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Sunday 21 September 2014

Where are they now? Mystery of €100m worth of diamonds that vanished in seconds on Riviera

Colin Freeman

Published 11/08/2013 | 12:40

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A man posing as 'Oleg from Kazakhstan' allegedly stole jewellery worth 500,000 pounds from Petra Ecclestone's mansion during a viewing
A man posing as 'Oleg from Kazakhstan' allegedly stole jewellery worth £500,000 from Petra Ecclestone's mansion during a viewing

If the emails flooding into John Shaw’s inbox are to be believed, there are plenty of people who know the whereabouts of the £90m (€105m) worth of jewellery stolen from the five-star Carlton Hotel in Cannes a fortnight ago.

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A loss adjuster contracted to Lloyds of London, Mr Shaw is overseeing their million-euro reward for anyone who can offer information that leads to the culprits, and since publishing an advert in the International Herald Tribune on Wednesday, he has been getting “hundreds of emails”.

“About two-thirds are from fantasists, about a third vaguely credible, and possibly a handful have information that warrants further inquiry,” says the 56-year-old Scotsman, who runs the Paris-based loss adjuster firm, SW Associates.

An ex-Paratrooper, he started his loss adjuster career 30 years ago, investigating bogus burglary claims in Glasgow’s tough Gorbals district, but now specialises in high-end jewellery claims. “It’s a time-consuming process, and we have to find out what they know, while making it clear that nobody will get any money until the goods are produced.”

In recent weeks, it seems, quite a lot of new “goods” have come on the market, most of them courtesy of heists that even a movie script writer might find fanciful. The Cannes robbery, which targeted an exhibition being put on by the London-based billionaire, Lev Leviev, was the biggest ever jewel snatch carried out in France. Yet it was done in the space of a single minute after an armed robber walked in off the street and encountered just three private security men, rather than the usual phalanxes of armed French police.

And if that operation was a real-life version of Gone in 60 Seconds, a sting in London on Formula 1 heiress Petra Ecclestone appears to have been inspired by Borat, the fake Kazakh television reporter.

Last week, it emerged that a conman pretending to be a “Kazakh millionaire” made off nearly £500,000 worth of Ms Ecclestone’s jewellery after posing as a would-be buyer for her £32 million Belgravia home. The man, who arrived in a chauffeur-driven Bentley, apparently spoke with such a cod East European accent that some of his other victims, who include a string of wealthy home owners across Surrey, have told police that he reminded them of Sacha Baron Cohen’s comic character.

Suspicion for the thefts has once again focused on the so-called “Pink Panthers”, the elite gang of Balkan jewel thieves whom Interpol hold responsible for around 100 high-level jewel robberies since 1999, many of them on the French Riviera and in London. The group, whose tactics have included donning wigs to raid Harry Winston’s jewellers in Paris, using a speedboat to escape a heist in St Tropez, and gassing shop assistants in Tokyo, are now the subject of a British-made documentary film, Smash and Grab, which will open in cinemas next month.

Yet while much is now known about the gang’ spectacular methods, some of which appear to have inspired other heist movies, one key aspect of their trade remains largely a mystery. What, exactly, happens to the “goods” afterwards?

Do they end up alongside stolen Picassos in the private collections of supervillains? “Only in 1970s James Bond films”, scoffs Mr Shaw.

Do they end up dangling from the tattooed limbs of nouveau-riche Moscow “businessmen” and their molls? “Sometimes,” he says, though not as much as before the economic crash of 2008.

Or, strangest perhaps of all, might they end up adorning the rings, wristwatches and necklaces of well-heeled, but law-abiding members of the public? The latter, surprisingly, is a possibility, according to many diamond dealers, given the growing ease with which stolen diamonds can be recut, recertificated and sold back onto the legitimate market.

“The Ecclestone diamonds will probably be out of the country already, and will not be the diamonds they used to be any more,” says Vashi Dominguez, the Tenerife-born founder of Diamond Manufacturers, a dealership based in London’s Hatton Garden.

“The robbers usually have some contacts with disreputable members of the diamond trade, and the first thing those traders will do is get a cutter to change both the size and shape of the stones, which takes only two or three days. Most diamonds these days have a minute serial number inscribed on them for identification purposes, but what people don’t realise is that that can easily be removed. Then, unfortunately, there is no way that any expert can trace the new stone, and it can just make its way back onto the market.”

Hence it is that while diamonds may still be a girl’s best friend, they are also a villain’s too, easily disguised and infinitely portable. While £100 million in bank notes or gold bullion takes up several holdalls, the same amount in diamonds can fit in a small bag, making it easy to transit through airports.

In a world full of fake bling, few customs staff can recognise the real thing anyway, especially if, as often happens, they are first reset in cheap rings and necklaces, and then distributed among several different “mules” for transit. And while gold prices have dropped in recent years, diamond prices have more than doubled, making them the ideal investment for those who don’t trust banks.

