The Greatest Watch Heist – The return of The Brequet Queen
The story start in August 2006 when a woman living in the US called one of the lawyer Hila Gabai in Tel Aviv asking her to call antiques shop run by Zion Yakubov asking him to evaluate some items for her. She explained that she inherited a few boxes of watches from her late husband and these boxes were hidden in Tel Aviv and would like to return it back to the museum and get some money for that.
Later Gabai visited Yakubov and contacted Rachel Hasson and Eli Kahan the museum’s artistic director and chair of the museum board to look at the old watch boxes. They all agree to keep the meeting secret and pay her the sum of $38000.00
Hasson later stated “I opened them and identified them for their numbers. Most were in good shape. Some were damaged”. When I came to the Marie Antonitte, I could’t help crying. It was so moving and exciting to see it after so many years.”
The watch returned to the museum in August and remained secret for 2 month until the police learn about the return of the “Queen” from the newspaper and start to open the old files to resolve the mystery.
The immediate task was to identify the ‘mystery woman’ who had instructed the lawyer Hila Gabai to sell the stolen watches, on condition of her anonymity. Eventually police located the Tel Aviv warehouse where the loot had
been stored. The rental company managing the property had a file containing the woman’s ID and passport details, she was a US-based Israeli, Nili Shomrat, aged 59. A computer database identified her as the wife of Na’aman Lidor. Although that name meant nothing to police, later, through their files revealed Lidor to be the master-thief Na’aman Diller, who had changed his surname. Twenty-five years after he was dismissed as a suspect in the theft.
The history of this watch begins in 1783, when an anonymous client agrees with the legendary watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet to create a pocket watch for Queen Marie Antoinette. This client identity was never definitively revealed until today, many believe it was her alleged lover, the Swedish soldier Count Hans Axel von Fersen. The historians disagree about the exact nature of their relationship—historian Hilaire Belloc believes that their relationship was platonic; biographer Stefan Zweig maintained they were secret lovers. But what is everyone agrees on was the commissioned watch was the grandest and most complicated timepiece of its history.
Breguet was instructed to make the watch the most spectacular watch as possible, incorporating the fullest range of horological knowledge into the timepiece. The resulting was one of the world wonder timepiece the 60 mm watch—known as “the Queen”. It is now valued at over $30 million (Please see the most expensive watch article on another page of this website for more details). The watch is sheathed in gold and sapphires. The automatic watch featured an astounding 23 complications and 823 parts, including a clear-crystal dial, a full perpetual calendar, a jumping hour hand, and even a metallic thermometer. Its plates, bridges, and bars were all made from gold. Because of its enormous complexity, the watch was not finished until 1827 after Mary Antoinette’s death. So, the famous watch was completed after Breguet’s death by his some after 34 years of Antoinette’s death and 44 years after her secret lover was commissioned. After the watch change several hand it ended up with Sir David Lionel Salomons, he left his watch collection to his daughter Vera. Vera settled in Jerusalem after World War I and used her fatter money to build the museum and kept his watches collection in safe place. The watch ultimately landed at the L.A. Mayer Museum of Islamic Art in Jerusalem, where it remained for nearly 10 years.
On April 15, 1983, the priceless watches, along with dozens of the museum’s most valuable artifacts, vanished. Somehow while the alarm system was broken at Jerusalem’s LA Mayer Museum for Islamic Art. The museum was as usual closed early for the Sabbath. The stone building is 100 metres only from Israel’s presidential residence in Jerusalem.
The robber pulled a hydraulic car jack to pry the window bar apart far enough to squeeze through a tiny 18-inch window using a rope ladder and hooks to climbed after he opened it with screwdriver. He walked away with 102 pieces which more than half of the museum collection of 192, far from the guards who were stationed in a different part of the museum during the heist. The theft sent shockwaves through the international watch market. This watch which made by Abraham-Louis Breguet for Marie Antoinette, the 160 is known as the ‘Mona Lisa of watches’ and worth more than $30 million. The police could not find any clue at the time despite following thousands of leads. During this time there were conspiracy theories circulating that it been an inside job?. The estate of museum’s founder hired an investigator named Samuel Nahmias who was a former Israeli army intelligence officer who recovered hundreds of thousands of dollars since he turned private investigator but he hit a dead end after long investigation in this case.
