The Great Horological Heist - The Players and the Playing Field

I know this topic has nothing to do with Vacheron, but it is nevertheless a very interesting piece of history.

On the night of April 15th, 1983 one of the greatest horological thefts in history took place. Over 200 pieces including paintings, clocks and a large collection of Breguet watches disappeared without a trace and without a clue. Amongst the pieces stolen was the unique and magnificent magnum opus “La Reine Marie Antoinette”, regarded as the Mona Lisa of watchmaking. This was no magician’s illusion. The collection was gone, vanished and over the following years, no one came any closer to solving this crime. Without clues or any idea of how the theft occurred, the case grew cold and was finally closed by the police. Insurance was paid and the case almost completely forgotten. Hope for a recovery of the collections faded.
Then about 23 years later, seemingly by magic, the collection, or most of it, reappeared. The events, once revealed, were like a Hollywood movie, with a fascinating cast of characters: a philanthropic donor and an expert on Breguet, his daughter, a philanthropist in her own right, a brilliant criminal who loved watches, his girl friend/wife, the struggling police and the unpredictable vagaries of life.
But let me step back and begin at the beginning to make this improbable series of events understandable.
 
The Great Horological Heist - The Players and the Playing Field
Sir David Lionel Salomons (1851-1925) was a brilliant polymath who was a lawyer, a member of Parliament, a scientist and inventor. He set up an enormous scientific workshop on his estate, conducted numerous experiments on electricity and electromagnetism, held multiple patents on electrical devices and was the first to install electric light bulbs. However, his achievements were not confined to experimental science. He had a lifelong passion for horology and became first a collector and then a world authority on the work of Abraham-Louis Breguet. He amassed what was considered the largest collection of Breguet’s works in private hands. The collection included the two greatest works of Breguet, the Marie Antoinette and the Duc de Praslin. (The latter was donated to the Musée des Arts et Metiers in Paris). But his interest in, and his collecting of, mechanical “scientific art” did not stop with Breguet. He accumulated a wonderful collection of decorated automata, automaton watches, scientific instruments and magnificent ornamental snuff and music boxes. Salomons self-published a treatise on Breguet which was considered THE reference on Breguet until George Daniels’ “The Art of Breguet”.
The Great Horological Heist - The Players and the Playing Field

The 57 best Breguet pieces as well as many other beautiful items were bequeathed to Salomons’ daughter, Vera. The remainder went to his wife and were sold off piecemeal through Sotheby’s. Sir David and his daughter felt that his collection should be shared with the public and so it was Vera who created a repository for this unique collection.
Salomons’ daughter founded and funded the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem. She did so to further Jewish-Arab understanding and to honour her professor and mentor, Leo Aryeh Mayer, a renowned scholar of Islamic art.

The Great Horological Heist - The Players and the Playing Field

The Great Horological Heist - The Players and the Playing Field

The Great Horological Heist - The Players and the Playing Field

The Great Horological Heist - The Players and the Playing Field

The museum, which opened its doors to the public in 1974, was dedicated to displaying the art and culture of Islamic rule from Spain to India. As such, it houses one of the most important collections of Islamic art in the world spanning the various Muslim dynasties from the 7th to the 19th century, from the Umayyad caliphs to the Ottoman Empire.
It was to this museum that Vera Bryce Salomons donated her father’s collection, where it remained for years, unmolested.

In 1980 George Daniels in conjunction with Ohannes Markarian published a catalogue of the collection: “Watches & Clocks in the Sir David Salomon's Collection”. It has a wonderful introduction by Daniels as well as commentary on Breguet’s designs. However, that edition had only a few plates in colour. It has been out of print for decades but can still be purchased from antiquarian book dealers. The Great Horological Heist - The Players and the Playing Field
But then, three years later, the book remained but the collection vanished. The museum theft of 106 pieces included the entire Salomons collection along with the irreplaceable Reine Marie-Antoinette. The thief or thieves had been meticulous in the planning. They knew the weak spots of the museum, the broken alarm system, the fact that the display was in a back room, and the entry and exits. He/They had “cased” the venue on several occasions over a period of several months. Then on a late afternoon or early Friday evening, they struck. They knew that traffic and people would be light at that time, with everyone preparing for the Sabbath. The museum would close early and the guards would be at the front reading or sleeping. For many years after the “heist” it was felt that at least 3 or 4 people were involved. A great deal of planning, intelligence gathering and sophistication had gone into the robbery. But eventually the authorities discovered that only one person was in fact responsible. From the analysis of events, the following is likely what happened. In the late afternoon of April 15th the thief approached the museum but deviated and parked behind in an unlit blind alley. The back of the museum was protected by an iron gate. He knew that and had brought along an hydraulic jack which he used to separate the bars of the gate to allow himself access. He had also brought a rope ladder and hooks to scale the ten feet to the window of the gallery housing the Salomons collection. I believe that he had in advance and surreptitiously prepared the window during his frequent visits so that he could then easily open it from the outside.

The Great Horological Heist - The Players and the Playing Field

The Great Horological Heist - The Players and the Playing Field

The Great Horological Heist - The Players and the Playing Field

Once this was accomplished he could bring in his tools and other items. The thief was of slight build allowing him to slide through the opened 18” window without getting stuck. He knew how to work quickly and quietly. But he also knew how to stay calm, and unrushed. He laid a microphone cable towards the front of the museum to monitor the guards’ activities and proceeded with the aid of a glass cutter and lock pick to open all the cases holding these rare horological gems and remove them. It took several trips back and forth between the gallery and his car to remove his haul of 102 pieces comprising the Salomons collection as well as a few other pieces that caught his fancy. Once they were all loaded, he calmly drove off into the night.
When the guards made their morning rounds, they found the gallery ransacked. The cases were all empty! Gone were all the valuable watches and clocks, replaced by food and candy wrappers, empty soft drink bottles and a mattress. A very poor trade, indeed! The Great Horological Heist - The Players and the Playing Field

The Great Horological Heist - The Players and the Playing Field
And that is how the situation stood for decades. The police and private investigators despite their best efforts came up empty handed. They assumed that at least people were involved and that the theft was commissioned by a collector who wanted the Breguet “Queen”. They thought perhaps it had been an inside job, but here too they met a blank wall. There were no leaks, no clues; no auction gallery or watch dealer reported seeing any of the missing collection. There were also no detectable attempts to smuggle the watches out of the country. The investigators reviewed the list of criminals who could potentially carry out such a “perfect” operation. The man at the top of their list , Na’aman Diller (or Dieler) was a master thief who had become somewhat of a celebrity in the 1960’s and 70’s for some high-profile, meticulously planned break-ins. But records showed he was in fact out of the country in April 1983. Police also had doubts that he could have carried it off by himself. The investigations petered out and the entire saga was all but forgotten.