The five greatest gold robberies
Gold has captured the imaginations of crime writers and film makers for years, but sometimes there are gold heists that you just can’t make up.
Thefts involving the world’s most precious metal always make headlines. Some aren’t even that daring, but it is the thought that something pirates, invaders, highway men and bandits used to risk their lives to steal, is still the ultimate loot. In newspaper reports there is always an underlying sense of admiration for the sheer brazenness of the robbers and some incredulity at what they may or may not have pulled off.
‘Hang on lads I’ve got a great idea,’ must feature in every gold robbery that ever took place. Do they all end in a van balanced in precarious positions? Not in this list, no. But some do end up in far worse situations, whilst others disappear into thin air. We look at our five top gold robberies of all time and enjoy the thrill of learning how some meticulously planned their heist, whilst others merely stumbled upon a pot of gold.
The Great Gold Robbery
Quite possibly the most famous of all the gold robberies, this notorious Victorian crime took place on the 15th of May 1855 when 91 kgs of gold was stolen from Abell and Co., Spielmann, and Bult.
The three firms had placed the precious cargo, containing gold bars and coins, on a South Eastern Railway Company train at London Bridge before heading to Boulogne in France.
The three boxes of gold were then estimated to be worth £12,000, which is around £2.3 million at the current market price.
Due to a great spate of train robberies at the time, security was tight. Not only were the boxes checked and sealed before leaving London Bridge, by the carrier company Chaplin & Co., but they were secured with iron bars.
Two different keys were needed to open the boxes. The keys were kept apart, by trusted employees of the railway.
“The safe keys were entrusted to railway staff in London and Folkestone and also to the captain of the cross-channel steamer. It was the practice to load the safes with the guard on the night train from London to Folkestone”. British Transport Police
Once the boxes were sealed and re-weighed they travelled from London Bridge to Folkstone, under armed guard. At Folkstone they were placed onto the Lord Warden steamship to France.
They were weighed once again in Boulogne, France where it was noted that Abell’s box of Australian gold weighed 40 pounds less than was recorded in London, whilst Bult’s box of Californian gold weighed slightly more and the Spielmann’s box considerably more so. Nevertheless, all three boxes were sent onto Paris, where the combined weights matched with those recorded in Boulogne, meaning a robbery must have taken place between London and Boulogne.
When Bult’s box was opened in Paris on the 16th May, the clerk Pierre F. Heznard discovered ‘sixteen bags of lead shot and thirteen remaining gold ingots.’
When Abell’s box of supposed Australian gold was opened the recipient, the bank Pockar, Dufont and Co, found the gold had been replaced in its entirety by lead shot.
No damage had been caused to the boxes, they had been opened with keys, yet none were reported missing. Because of the weight of the boxes had changed between London and Boulogne, it was down to the British police to investigate.
Hundreds of suspects were interviewed. However, four were eventually charged.
Edward Agar is the criminal most oft cited as the mastermind behind the heist, a forgerer he originally met William Pierce (a ticket printer) several years before the robbery and discussed stealing the gold transported between London and Paris. Two further accomplices were later recruited: James Burgess, the train guard, and Williams Tester, the Margate stationmaster.
Agar was also assisted by James Townsend Saward, a crooked criminal barrister who assisted him in getting rid of the gold.
How did the criminals access the safes? Quite simply by sneakily making wax impressions of the keys during two separate incidents, one of which being when Agar pretended to be receiving delivery of a box of bullion.
They prepared for the robbery by stocking up on bags of lead shot and hiding them at London Bridge station under cloaks, in specially made carpet and leather bags. Enough shot was stored that would weigh the equivalent to £12,000 of gold.
On the night of the robbery Agar and Pierce were tipped off by Burgess and Tester. The former two bought first-class tickets to Folkestone. Upon entering the train they handed their luggage (lead-filled bags) to the porter (Burgess) who then stored them in his van.
Pierce remained in the carriage, whilst Agar quietly slipped into Burgess’ van. Here he began to work on the first box by using the keys to open the safe and a mallet to knock off the iron bars. By the time the train arrived at Redhill he had emptied the first box. Here, Tester was waiting for the train and took the gold from Agar, who had replaced the gold in this first box with lead shot.
On the journey between Redhill and Folkestone, Pierce joined Agar in Burgess’ van to help with the remaining two boxes. Once both were open it was clear they had not brought enough lead shot, hence the discrepancy in the weights once they arrived in France.
Pierce and Agar disembarked from the train at Folkestone, taking the carpet and leather bags with them. Leaving Burgess on the train to carry on his duties as porter.
The four later met at Agar’s house in West London where a furnace was built and the next three days spent melting the gold down.
