London – A gang pulled off one of the most audacious heists in British history by swapping £4 million (about R86 million) of diamonds for pebbles under the nose of a leading jeweller.
As one astonished detective put it, the £4.2million raid was like the plot of an Ocean’s Eleven film.
Posing as millionaire Russian businessmen, a gang of French gem thieves flew to Monaco to dupe the chairman of luxury jeweller Boodles into believing that they wanted to buy seven huge diamonds, including a heart-shaped jewel worth £2.2 million.
But when the chairman Nicholas Wainwright – whose family have run the jewellers for six generations – agreed to let the gang’s “diamond expert” visit its flagship New Bond Street store in London to inspect the gems, she swapped them for pebbles using sleight of hand.
Within three hours, the six thieves had left the UK with the diamonds, which have never been seen again.
Details of the heist, said to be the largest-value single incident of shoplifting in British criminal history, emerged yesterday as one of the thieves was jailed for three years and eight months for conspiracy to steal.
It took Scotland Yard four years to find Mickael Jovanovic, 27, after the raid on March 10, 2016.
Southwark Crown Court heard that Mr Wainwright met two men posing as Russian investors in Monaco on March 2, 2016. A deal was struck to buy seven diamonds as long as the gang’s own gemmologist could inspect them first.
A week later, the thieves entered the UK through the Channel Tunnel in a rented Citroen DS4 hatchback, staying at budget hotels in Ilford and Cricklewood and checking out their New Bond Street target.
The next day, making sure they were not followed, the gang arrived at Boodles at 11am. A woman pretending to be an expert gemmologist was greeted by Mr Wainwright and escorted to the basement to inspect the jewels.
Known only as Anna, she chatted to him in French as she weighed the jewels before wrapping each in tissue paper and placing them in opaque boxes she had with her.
The jewels included a 20-carat heart shape diamond valued at £2.2million, a three-carat pear shape fancy intense purple pink diamond worth £1.1million, and a six-carat Ashoka cut diamond worth £335,127.
When the examination was over, the boxes were placed into a zipped purse bag which was then padlocked shut while Boodles’ own gemmologist Emma Barton was watching.
But Anna performed a swap with an identical bag full of pebbles in a split second when her fake Russian buyer ‘Alexander’ phoned Mr Wainwright to ask about the examination.
Philip Stott, prosecuting, said: ‘Anna placed the locked bag inside her handbag. Emma Barton told Anna she couldn’t do that and told her to put it back on the table. Anna looked confused and did as she was told. Unseen by Emma Barton however, Anna placed a duplicate bag back on the table.’
Miss Barton alerted Mr Wainwright who asked Anna if he could check her handbag as a precaution before she left.
But Mr Scott said: ‘Mr Wainwright reassured himself that the bag was relatively empty with nothing unusual in it.’
At 12pm Anna left with the diamonds, while the bag of pebbles was put in the shop’s safe. Outside, Anna transferred the jewels to another woman gang member before they split up. Anna changed her clothes at a Wetherspoons pub by Victoria station before going to St Pancras for the train to France.
One of her associates drove to Ilford and was seen placing a mystery item in a drain.
Boodles did not discover the switch until payment for the gems failed to materialise later and the bag was X-rayed.
Within months the gang’s driver was caught and jailed but the others remained at large until Jovanovic, a French national living in Paris, turned up in Italy earlier this year.
Detective Constable William Man, of the Flying Squad, said: ‘While it has taken four years, this case highlights that we won’t give up.’