It has been said that life imitates art, but there's more than a few times that history's shown real life kicks art's ass. Danny Ocean might have had some big plans in his movies, but he can't hold a candle to some of history's more daring real-life thieves.
Cool Hand Vincenzo
In 1911, Vincenzo Peruggia had only worked at the esteemed Louvre Museum for one month when the young Italian first encountered the Mona Lisa. Feeling that the famed painting belonged back in its native Italy, Vincenzo spent the next three weeks researching. He studied the museum's entrances, exits, the locks and he even profiled the security guards and found that their "lazy work habits" were perfectly suited to his purposes. After a careful period of casing the joint and its inhabitants, on August 21, 1911, he pulled off what was referred to at the time as the crime of the century.
He knew that the museum would be closed Monday morning for repairs, and after hiding inside the museum the whole night, Vincenzo donned a smock and swept the Mona Lisa off her feet with one furl of his fabric. Seeing at least 10 people working nearby and being illegally in the possession of the most famous piece of art known to the planet might weaken the resolve of lesser men, but Vincenzo kept his cool.
He moved down a nearby stairway, probably humming the Mission: Impossible theme to himself, and freed Mona from her frame. When the downstairs exit was locked, Vincenzo thinking either on his feet or like a caveman ripped the doorknob off the door and convinced a nearby plumber that it was stolen. A reminder: The dude with the Mona Lisa on his person was making a fuss to a plumber about a stolendoorknob. The plumber let him out and bam: The crime was complete.
Apparently basic skepticism hadn't been invented yet.
Vincenzo expected a hero's welcome back in Italy and a hefty reward for the painting, but Florence's Uffizi Gallery just fluffed his balls long enough to authenticate the painting and put the poor dumb sap under arrest. Vincenzo was sentenced to jail, but served minimal time as the patriotism of his act was considered a "mitigating factor." Remember that the next time you appear in traffic court. You weren't speeding. You were speeding for America
Is That The Last Supper in Your Pocket or Are You Just Happy to See Me?
Stephane Breitwieser must have had a lot of empty walls. In his six years as an art thief, the sneaky bastard stole hundreds of priceless works of art--enough loot to count as a war crime--but since Europe has a soft spot for sensitive Frenchmen who love their mothers, Stephane Breitwieser is currently an international celebrity.
Stephane Breitwieser, upon realizing what he looks like in a mirror.
Breitwieser began his career in criminality while visiting a castle in Switzerland with one of those "he's a jerk, but I still love him" girlfriends. He put the girl's love to the test when he saw a nice painting on the wall and said, "Oh, isn't that nice... honey, keep a look out for me," as he spontaneously ripped the damned thing right off the wall. He then left the museum, presumably with a jazzy score with lots of saxophones in it playing along with him as he winked at the front security camera, put on some sunglasses and sped away, hot girlfriend in tow.
The after-heist sex was insane.
Once he realized that virtually anything became invisible when placed under his coat, Breitwieser and Co. repeated this routine for six years with a nearly 100 percent success rate. When it came to museums, the thief would sweep the scene for alarms, guards and cameras, and then have his girlfriend make a "loud" diversion as he removed the artwork. If the frame was armed with a sensor, he simply cut the picture right out of the frame with a blade. It worked like a charm at over 170 different museums thanks to Breitwieser's quick hands and his girlfriend's theatrics.
But even the best in the business get greedy at some point. For Breitwieser, stealing 238 pieces of art (plus one fake) is nothing unless you have a 400-year-old trumpet with which to toot your own horn. Yeah, about that: The man was seen stealing a quadricentarian bugle from a Swiss museum, and was arrested two days later staking out another heist at the same freaking location.
Totally worth a couple years in jail.
For his unprecedented douchebaggery, Breitwieser was sentenced to three years in jail, and his girlfriend (now "ex-girlfriend" for some reason) got 18 months. Due to the adorableness of his crimes, however, he only served 26 months, and when he was released he wrote a self-promoting book that made him quite a bit of money. The lesson, apparently, is that crime pays, and when it stops paying, it resumes in 26 months.