In 2009 the Museum’s Director Rachel Hasson recalled her reaction to the crime by saying “I came as soon as they phoned me. It was shocking. On the floor were the glass panels and the locks of the showcases. Everywhere lay
remnants of packing materials, tape and cardboard; there were empty Coca-Cola bottles, cables and wires”.
The watches were well known to be sold in the open market because most of watch collection made by Breguet in the seventeenth century especially the “Queen”.
In 2006, Shamrat who learn the location of Diller’s loot during his deathbed confession, attempted to anonymously sell the stolen goods back to the museum through a third-party lawyer. However, a paper trail from the Tel Aviv warehouse where the watches had been stored led officers to her residence. Questions erupted. Was she a well-meaning widow or a willing accomplice? Why did she attempt to sell the stolen items instead of simply returning them to authorities? In a letter written to Shalhevet High School (from which she was fired because of the scandal), Shamrat noted she had no knowledge of the crime until the last year of Diller’s life. “What has been called a criminal conviction against me is misleading,” she wrote. “I was found with a few items that happened to be stolen, which I inherited from my deceased husband…my story falls under the category of ‘no good deeds go unpunished.’” She also added that the sensationalist stories written about her in the press had little merit.
Despite being an initial suspect in the case, Diller had never been questioned because records indicated he had been abroad at the time of the heist. Police eventually discovered his alibi was a not true and he was a master of obfuscation, Diller had forged papers to make it appear as though he had been out of the country at the time of the robbery. A skilled criminal, the wiry Israeli native first made a name for himself with a string of high-profile robberies in the 1960s and 1970s. One of his most daring thefts saw him spend five months digging a tunnel from a nearby street into a bank (under the guise of working for an engineering firm) in order to steal thousands of dollars in cash, diamonds, and jewels. He was eventually caught and sent to jail for the stunt when he return the second time to the bank to take more money and generate too much noise that the neighbor have to call the police for him.
Yet Diller was never apprehended for his most audacious crime. Because he did not attempt to sell the Queen, investigators have long speculated that he simply loved the thrill of a good heist. Or perhaps he was a watch aficionado in his own right. Several of the recovered watches contained diagrams and handwritten notes from Diller with detailed instructions on how to take them apart, wind them, oil them, and reset them—giving credence to the idea that he truly cherished the stolen treasures.
Following its recovery, the watch was returned to the Mayer museum, where it safely resides to this day. And although the case has been solved, the fascinating tale of Diller’s carefully calculated robbery, like the Queen itself, will stand the test of time.
In May 2008, the police found in the school teacher Nili Shamrat’s home in Tarzana, Calif. watches, Islamic artifacts, and oil paintings—many of which had been stolen from Jerusalem’s L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art some 25 years earlier. This is some of the stolen item by her husband Na’aman Diller, a notorious Israeli thief who confessed his crimes to Shamrat in 2003 while on his deathbed.
Later on after the police questioning Shamrat, they began to unravel a decades-old mystery for one of the most expensive horological theft in the history which was the 1983 Queen Marie Antoinette No. 160 watch heist. This theft was gone unsolved for more than quarter of a century.
The Israeli police asked the US to extradite Shomrat to Israel to stand trial for her alleged part in the conspiracy. In October 2008 the relatives sent police his papers and documents. These provided a paper trail leading to his many bank accounts, safe deposit boxes and warehouses in Europe. Police found more watches in The Hague, Munich, Basle; 53 were in two banks in Paris, with documents about the watches stored at separate locations. Ten last missing pieces, which Diller sold at auction, are now being traced.
The news was of special interest to Nicolas Hayek, the CEO and chairman of the Swatch Group, which had owned the Breguet brand since 1999. In 2004 Hayek had commissioned Breguet to make an identical model of the vanished Marie Antoinette to celebrate the €5 million refurbishment of the Petit Trianon, Marie Antoinette’s private palace at Versailles, which was funded by Swatch. Hayek, who believes publicity over Breguet’s new Queen helped the original to be recovered, was eager to see it for himself but the museum refused. ‘It’s a pity: we are the only ones who have the knowledge to renovate this masterpiece and we offered to help but they said the watch didn’t need restoration,’ Hayek says. The market was again abuzz with suspicion: why was no one allowed to see the recovered watches?