FBI approached, and he ratted out his fellow robbers for a plea bargain.

8. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Art Heist, 1990

In the largest art heist in American history, two unknown men entered a small Boston museum containing important masterpieces, bound the security guard, and stripped 13 paintings from the walls. Works from Degas, Vermeer, Manet, and Rembrandt were stolen – which in total valued at half a billion dollars. The paintings have never been recovered, and are too hot to sell, even on the black market. In her will, Ms Gardner forbade any painting to be removed from the walls of the museum; thus the 13 empty frames still sit eerily in their places.

7. Jewelry Heist on the French Riviera, 1994

In the biggest jewelry heist of the century, two men ran into the jewelry shop of the Carlton Hotel in Cannes, France, brandishing two huge machine guns. The robbers fired the weapons into the ceiling, causing chaos. Employees and guests panicked, some fleeing, others hiding beneath tables. The men smashed the display cases, and gathered up all the jewelry they could. In total, they stole goods valued at $60m. Later, when no bullet holes appeared on the ceiling, authorities concluded the gunmen had used blanks. Neither loot nor criminal have been found.

6. The Lufthansa Heist, 1978

The Lufthansa Heist was the work of the Lucchese family – one of the five New York families who run the Italian-American mafia. A man who owed the Luccheses $25,000 in gambling debts alerted them to a goldmine: at John F. Kennedy airport the government kept a vault with millions of dollars of American cash. One night the family organized an attack on the vault. Initially it was successful – the robbers took $5m, the most cash ever stolen on American soil at the time. However, the getaway driver, who was high on a cocktail of drugs, parked rather conspicuously in a tow-away zone, drawing attention from the authorities. The events inspired the film Goodfellas.

5. John Dillinger’s Cross American Crime Spree, 1933-1934

John Dillinger was an armed robber who really did seem to live larger than life. Between 1933 and 1934 his gang robbed more than two dozen banks and four police stations, while he escaped prison twice. Living in the golden age of the American public enemy, a $10m reward was placed on his head, and his crimes would go on to inspire the creation of the FBI – as well as numerous films. He was eventually killed after police spotted him leaving a cinema screening of gangster movie Manhattan Melodrama.

4. The Great Train Robbery, 1963

The Royal Mail was making its usual delivery via train from Glasgow to London. There was a separate carriage holding all valuables – including cash, jewelry – with a larger load than usual due to a recent bank holiday. A gang of 15 men was waiting for such a day to make its move. The robbers had befriended train employees and studied schedules and routines of postal workers. Over £2.5m was taken from the train. Though the men initially escaped they were eventually sent to prison. However, one man, Ronnie Briggs, maintained his notoriety by continuing to terrorize the authorities after escaping from jail.

3. The Knightsbridge Security Deposit Theft, 1987

The third largest bank robbery in world history, the Knightsbridge Security Deposit Robbery caused the loss of over $100m in precious valuables and personal belongings. Italian fugitive, Valerio Viccei, and a gang of accomplices entered the bank, pretending they wanted to open a safe deposit box. Once inside, the men gagged and bound the guards and stole the goods. Only when the new shift of guards entered did they find the aftermath of the theft. All involved were eventually discovered and put in prison.

2. The Fall of Barings Bank, 1995

It now seems as if white-collar crime has become the modern-day version of the heist, but before Bernie Madoff and Allen Stanford, there was the story of Nick Leeson, an overambitious young professional who devastated Barings Bank. The bank was England’s very oldest – even counting the Queen as a client. Leeson, the head derivatives trader based in Singapore, gambled all of Barings’ assets on the Japanese stock market, which crashed after a hurricane. Barings lost everything – £827m total – forcing it to sell to ING, a Dutch company, for a single pound. Leeson was extradited to Singapore, where he served 6 months in prison.

1. The Dunbar Armored Heist, 1997

The Dunbar Armored facility tempted its employees on a daily basis as millions of dollars of cash would enter and exit secured vaults. One man, Allen Pace, couldn’t withstand the temptation any longer. He gathered five childhood friends and together they stole $18.9m – making it the largest amount of cash ever stolen. For years the men lived freely with their new wealth, until one man erred, was turned over to the police, and subsequently ratted out his accomplices.

Though the risks of committing crime are great, their rewards can only be dreamed of. For those rebellious enough to execute such devious acts and smart enough to avoid capture, infinite luxury awaits. However, of the ten high-profile crimes on this list, only two went unsolved. The smallest slip, the tiniest finger print, the ever so slightly untrusting accomplice, can strip from the rebel his treasure, his freedom and even his life.

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