In September, 2003, an alliance of jewel thieves known as "the School of Turin" succeeded in breaking into what was thought to be an impregnable subterranean vault in a building located in the Diamond District in Antwerp, Belgium, an area of three short streets guarded like a demilitarized zone.
They stole at least 100,000 carats of rough and polished diamonds (one diamond alone was worth $1-million); 33 pounds of pure gold; cash in various currencies totalling at least $1.5-million; more than two dozen premium watches from designers such as Rolex, Omega and Bulgari, valued in the hundreds of thousands; and millions worth of securities, rare coins and jewellery. The total take has been estimated at half a billion dollars, with only a fraction of it recovered.
Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History details a real-life caper that brings to mind legendary heist films like Stanley Kubrick's The Killing and Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven. The authors - lawyer and diamond expert Scott Andrew Selby and journalist Greg Campbell, whose previous book, Blood Diamonds, documented the link among Third World war zones, international terrorists and diamonds - is a detailed reconstruction of a crime that follows a standard pattern: an inventive, seemingly foolproof plan, an elegant execution and a few careless mistakes that make the scheme unravel.
The book focuses on Leonardo Notarbartolo, a skilled con-man (blessed with the ability to be both charming and forgettable) and part-time jewellery designer. He rented an office in Antwerp's Diamond Center and spent two years systematically gathering intelligence that a group of specialists in the Italian city of Turin - experts in lock-picking, electronics and alarm systems, and laundering stolen goods - would analyze on their way to collectively devising the plan. A strength - and occasional weakness - of the book is the way the authors show the painstakingly time-consuming, step-by-step way a real crime unfolds.
Yes, the plan was complex, but many of the details were simple testaments to human ingenuity. How to disable a motion detector? (A film of hair spray.) A light sensor? (Black electrical tape.) A heat detector? (Styrofoam.) Reinforced safety deposit boxes? (A homemade corkscrew-like device.) When to commit the crime? (On a day when distractions included a local diamond industry figure's wedding - many who might otherwise be working late in the building would be at the event - and a tennis tournament featuring U.S. star Venus Williams.)
But just as the genius of the plan can be credited to simplicity, so can its undoing be traced to the simplest of dumb mistakes. Garbage was dumped in a wooded area near the Antwerp airport that turned out to be a wildlife and nature preserve obsessively patrolled by an elderly amateur conservationist. The contents of the garbage helped police identify a number of the gang members, including Notarbartolo.
And Notarbartolo, apparently blinded by hubris, returned to the scene of the crime even though the media was filled with reports of the daring robbery and the police had launched a massive investigation.
In the end, Notarbartolo and three accomplices were arrested, tried and jailed. But other members of the gang were never found and the majority of the loot remains unrecovered. Selby and Campbell suggest that the currency could have been laundered through legitimate businesses; the precious metals melted down, making them unidentifiable; and the jewellery disassembled and the gemstones fenced separately.
The greatest irony is that the diamonds probably found their way back through the Diamond District in Antwerp. (With billions of dollars' worth of diamonds going through the offices and factories each year, it would be hard to identify the stolen ones, especially if they had been infinitesimally shaved to change their appearance.)
Although Flawless is a page-turner, the authors were hampered by limited co-operation from the gang members. While they did speak to a couple of those in jail, Notarbartolo refused unless they could improve on what he claimed was a six-figure offer from a Hollywood production company. So, since public disclosure is not a characteristic of the Belgian justice system, the authors often rely on speculation ("since he was by far the most muscular of the men, Finotto was the likely choice …"; "no one but the thieves themselves know for sure …").
Still, under the circumstances, the sheer massed detail gathered from multiple sources is impressive. The best twist comes late in the book. As Notarbartolo neared the end of his six-year sentence, he gave Wired magazine's Joshua Davis an exclusive interview which, the authors learn, "satisfied his commercial needs." (Partly through a movie deal signed with J. J. Abrams, who directed Mission: Impossible III and Star Trek.) In case anyone needs convincing that a good yarn can trump journalistic values, the Wired story, which ran in the April, 2009, issue, provided a soapbox for Notarbartolo to spin a version of events that Selby and Campbell tear apart with barely restrained glee.
Among Notarbartolo's claims are grand conspiracies and the smallest of eccentric details. He says the plot was concocted by Jewish diamond merchants to rip off their insurance companies, and that he and his accomplices were double-crossed, a theory for which not a shred of evidence exists.
And he says that the entire heist, in which he admits he took part, was done in the dark even though his accomplices refute this and the authorities who discovered the robbery found all the lights on. (The authors speculate that Notarbartolo wanted to set up a source of income for after he was released and would be profiting from the proceeds of his crime by trying to paint a picture that Hollywood couldn't resist.)
Alas, Wired's fact-checking department seems to have been as weak as the security systems guarding the Diamond Center's vault - or the rehabilitative effects of prison on a con-man's soul.
David Hayes is a Toronto journalist and author. He is ghost-writing a book for a Hong Kong businessman on China-U.S. relations.