The Brinks Mat gold heist
This gold heist is the most famous in the modern day era, not only for the amount of gold that was stolen but also the almost Guy Ritchie-esque carry-on that followed in the months and years following the robbery.
The heist was so famous that even thirty years on newspapers acknowledged the event and comment on what a bizarre set of circumstances it occurred in.
A balaclava wearing gang of six broke into the Brinks Mat warehouse at London Heathrow. One of the gang was wearing yellow balaclava topped off with a trilby.
The gang had been tipped off by a security guard that there would be £3m in cash in the vault.
The six men, led by Brian Robinson and Micky McAvoy, had received this (incorrect) inside information and access to the warehouse from security guard (and Robinson’s brother-in-law) Anthony Black.
The men rounded up the security staff and tied them up before pouring petrol on them. Threatening to set them alight if they did not provide access to the vaults, it was not long before the two most senior security guards were identified. Between these two individuals the gang were able to obtain the keys and combination numbers for the vault.
However, they were surprised to find that there was no £3m of cash. Instead, when they opened the door to find 76 boxes of gold bullion, containing 6,800 bars of gold, weighing 3 tonnes, as well as cash and uncut diamonds, with a total market value of £25m. The gold was marked for delivery to the Far East.
As they delighted in their good fortune, the gang used a forklift truck to move the gold into the van (originally expected to just transport paper) which then drove out into the night with its bottom scraping along the ground.
The heist had been easy however it was the aftermath that proved bloody and not quite the gilded happy ended that had been hoped for.
Wensley Clarkson, author of The Curse of the Brinks Mat Robbery – Twenty Five Years On’ compares the misfortunes of the gang of six following the robbery to that of Howard Carter and his team after the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb, who were said to be cursed.
20 people are thought to have died as a result of the robbery, each death due to greed and anger. One of the most famous deaths was that of Great Train Robber Charlie Wilson. Wilson had been hired to launder some of the Brinks Mat proceeds, but turned out to be quite bad at this and lost the gang £3 million. In 1990 he and his husky dog were shot dead at their front door, by a young man riding a yellow bicycle.
Even before the robbery began it was affected by stupidity and general misbehaviour of the gang, for example Black (the key to the robbery taking place) overslept by ten minutes.
It wasn’t hard for the police to identify Black as the inside man. He, in turn, dutifully identified Robinson and McAvoy (who then head butted him when he identified them in the police line-up). However, it wasn’t as though either of them weren’t pushing to be caught.
Incredulously, the robbers were brazen in their delight at what they had pulled off. Both McAvoy and Robinson spent much of the proceeds from the robbery on properties in Kent, South East England. McAvoy’s two Rottweiler guard dogs were reportedly named ‘Brinks’ and ‘Mat’.
Did they catch the culprits? Only Robinson and McAvoy were jailed for their role in the robbery, both receiving 25 years each.
Of course the problem with stealing 6,800 gold bars all marked by the refiners, is trying to melt it down without raising alarm bells. It is estimated that £10m worth (of the original haul) was never found whilst around £13m worth of the gold was smelted down and sold on the open market.
Two days following the robbery, a couple notified the police of a white hot crucible being operated in a neighbour’s shed. Connecting it with the recent Brinks Mat robbery they reported it. However, when the police arrived they claimed that the neighbour’s garden was outside of their jurisdiction and so it would be reported to the relevant force. There were no statements taken. It wasn’t until 14 months later when the premises were raided did police arrest and charge Brian Palmer (a local jeweller and bullion dealer) for his involvement with the Brinks Mat gold. However, he was never sentenced, claiming ignorance about the origin of the gold.
Prior to be sentenced, McAvoy entrusted his gold to Kenneth Noye, an expert at ’disposing’ of gold. He used a Bristol-based company where the gold was mixed with copper and brass to look like scrap gold and penny coins. It is estimated that £13m of gold was ‘laundered’ in this way, it wasn’t until the amount of money passing through a local bank grabbed the attention of the Bank of England that suspicions were aroused.
Just a month after the robbery ten bullion bars were recovered by Italian police at a hotel in Vienna. The bars bore refiners marks and numbers to match that of some stolen from the Brinks Mat warehouse. However, when melted down the bars were filled with tungsten, meaning they could not be the Johnson Matthey bars stolen during the robbery. Instead, the ten men arrested in Vienna had been hoping to pass off the fakes as that same gold stolen from Heathrow.
McAvoy tried to reduce his sentence by offering to pay back some of the stolen money. However, it had all gone and in January 1995 he was ordered by the High Court to pay the sum of £27,488,299, making him solely responsible for the sums stolen in the robbery, and bankrupt.
The Summer Bliss robbery
On the 30th of November 2012 robbers disguised as police officers, boarded the Summer Bliss in Curacao and made off with 70 gold bars, weighing around 216 kgs and estimated to be worth $11.5m.
