Price: Treason, Beheading, Theft and $30m
On 15th April 1983, impalpably small cogs and wheels flittered and clicked as they ushered waxing crescent moons full circle beneath crystal clock faces. The diamond-cutter bearing down on them through display case glass barely whispered. The ventilation shafts, which were used to unlock the 50cm tall window from the inside, were now resealed and the only sounds that could be heard in the L. A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art in Tel-Aviv were the two guards’ voices being projected – via cunningly placed microphone and wire – from their desk at the front of the building, to the horology collection at the back. A simple way of keeping checks on any unwanted diligence.
Before 10:30am, the window was closed and a team of three skilled thieves were assumed to have made off with 106 priceless timepieces, including a watch commissioned in 1783 for Queen Marie Antoinette herself. Projections of the amount and worth of the stolen goods were infallible … the assumed number of culprits, however, was two too many.
Na’aman Diller, a former air-force pilot who was kicked out of the military for flying too low over his kibbutz – seemingly just for kicks – has been referred to as a criminal “legend” and “mastermind” by non other than the Israeli police of his day. And that was before knowing he was the sole artificer in the flawless work at the L.A. Museum in 1983.
Diller, described by psychologists as “a burglar with the sensitivities of an artist,” certainly lived up to that renown via a series of bank robberies that rivalled the romance of those committed by Danny Ocean. The major difference between fact and fiction, however, was the number of accomplices Diller had: zero. Always.
His ‘artistic sensitivities’ came to light in how and when he was eventually (some say, chose to be) caught in 1967. After a near-hitch-less bank robbery – which had to be put on hiatus while he fought in the Six-Day War – he was caught and sentenced to 4 years in prison. Shortly afterwards, he said that orchestrating such crimes gave him a thrill equal to when “a man knows the beautiful woman next to him is willing to be his.” Perhaps, by 1967, he was tired of keeping his plunders’ acquiescence to himself.
Out of the 106 extravagant timepieces that were purloined without notice on that night in ‘83, one of them was worth an estimated $30m alone. The Marie Antoinette – or simply “The Queen” – was a ‘monument’ to 18th Century Horological Skills which, as it turns out, are about as complex as 21st Century ones. It was commissioned anonymously with no limit on price nor time but, sadly, it took 44 years to complete and, in that time, the maker Abraham Louis Breguet met his end and Marie Antoinette met the guillotine. As it happens, it’s believed today that her lover Count Axel von Fersen was the one who commission the watch and even he was beaten to death in Stockholm for his unsavoury part in aristocratic machinations in Sweden. It would seem that both trouble and an exorbitant price tag gravitate to this ticking masterpiece. Nevertheless, through rock crystal, the viewer can be mesmerized by the extravagant complexity ticking peacefully from with 63mm of golden casing.
After the robbery, all 106 timepieces disappeared and the trail went cold for 23 years. In 2006 Diller’s wife, who was now living in Los Angeles, contacted a lawyer in Tel Aviv saying that her husband had owned up to the crime on his deathbed and she wanted to see that the watches were returned to the L.A. Mayer museum as soon as possible. Naturally, the museum directors were sceptical. 23 years, unique heritage and a hefty reward create a lot of whispers under and above ground. When they arrived, they were confronted with a cardboard box in which 42 of the most precious timepieces the world has ever seen were individually wrapped in newspaper. One of which was ‘The Queen’ herself.
It was later found that Diller had placed a further 54 of the stolen pieces in various safety deposit boxes across Europe. The remaining ten plundered objects are thought to have been sold at auction, but where and to whom remains a mystery.
Still, all of this begs the question: why didn’t Diller sell all of them? In the case of the Marie Antoinette and a few others, it could be said that they were too rare to sell on an open market or comfortably remain hidden in the hands of any private collector. But that wouldn’t account for all of them. Could it be that Diller was a watch aficionado? Or perhaps that he was just so proud of this heist that he wanted to keep the timepieces as trophies? Maybe he just didn’t want to tell his new wife too many details about his murky past.
We may never know, but there was one last curiosity to come to light. When the time pieces were opened to check their condition, a number of tiny paper strips, containing diagrams and instructions on how to dismantle them, were found rolled up in plastic and tucked neatly aside each mechanism. Could it be that, by dismantling and reassembling priceless timepieces designed by geniuses, an aging Diller relived that same thrill he got from breaking into banks all those years ago? Perhaps the allure of priceless mechanical maidens offering themselves up to be his, quietly kept his furtive nature content into old age. At very least, the ‘Queen’ can add ‘theft’ to ‘love’, ‘murder’ and ‘rebellion’ as things that she’s inspired in mankind to date.