Die Hard: Montezuma's Revenge
On Christmas Eve, 1985, an unknown number of criminals pulled off the largest heist of Mexican goods since Miami Vice's second season finale. Their target was Mexico City's National Museum of Anthropology, which houses that Mayan calendar everyone is so afraid of, and the enormous Olmec head Bart Simpson got from Mr. Burns in Season 2. Hans Gruber may have been too busy in Europe to have pulled off the caper, but one thing is for sure: Whoever John McClane's Mexican equivalent was, he was asleep at the wheel.
Most heist films depict the trial run of the theft as presenting impossible odds and almost zero chance of escape. This wasn't that kind of movie. Choosing the night before Christmas in the overwhelmingly Christian nation ensured that security would be sluggish on account of excessive holiday cheer. As for the museum itself, the thieves couldn't have wished for better odds if the loot had been stored in a retirement home: no electronic security, no working cameras, a floor-plan they knew "perfectly" and eight sleepy security guards doing rounds every two hours.
Gross stereotype offered for illustration purposes only
The thieves had all the time they needed to scale the museum's seven-foot fence, maneuver through a malfunctioning air-conditioning duct and end up in the museum basement. They helped themselves to whatever they wished and then vanished without a trace, Steve Gutenberg-like. No locks were picked, no glass was broken and no doors were forced. In short, like a pervert on the Tokyo subway there was no smashing: just grabbing.
Now, with all that fence-climbing and duct-shimmying, you'd probably assume that the thieves could only steal one or two things. Not so. By 8 am, Mexico woke up to find what Forbes dubbed "the single largest theft of precious objects" ever. One-hundred and forty-four artifacts of Aztec, Mayan and Mesoamerican origin had been stolen. The price of just one of the treasures, an obsidian monkey, was $20 million. To make matters worse, most of the relics were only one-inch in height-- ideal for smuggling since they didn't require breaking down the artifacts for transport. Ever the professionals, it took the mainstream media three days to cover the story due to the holidays, at which point the criminals already had the head start they needed to disappear... probably singing Feliz Navidad the whole way.
Gone in 60 Weeks
Igniting a slave uprising is hard (we've always said that). Stealing from the United States government is also hard. Abolitionist John Brown decided to try to do both at the same time, because John Brown's basketballs were slightly larger than regulation.
Yes, he was really that tall.
Using the 1859 slave insurrection at Harper's Ferry as a smoke screen, Brown decided to raid the entire United States Arsenal, which at the time had more guns and ammo than at least three-square blocks of Detroit. Oh, and it also stored the personal sword and side arms of General George Washington.
These pieces were artifacts that, apart from being extremely valuable and a great conversation starter when attempting to pick up Civil War-era wenches, had major historical significance to one wishing to reenact a certain war of a revolutionary nature.
Brown hired a henchman with a checkered past named John E. Cook to do recon in Virginia a year before their 1859 raid and told him to "aquaint himself" with Colonel Lewis William Washington, the great-grandnephew of none other than $1 bill George and owner of the famed pistols and sword. Possessing these items would inspire followers to unite around a cool relic of historical consequence, a la The Ark of the Covenant. So, while Cook spent an entire year doing deep cover work, Brown continued to formulate his plan. See, Brown didn't just want a small uprising and a couple of swords, he wanted this smash and grab to be the catalyst for the abolition of slavery. Like, his plan was to just march across America andend slavery all over the place. One guy. Two if you count his ginormous ball pouch.
When Brown finally launched his attack on October 16 the next year, he sent a detachment to Harper's Ferry as offhandedly as Darth Vader recovering Death Star plans, only more successful. Thanks to Cook's months of forced laughter and feigned interest in recipes for badger stew, Brown's men found the national treasures stashed right where their undercover agent said they would be. Brown's men returned with the sword and side arms of George Washington, a few of Colonel Washington's slaves and, as an insurance policy, Washington (the person). Next, Brown cut off the telegraph wire and stopped a few passing trains, to make sure word never reached Washington (the place).