Nevertheless, “cleaning” a stolen stone still requires considerable expertise. These days, all diamonds of any real value – say £10,000 or above – are routinely “certified” by experts, partly to combat theft and partly to stem the trade in “blood diamonds” that fuelled wars in West Africa in the 1990s. Each stone is evaluated according to the “International Diamond Grading System,” which records the “four C’s” – colour, clarity, cut and carat weight. In addition, the 12-digit serial number – likened to a tattoo – will be inscribed by laser around the diamond’s “girdle”, or outer edge.

However, the same technology that is used to inscribe the serial number can also be used to erase it, and in the 21st century, that technology is far more available.

“There was a time when only big companies could afford it, but now it’s available to small dealers,” said Mr Dominguez. “In half an hour, you can remove the number. You could inscribe 'you’ll never find me!’ on it if you wanted.”

The jewellery pieces stolen in the Cannes robbery, which include two diamond encrusted rings and an Art Deco-style emerald and diamond necklace, will probably now be undergoing that procedure. But rather than being sold intact and recognisable, they may also be cannibalised for their constituent diamonds, which in turn may be cut into smaller, wedding-ring sized pieces to disguise them further.

Who exactly does the illegally cutting, nobody knows. Or, at least, nobody says they know. The diamond trade is a close-knit, family-dominated profession, where reputation is everything, and for its professional cutters, that is all the more so. Master cutters enjoy near-celebrity status, their skills hugely in demand from monarchs and movie stars to fashion rough stones into priceless gems. As such, “very few of them need to take backhanders,” says Mr Shaw.

However, reshaping an already hewn and polished gem is rather easier, and can be managed by anyone with basic cutting skills and a backstreet workshop, according to Mr Dominguez. The Pink Panthers are believed to have developed such contacts in Antwerp, Europe’s main diamond market, where traders are feeling increasing competition from India these days.

A dilemma, though, comes with gems such as the huge heart-shaped diamond pendant that was also part of last week’s Cannes robbery. A diamond’s value is directly proportional to its size, and splitting into pieces will reduce its value by up to 70pc. The temptation, therefore, may to be simply recut it rather than breaking it up, but the relative lack of disguise will require buyers who do not ask too many questions.

This, though, is where the trail goes very cold, and most experts volunteer different opinions as to where “hot” gems end up.

Mr Dominguez, who, like many London dealers, has been approached a few times by “fences”, points to Dubai, which, he says is “full of crooks these days”. Mr Shaw says some of his case work points to French-speaking Algeria, where the Arab fondness for jewellery and colonial ties to France make it a conduit for goods stolen on the Riviera.

Meanwhile, Yan Glassey, a Swiss detective who is an expert on jewel thefts, and who appears in Smash and Grab with a stuffed Pink Panther hanging from a noose in his office, believes illicit clients exist in every wealthy European country, as well as Russia.

Finally, the one man who might really know has a different story yet again. “Mr Green”, an ex-Serb soldier who fences the Pink Panther’s swag, tells the film makers: “My biggest clients were Americans... I also received information though, that al-Qaeda also purchased diamonds.”

In recent times, only one major stolen gem is known to been recovered, thanks to the Gemological Institute of America, a non-profit institute that created the “four-Cs” grading system back in the 1950s, and which certifies around two million diamonds annually. The GIA, as it is known, is in effect the “CIA” of the diamond world, and the experts who man its vast database field dozens of queries from detectives around the world every week.

A few years ago, while examining a batch of 17 diamonds that had made its way from Europe to Israel to a US buyer, the GIA discovered that they matched records of a batch stolen by the Panthers from the Graff jewellers in New Bond Street in 2003. The biggest jewel raid ever in Britain, it also gave birth to the gang’s nickname, after detectives searched a suspect’s home and found a diamond hidden in a jar of face cream – a tactic used in the original Pink Panther film starring Peter Sellers. Those caught in the Graff raid were later jailed. But under the GIA’s confidentiality rules, all it will say about the vendor of the stolen diamonds is that they reached a “private settlement” with the buyer.

Would Mr Shaw be willing to come to a similar amicable arrangement with those who now have the Cannes heist diamonds, were they to reply to the Herald Tribune advert? His efforts to recover his clients’ property have occasionally brought him in touch with those with “contacts” in the criminal world, from couriers to casino bosses. And in 2008, his firm recovered more than half the stolen pieces from a £75-million heist from the Harry Winston store in Paris, again having offered a reward.

But he always works strictly in tandem with the police, and will never offer any bounty unless they sanction it first. Besides, he suspects the Cannes robbers may have bitten off more than they can chew.

“I think they are probably a couple of local lads who are bricking themselves right now, not knowing what to do,” he says. “It will also be very hard for them to find a buyer for that big gem stone, because it will be red hot.”

Telegraph.co.uk

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