4 of the Pettiest Heists in History
Heists are theft. Theft is a crime. Crime is bad. That’s the government line. Morality aside, though, it’s genuinely impossible to argue that heists aren’t possibly the coolest group activity anyone can ever participate in. There’s a reason they’ve carried the plot of multiple blockbuster movies. If you’re someone who genuinely doesn’t find them interesting, I wonder where in the world you are finding the joy that keeps you moving forward through life.
The only thing that could make a heist even more gripping? A little interpersonal drama, baby. The dirty excitement of watching a public argument unfold, combined with the possibility of lasers and someone crawling through vents? That’s undeniable edge-of-your-seat material. Of course, it’s hard to argue that “vast riches” don’t at least have their finger on the scale inspiring the act, but still, it’s a juicy combo.
Here are four instances of (emotionally) petty theft…
United California Bank Heist
Point Break mask model and all around piece of shit Richard Nixon is a pretty unpopular guy for plenty of reasons. “You hate Richard Nixon? Why?” is not a common refrain. It’s been a pretty understandable opinion for a good long time, and included one man with a particular set of skills: Harry Barber, a gang member and professional thief with an ax to grind when it came to Dirty Dick.
He’d heard that Nixon had a nasty little nest egg to the tune of $30 million stashed away in the United California Bank of Laguna Niguel, California. This money had a particular earmark as well: It was purportedly a bribe from famous missing corpse Jimmy Hoffa in search of a presidential pardon. The payday definitely had its allure, but the victim played a part. Barber recounts, “He was not one of our favorite people to begin with. We were told that Nixon was hiding some money. So we figured, he couldn’t cry to nobody. Who’s he going to cry to? He stole it himself!”
They gained access to the bank after closing on Friday, disabling the alarms and entering through a hole in the ceiling opened with dynamite. Not the sort of deft-handed infiltration I usually associate with a heist, but I guess it’s just a very loud sort of Occam’s Razor solution. The weekend was then spent leisurely removing massive amounts of cash from the vault. They ended up with about $14 million, by Barber’s estimation, and although some suggest it wasn’t actually Nixon’s money, he points to the response as proof, saying, “Usually, when somebody robs a bank, they send four or five FBI agents. This man sent 125. So you know he was pissed!”
The Whitworth Art Museum Heist
There is one heist, however, that we can definitively say wasn’t done for monetary gain. These are, understandably, few and far between, given that the risk-reward proposition of a heist skews pretty heavily to one side of the scale with the reward removed. Nevertheless, that was the exact undertaking some still uncaught perpetrators decided to pursue in 2003. Their target was the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, a plenty suitable target given the Van Goghs and Picassos within.
On Monday, April 28th, the museum was suddenly and notably without three artworks that had been there only shortly before. Prominent gaps stood where, previously, you could have seen The Fortifications of Paris with Houses (The Ramparts of Paris) by Vincent Van Gogh, Tahitian Landscape by Paul Gauguin and Poverty (Les Miserables) by Pablo Picasso. No clarification of motive needed here: The paintings were worth roughly four million pounds in total.
So far, it’s interesting, but not particularly notable in the realm of art theft. The fascination here comes not with the act, but with its conclusion, which occurred minutes after the discovery of the crime. Not because of any heroic police actions or miracles of deductions, but because of an anonymous tip leading to a nearby public bathroom, where a cardboard tube contained all three purloined paintings. Along with them was a note that read simply, “The intention was not to steal. Only to highlight the woeful security.”
The Theft of the Mona Lisa
The Mona Lisa might be the most famous piece of art in the world. Perhaps the only reason it’s not a common target, outside of the obvious and extensive security measures, is the fact that it would be a historical bitch to try to unload. Even the greediest fence wouldn’t want the most famous painting in the world geographically near them, much less in their possession.
Despite all that, the famously blasé lady in black has been nabbed before. In 1911, a man named Vincenzo Peruggia, who had previously been a handyman at the Louvre, successfully stole the masterpiece in a less than artistic manner. He walked in wearing his old uniform, waited until no one was around and then just took it. He pulled it off the wall, wrapped it in a smock and left with one more painting than he’d come in with.
You’d think, even then, security at the Louvre would at least be tight enough that a guy walking out the front door with a painting-sized package would be stopped, but apparently not. His questionable method resulted in complete success, at least until he tried to sell it two years later, when he was promptly arrested. His reasoning? We won’t pretend money had nothing to do with it, but he also claimed it was revenge for the painting being unrightfully stolen from Italy by Napoleon’s troops. This was not correct. The painting was gifted to France in 1516, making them the innocent, rightful owners. Still, it’s the thought that counts, right?
Rapper Chain Back-and-Forth
A modern, common subset of heists deeply connected to ego and rivalry exists today in the rap world. In a business where jewelry, especially custom jewelry, is not only a display of success but a signature piece of the artists’ appearance, stolen chains are a profitable personal affront. Given that hanging basically a full bank account around your neck in public amounts to a dare in an incredibly macho industry, it’s a challenge that’s often answered, and shows no sign of slowing down.
Eli Yudin is a stand-up comedian in Brooklyn. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @eliyudin and listen to his podcast, What A Time to Be Alive, about the five weirdest news stories of the week, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever else you get your podcasts.