Washington: The Sword
Unfortunately for Brown this ended up drawing a lot of attention his way, and militias soon formed. His raid was subdued by future-Confederate Robert E. Lee, and Brown was run through with a saber that was stopped in true Tolkien style when it hit Washington's sword, which was stowed under his coat. They eventually killed him, but not before he lived long enough to die a martyr's death, be credited for starting the Civil War, had a song named after him and inspired men as hardened as Frederick Douglass to admitthat John Brown was an alpha-badass.
With such praise, they should have just buried him with Washington's sword to lead a zombie army against slavery.
Professor Moriarty and the Post Office Heist
Adam Worth was not simply the most famous criminal of the 19th century; he was a Leonardo da Vinci-level genius who happened to make crime his vocation. Scotland Yard referred to him as "the Napoleon of the criminal world." Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had another name for him: Professor Moriarty. That's right: Adam Worth was "that guy" who played Sherlock Holmes's greatest adversary in real life.
If the Devil ever existed, Adam Worth lifted his watch, keys and wallet.
When it comes to Worth's extensive tenure in criminality, a diamond heist he pulled in South Africa in the 1880s stands above the rest. It all started when Worth used a rope to trip a stagecoach loaded with uncut diamonds, which failed like Next Friday due to his trigger-happy accomplice. Adam proved his worth byfiring the moron and sending him to America, thus avoiding two of the most baffling mistakes every movie criminal makes.
Worth did some recon and learned that the diamonds were stored in a safe in the Cape Town Post office during times of inclement weather when the cargo ships would have trouble picking them up. Wanting to get his hand on the keys to this post office safe, Worth cozied up to the elderly Postmaster General by disguising himself as a kindly feather merchant and playing chess with him every day, probably letting him win more than a few times.
While the poor old guy's back was turned, Worth somehow managed to make wax impressions of the safe key with nobody noticing. All he had to do next was wait till the cover of night and then walk in and open the safe. It was loaded with treasures, but not the $500,000 in uncut diamonds he hauled his ass to South Africa for.
Now, Worth has already put more work into this heist than we've put into anything, but it was at this crucial moment that he played a MacGyver-worthy ace up his sleeve: an encyclopedic knowledge of 19th century post offices to make the diamonds come to him. He knew that wherever the diamonds were, they would eventually have to reach England by boat, so he simply hid in some bushes with a knife the night the next mail-ship for England was leaving. When it arrived, he cut the rope to the ferry used to load outgoing mail, sending it off to England before the gems could be loaded, thus ensuring the diamonds would have to be deposited in the post office safe.
The next evening, Worth unlocked the door to the Cape Town post office with his custom made key, helped himself to the diamonds (plus all the other treasures from earlier) and skipped town, stopping only once to watch the fountains at the Bellagio before heading off to Australia, $700,000 richer.
"King" Leonidas and the Crime Of the 19th Century
Leonidas knew a thing or two about blueprints. In 1869, he moved to Manhattan and quickly became head of "the most successful gang of professional bank robbers that ever infested the continent" according toThe Gangs of New York, and was responsible during his time for 80 percent of the bank heists in America. The Leslie gang's biggest hit: the Manhattan Savings Institution, which was the real-life equivalence to Uncle Scrooge's money-bin.
Based on a true story.
Leonidas, aka "Western George," spent three years pouring over blueprints, building models and even reconstructing the vault in a warehouse with which to spar. He used spies, got his men jobs in the bank, and even opened safe-deposit accounts so that he could scope the joint personally. His team never met in public, and all wore disguises ranging from fake eyeglasses, mustaches and wigs to-no joking- "Abe Lincoln" outfits. Top to bottom, George's gang was the best in the business until, like Danny Ocean, his dick got in the way.
