5 of the Most Audacious Historical Heists | History Hit

5 of the Most Audacious Historical Heists

Amy Irvine

21 Jun 2021
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An empty frame remains at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum where 'The Storm on the Sea of Galilee' was once displayed - the only known seascape by Rembrandt. (Picture provided by the FBI after the theft).
Image Credit: Federal Bureau of Investigation / Public Domain

Throughout history there have been many large-scale and audacious heists, and it’s not just money that has been the target – other items include cheese, art, precious jewels and even people. Whilst varying in style and profitability, there’s something about a heist that captures our imagination as we live vicariously through such daring escapades, even though most of us would never dream of doing something similar ourselves.

There are numerous historical hesits we could mention, but here are 5 of some of the most audacious.

1. Alexander the Great’s body (321 BC)

In little over 10 years, Alexander the Great’s campaigning won the ancient Greeks an empire stretching 3,000 miles from the Adriatic to the Punjab. But while he later spent time in modern day Iraq in the city of Babylon, Alexander died suddenly.

Whilst several theories surround his death, there’s a lack of reliable evidence on what really happened, but many sources agree he died on 10 or 11 June 323 BC.

Following his death, Alexander’s body was seized by Ptolemy and taken to Egypt in 321 BC, and eventually placed in Alexandria. Although his tomb remained a central site of Alexandria for centuries, all literary records of his tomb vanish at the end of the 4th century AD.

Mystery now surrounds what happened to Alexander’s tomb – the Tomb (or what remains of it) is still believed to be somewhere under modern day Alexandria, though a few outlying theories believe it’s elsewhere.

In late 321 BC, a carefully-constructed plot was put into operation that would spark years of bloody conflict between rival warlords. The target of the operation was Alexander the Great’s elaborate funeral carriage and the conqueror’s talismanic corpse housed within.
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2. Thomas Blood’s attempt to steal the Crown Jewels (1671)

Borne from his discontent with the Restoration settlement, Colonel Thomas Blood enlisted an actress as his ‘wife’ and visited the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London. Blood’s ‘wife’ feigned illness and was invited by Talbot Edwards (Deputy Keeper of the Jewels) to his apartment to recover. Befriending them, Blood later suggested his son marry their (already engaged) daughter Elizabeth.

On 9 May 1671 Blood arrived with his son (and some friends concealing blades and pistols) for the meeting. Asking to view the Jewels again, Blood then bound and stabbed Edwards and looted the Crown Jewels. Edwards’ son unexpectedly returned from military duties and chased Blood, who then ran into to Elizabeth’s fiancé, and was apprehended.

Blood insisted on being questioned by King Charles II – confessing his crimes, including plots to kill the King, but claimed he’d changed his mind. Strangely, Blood was pardoned and given lands in Ireland.

On 9 May 1671, Thomas Blood led his co-conspirators in a daring bid to steal the crown jewels from the Tower of London. Through a combination of trickery, guile and violence he was able to make off with Charles II's crown and some of the most important treasures in the kingdom. To help tell this astonishing tale, Sebastian Edwards, Deputy chief curator at Tower of London joins the podcast to explain how Blood nearly got away with the greatest heist of the 17th century.
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3. The theft of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1911)

Italian patriot Vincenzo Peruggia believed the Mona Lisa should be returned to Italy. Working as an odd-job man at the Louvre, on 21 August 1911 Peruggia removed the painting from its frame, hiding it under his clothes.

A locked door blocked his escape but Peruggia removed the doorknob, then complained it was missing to a passing worker who used pliers to let him out.

The theft was only noticed 26 hours later. The Louvre closed immediately and a large reward was offered, becoming a media sensation. 2 years later Peruggia attempted to sell the painting to the Uffizi gallery, Florence. He was persuaded to leave it for examination, then arrested later that day.

The Mona Lisa in the Uffizi Gallery, in Florence, 1913. Museum director Giovanni Poggi (right) inspects the painting.

Image Credit: The Telegraph, 1913 / Public Domain.

4. Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist (1990)

In 1990, while the city of Boston in America celebrated St. Patrick’s day, 2 thieves dressed as policemen entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum pretending they were responding to a disturbance call.

They spent an hour ransacking the museum before stealing 13 works of art with an estimated value of half a billion dollars – the most valuable theft of private property ever. Among the pieces were a Rembrandt, Manet, several Degas drawings and one of the 34 known Vermeer’s in the world.

Nobody was ever arrested, and not one of the pieces has ever been recovered. The empty frames still hang in place, in the hope the works will one day be returned.

An empty frame remains at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum after the 1990 theft.

Image Credit: Miguel Hermoso Cuesta / CC

5. Saddam Hussein’s heist from the Central Bank of Iraq (2003)

One of the largest single bank heists of all time was committed the day before the Coalition invaded Iraq in 2003. Saddam Hussein sent his son, Qusay, to the Central Bank of Iraq on 18 March with a handwritten note to withdraw all the cash in the bank. The note allegedly simply insisted that the extraordinary measure was necessary to prevent the money from falling into foreign hands.

Qusay and Amid al-Hamid Mahmood, the former president’s personal assistant, then removed about $1 billion (£810 million) – $900m in $100 dollar bills secured with stamped seals (known as security money) and a further $100m in Euros in strongboxes during the 5 hour operation. 3 tractor-trailers were required to carry it all.

Approximately $650 million (£525 million) was found later by US troops hidden in the walls of one of Saddam’s palaces. Although both of Saddam’s sons were killed and Saddam was captured and executed, more than one third of the money was never recovered.

The Central Bank of Iraq, guarded by U.S. Army soldiers, on 2 June 2003.

Image Credit: Thomas Hartwell / Public Domain

Amy Irvine

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