The 7 greatest master thieves you’ve never heard of
We hear more about big time art and jewel heists in the movies than in the news simply for the fact that the main objective of any good burglar is to not get caught. Masters of disguise and often smooth talkers with a knack for getting in and out of even the tightest security environments, these master thieves were the best in the business.
Vincenzo Perguia, the Mona Lisa Thief. 1913
Vincenzo Peruggia: Vincenzo’s life of burglary was pretty short lived and really only had one highlight – the guy stole the Mona Lisa. Yea, the Mona Lisa, which is a pretty big deal, considering it’s probably the most recognizable painting in the world. In 1911, the former museum worker hid inside the Louvre over the weekend and slipped the painting under his painter’s smock and strolled out with it. Yep, it was that easy. Vincenzo kept the painting in his apartment for two years before being busted when trying to sell it to a gallery owner in Italy. Still, the guy had a pretty cool centerpiece for his bachelor pad for a while.
Frank William Abagnale, Jr.
Frank William Abagnale, Jr.: Maybe the only living thief today who has had nearly as much success post his life of crime as he did while on the run. While he didn’t steal any priceless works of art, Frank used his cunningness to scam millions of dollars from banks through check fraud across 26 countries in a period of only five years starting at the tender age of 16. While other kids were working a paper route, Frank was jet setting across the Atlantic taking on the false identities of successful doctors and lawyers. After his FBI bust, Frank took up the honest profession of running a financial fraud consulting biz. Not all his glory was lost however; he guy still got Steven Spielberg to make a movie about him.
François Villon: François Villon was a 15th century French poet who supported himself through a life of crime (surprise – not much $$ in the poetry biz). Spending part of his childhood as an orphan before being adopted by a wealthy clerk, Francois was actually a good student. It didn’t last though and he turned to crime, joining a gang of thieves called “Gang des Coquillards” and began robbing churches and public offices. After his arrest in 1462 he was to be tortured and hanged, but had his sentenced was reduced to banishment. After that not much is known about Francois, but his poems continue to puzzle French lit majors to this day.
Bill Mason: Bill Mason lived the life of a lot of American men, regular job, wife and kids, but on the weekends instead of going on fishing trips he preferred to steal millions of dollars in jewels from the high rise penthouses of the rich and famous. For 25 years, he lived a double life and became addicted to stealing valuables from celebrities like Bob Hope before being busted and serving five years behind bars. Which really doesn’t sound bad, considering estimates of his plunders are around $70 million. Instead of heading back to his cat burglar activities after prison the guy decided to write the bestselling book, Nine Lives. Not a bad way to capitalize on your follies.
Doris Payne: The youngest of six, Doris Payne is the only female on our list and came from humble beginnings of a WV coal miner father – not exactly the classic makings of a 50-yr career jewel thief. Doris didn’t rely on fancy tools or gymnast skills to get the goods, but confusing the store clerks and causing them to forget while she slipped out the store. A master at sweet talking sales clerks, she’d try on multiple items before sneaking out with one or two pieces of bling, often selling them before she left town. Now 80 yrs-old, Doris spends her time in the pen, while talks of a bio pic with Halle Berry float around Tinsel town.
Alan Golder: Besides the riches, international intrigue and possible movie deals one of the cool things about being a master thief is the nickname. Take Alan Golder “The Dinnertime Bandit” for example. Alan started his life of crime at just 6 yrs-old and by 21 was selling stolen jewels on the NYC black market. Often working for the Genovese crime family, Alan would sneak into the homes of such notables as Johnny Carson and rob them blind during their dinner parties. Spending much the 1990s behind bars, upon his release Alan went back to what he knew best, crashing dinner parties and leaving with a doggy bag of bling.
Charles Peace: Quite possibly the most famous cat burglar in history, Charles Peace stood at just 5’4 and used his gymnast skills and elaborate set of tools to raid the homes and stores of London’s rich before finally being tried and hung for his crimes in 1879. Many knew his name, but few knew what the man looked like as a result of the thief’s masterful disguises. Wanted posters issued by Scotland Yard listed his age somewhere between 40-70 yrs old. His unusual life of crime has been the inspiration for dozens of books and films, so in a strange way crime does pay. Peace just wasn’t around to see the benefits.