The conspicuous fishing boat named Summer Bliss was manned with an unarmed crew of four. Six robbers boarded the boat, convincing the crew that they were customs officials. It was this ruse that allowed them to be granted entry a secure section of the boat where the gold was stored. After assaulting the captain the robbers made off with the loot.
Three cars were used to transport the gold from the boat, but to where is something that stumped police. At the time of writing 56 of the 70 gold bars had been seized by police. A further 11 were found by customs officials in Puerto Rico in January 2013.
The gold was thought to have come from neighbouring Suriname and Guyana, where 650,000oz per year is mined. In order to avoid taxes and any royalty payment, half of the mined gold is often smuggled out of the country. The Summer Bliss gold was almost certainly gold being smuggled on account of the fact most of the gold shipped from Guyana is transported by air under tight security. Unsurprisingly the intended recipient of the gold has never come forward.
It is unclear whether or not the six men originally arrested following the robbery, were ever formally charged or found guilty of the robbery.
From virtual gold to real gold to no gold
In this day and age it can be difficult to distinguish between what is ‘real’ and what isn’t. But to get the best of both worlds, some people choose to harvest the assets in the virtual world and then convert them to something a little more tangible.
Many will be thinking of the various platforms that are currently popping up allowing you to convert your bitcoin (other crypto-currencies are available) to gold. But actually there was something in existence much before this, thanks to the infamous World of Warcraft.
Katrina Fincham, an avid World of Warcraft gamer, made $75,000 by performing ‘mundane tasks’ and then selling the result of these efforts for real-world cash. One of those tasks was ‘farming’ gold.
The full-time nurse was working extra hours ‘farming gold’ and in return was making up to $700 a day in cash (she refused to take cheques and bank transfers). With apparently ‘piles’ of cash building up around the house she decided to use $75,000 of her hard-earned money on gold bullion.
However, when she went on holiday with her boyfriend, her house was robbed three times, during which her wall-safe containing her gold bullion was stolen.
Her insurance company refused to pay out, however, declaring Fincham had only converted the cash to bullion so it would then be stolen and she could claim on the insurance. Fincham sued them, they then counter-sued claiming insurance fraud.
It later turned out that it was in fact an inside job, but not because of Fincham. Her then boyfriend, (who she had met online) had tipped off the criminals in exchange for just $500.
Kerry Packer’s bullion theft down under
Between 8pm on Friday the 28th of April 1995 and 8.30am the following Monday, 25 gold bars weighing 285 kgs were stolen from a safe in Australian media tycoon Kerry Packer’ office, as well as a glass jar full of gold nuggets and a gold and silver necklace. At the time, the loot was worth AUD 5.2 million.
An ‘antiquated alarm system’ meant no one was alerted when the thief entered through one of three entrances to the building. The door to Packer’s office had been carefully prized open and scorch marks on the carpet were found just 10cm away from the drinks cabinet, behind which the safe was hidden.
The 1940s Chubb safe had been cracked open by an expert safe-breaker. Nothing was to be found inside except one fingerprint. Delighted with the find, the police believed they had found their culprit and traced the print back to a minor criminal. This individual however turned out to be a safe-mechanic and had serviced Packer’s safe in the past.
An inside job? Police then turned their attention to the security guards who should have been on duty over the weekend. However it didn’t take long for a former security guard to come forward and admit that the majority of shift-time was spent working out at the gym and pools, that were part of Packer’s complex.
The final (and remaining) suspect was thought by police to be a lover of Packer’s former secretary. Ms Wheatley had worked for Packer for 18 years and was known affectionately as ‘The Perfumed Bulldozer.’
Yet this bulldozer may have been slightly indiscrete in her pillow talk. Police believe that the thief, a loner but also a ladies man, targeted Wheatley as a means of finding out about Packer’s gold. The suspect was none other than one of Australia’s notorious safe-crackers. Despite the police investigations, he proved to be a master at counter-surveillance and was never charged for the Packer robbery, nor was anyone else.
And the gold? Despite hopes that it would be recovered some time after the suspect’s death, police believe that most of the gold bullion was moved to Melbourne where it was melted down.
Not so easy is it?
The highlight in this list for me is the Brinks Mat robbery.
Had the collateral damage not been so horrendous (and ongoing) I would feel sorry for the original gang of six. They thought they had hit the jackpot when they discovered gold to then realise what a dangerous and murky world it can be trying to get rid of the evidence and profit from it. At every turn they stumbled under the sheer weight of the enormity of what they had done.
That aside, fancy calling your dogs ‘Brinks’ and ‘Mat’!
Do you know any other gold robberies that top these? Any great American or Asian heists we missed? Share them in the comments below.
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