After a dress rehearsal at a Maine bank went bad, Leonidas was a bit shaken over his gang's first murder. Paranoid that the men he had just spent three years training with would double-cross him (especially since he also just learned the combination to the panties of one of his goon's lady-friends), George resolved to preemptively double-cross the double-crossers in a scheme that only Christopher Nolan could figure out. His new plan: Wait until he figured out the combination to the Manhattan Savings Institution safe, and then postpone the heist so that he could rob it with a new crew that he would assemble and train behind everyone's back. Sound like a dumb idea? Well, it was, which is why George's gang did what Ocean's 11 should have brought themselves to do once their leader became a liability: they offed him. Georgie boy was dead.
How Ocean's 11 should have ended.
Once it was show time on October 27, 1878, George's gang scored a flawless victory thanks to their late-leader's tutelage. They hit the bank from the rear early in the morning when the sounds of footsteps and foreplay would have been expected. With the combination to the safe now in their possession, one man played cleaning-man/lookout with a feather-duster while the others worked their magic on the vault from the inside. The NYPD described it as the "cleanest job" they ever came across, perhaps on account of the crafty tools "of the finest workmanship" Leslie's men left behind.
The gang hauled a cool $3-million from the score--roughly $50-million today. Although "Western George" was simply too stupid to live long enough to bask in its success, the fact that his men were willing to kill their own coach to compete really says something about the teamwork he had shown them. Had the Manhattan Savings Institution job been an Olympic event, his whole team would have won platinum medals.
Thomas Blood Steals (and Ruins) the Crown Jewels of England
After building an impressive name for himself as an Irish assassin-for-hire, Thomas Blood found himself eating a shit sandwich after a botched job. This momentary lull in his career lasted about five seconds, since he quickly left for England to steal the Crown Jewels, which are about as easy to steal as a solid-gold Death Star.
A simple smash and grab job? Hardly. The Jewels were locked safely in the freaking Tower of London, kept in the constant care of Talbot Edwards, the Keeper of the Jewels, and under guard of enough soldiers with which to literally occupy London.
To pull off this insane heist of a national treasure, Blood hatched a brilliant scheme to be personally invited into the fortress with escort through an elaborate show of costumes, pageantry and some Congress-level lying.
He toured the Tower with his "wife" (probably an inexpensive prostitute), and after a refreshing drink and a masterfully faked conversation, Blood returned some days later to offer his non-existent nephew to the Edwards's unmarried daughter. Since Blood included a hefty retainer (which he did not have) to sweeten the deal, the Edwards' called him back to discuss things over dinner. This time Blood brought his "nephew" with him, an armed escort and a burning desire to see the Crown Jewels up close. Mr. Edwards was happy to oblige, unaware that Blood's posse was packing pistols, daggers and those fancy canes with swords inside them.
Yup, these babies.
After the turn of a key and a gentle bop to the Edwards's head, Blood promptly seized the Crown Jewels while his men stood guard. For ease of transport, Blood flattened the Royal Crown with a mallet, sawedthe Royal Scepter in half and shoved the Sovereign's Orb (that little Holy Hand Grenade-thing) unceremoniously down his trousers.
Just try putting that mini-nuke anywhere close to your balls.
The pinch was a stunning success until the Edwards's son treated his parents to a surprise visit. After finding that his mind-tricks didn't work on the boy, Blood decided to make a break for it with guns blasting, leather trench coats flailing and probably a lot of empty shells raining onto the ground in slow-motion. Attempting to escape on horseback, Blood was caught by his cape and was dog-piled by guards, supposedly screaming, "It was a gallant attempt, however unsuccessful!" while clutching the crown. Nobody disagreed with him... not even the King of England (who easily fell for Darth Blood's mind-tricks).
Imagine this guy with Jedi powers. That's Thomas "There Will Be" Blood.
To the shock of the kingdom, King Charles II was so taken by Thomas Blood that he issued him a full pardon and a nice spot of land in Ireland as pension. It is rumored that King Charles was actually the man who hired Blood to steal the gems, but this may just be a pathetic attempt to save face from the fact that Thomas Blood was rewarded for teabagging the Crown Jewels of England.