08.12.09

Return of the Pink Panthers?

Are the Pink Panthers responsible for the record-breaking $65 million London heist? Telltale details point to the notorious jewel thieves—or people imitating their audacious crimes.

to the notorious jewel thieves—or people imitating their audacious crimes.

Graff Diamonds, a company that sells extreme luxury jewelry from New York and Dubai to Monte Carlo and Moscow, is famous for decorating the bodies of Kate Moss, Victoria Beckham and Paris Hilton. It’s becoming equally well known for epic jewel heists—three since 2003, the first two thought to be the work of the world’s most notorious jewel-thief gang, the Pink Panthers. Is it possible they’ve struck again?

The latest theft went like this: Toward the end of a recent workday, a pair of 30-something men in stylish suits emerged from a black taxi on New Bond Street and walked toward Graff’s flagship stucco and stone house in London’s West End. A staff member opened the secured entrance to welcome them. The two men casually walked in and drew out handguns. (Yes, Pulp Fiction fans, this is a robbery.)

The Panthers always aim for the finest shops in the world and have been known to hit easy targets more than once.

In British-sounding accents, they ordered the staff to the floor, except for one female employee who was told to unlock a display case. Necklaces, watches, rings, and bracelets—43 items in all—disappeared into their bag. They walked out with the female employee as a hostage (police think to guarantee that they wouldn’t get trapped between security doors), although they quickly let her go, then fired a pistol at the ground to scare off would-be heroes.

The two men fled across Soho in a blue BMW, but things didn’t go as smoothly as planned; they crashed into a cab on Dover Street, spurring the cab driver and pub-goers to pursue them until they fired another warning shot at the pavement. The thieves then jumped into a waiting silver Mercedes, and, police say, later switched to a third, less conspicuous waiting vehicle and disappeared into thin air.

As for the jewels—which include a white platinum Marquise diamond ring (the same model Kate Moss reportedly owns), a pair of white diamond dual-hoop earrings, a flower necklace made of flowing yellow diamonds (similar to one that Paris Hilton once wore at a Graff’s event) and a Chronograff watch—police say these were handed off to a man on a motorbike early in the getaway.

The robbery took place on August 6, but it was only on August 11 that British authorities released images from video of the crime in search of fresh leads and acknowledged the epic scale of the heist: $65 million, making it the biggest jewel heist in U.K. history (and nearly double the second largest, which also took place at Graff’s in London). Police put out an all-points bulletin but fear that the men have already fled Britain.

This was the third mega-robbery for Graff’s two London stores since 2003. That year, there was a 23-million pound heist at the same Bond Street location, while in 2007 thieves drove up to the Sloane Street store in a chauffer-driven Bentley Continental Flying Spur and left with 10 million pounds worth of loot. Both of those crimes are believed to have involved members of the Pink Panthers, as British police dubbed the loose-knit gang of former military men, largely from the Balkans, blamed for more than 120 heists in at least 30 countries over the last ten years. The estimated total haul for the gang, thought to number between 150-200: around $200 million.

Here are some indications that August 6 hit might mark a return of the Pink Panthers:

1.Timing: The heist took place just before the evening rush hour, which slow would any potential police pusuit; a Panther trademark.

2.Target: The Panthers always aim for the finest shops in the world and have been known to hit easy targets more than once.

3. Precision planning: The thieves were in and out in less than two minutes, and police think that at least five men and four vehicles were involved in the elaborate getaway.

4. Fashion: They were perfectly disguised as likely customers, with tailored suits, one man elegantly tie-free, the other sporting casual-chic stubble. The Panthers are famous for their costumes, and once dressed as rich women to hit a Paris jeweler.

5. Audacity: The criminals didn’t try to hide their faces from security cameras.

Of course the other possibility, which should strike fear into the hearts of luxury jewelers everywhere, is that the Pink Panthers’ bold crimes, and their ability to elude capture more often than not, have inspired copycats. Police say they have not yet found any link to the previous Graff robberies. What police do know is that the two thieves are about six feet tall and in their thirties. One is a slender white man—in contrast to the often-stocky Balkan gangsters—and the other man appears to be black (i.e., unlikely to be from the Balkans, but not all Panthers are). They spoke with « London accents, » but many of the Panthers are multi-lingual.

So is the Graff heist a return of the Pink Panthers or just an ambitious imitation of them? It will take further investigation to know for sure.

Eric Pape has reported on Europe and the Mediterranean region for Newsweek Magazine since 2003. He is co-author of the graphic novel, Shake Girl , which was inspired by one of his articles. He has written for the Los Angeles Times magazine, Spin, Vibe, Le Courrier International, Salon, Los Angeles and others. He is based in Paris.