Who Stole Marie Antoinette’s Watch? And Then Brought It Back?

  April 29, 2009 at 5:17 am by

"The Queen" timepiece

Click the image to see the article at The Daily Telegraph

It was a crime worthy of a 007 spy or a Pink Panther villain. On Friday, April 15 1983, the LA Mayer Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem, Israel, closed early for the Sabbath. It was scheduled to open the next day. The guards on duty locked the building and settled in for a long night. The next morning they discovered that a gallery containing a collection of antique watches had been ransacked. About half of the 192 watches, rare pieces, were missing. Among the missing: a pocket watch believed to be the most important ever made, the Breguet No 160, called the “Queen.”

The theft shocked collectors in the field of horology and embarrassed Interpol and the Mossad. This particular watch is called the “Mona Lisa of watches” and is worth more than $30 million dollars. The total value of the burglary was estimated at several hundred million dollars and made this the biggest haul for criminals specializing in watches. Although most of the watches have been recovered now, the crime remained unsolved for 25 years and it is not known where the watches went. And the museum did not inform law enforcement when some of the pieces were recovered.

It was obvious that the thieves plucked out the finest watches. But according to Dr. George Daniels, the author of the museum’s original watch catalog, only an expert would recognize the value of No 160. ‘Anyone interested in horology would know at once what it was: Breguet’s most complicated and lavishly constructed watch. Breguet called it “monument to 18th-century horological skills.”. The average person would not put so much value on it.

The “Queen” would be a remarkable find if made for a new owner today. It has every known complication (23) in a watch, including a self-winding mechanism; perpetual calendar; phases of the moon; a display of solar versus mean time; and even a thermometer! It has a 60mm diameter, back and front covers of rock crystal, and encased in 18-carat gold. It has 823 parts; many of its interior parts are gold; and every working surface is jeweled with sapphire. An unknown admirer, possibly Count Axel von Fersen, commissioned it for Marie Antoinette in 1783. The Queen had previously received one of Breguet’s newest inventions, a self-winding watch called a perpetuelle. The order for the new watch requested that it should be the ‘most spectacular watch possible’ and contain every function; cost was no object. Unfortunately, a completion date was not set and the Queen’s new watch was not completed until 1827. Nevertheless, the Queen’s passion for Breguet inspired others at Versailles, including Louis XVI, to acquire Breguet watches. The Queen accepted her last Breguet watch in September 1792, and reportedly carried it, a simple one, to the scaffold.

The “Queen” eventually was given to the LA Mayer Museum for Islamic Art in 1963. And it stayed there until 1983’s incredible burglary, which was a highly professional job. Police compiled a list of criminals who might have been capable of pulling off the job. A major suspect, Na’aman Diller, was a celebrity ‘master-thief’ who had committed some spectacular burglaries in the 1960s and 1970s. Unfortunately, Diller had an alibi, and police doubted that even he could have pulled off the crime by himself.

The trail went cold. Most of the watches were too famous to be sold on the open market, so they had probably been acquired by a sole collector.

In 2007 it was revealed that the “Queen” had been returned with 42 other stolen watches. Their return was the result of complicated negotiations between the museum and an attorney representing an anonymous client who claimed to have inherited them.

Who stole the watches, then? What is interesting is a discovery made after the return of the watches. When Rachel Hasson, the museum’s director and curator, opened the watches, she found inside each mechanism tiny paper strips diagramming how to take apart the watches, put them together, reset them, oil, wind and how to take care of them. It seems the criminal or possibly the last owner had been taking the watches apart! The watches will be displayed later this year.

For more information about the daring jewel heist and the criminal master mind, see this article at the Daily Telegraph.

Filed under Austria-Hungary, France, Historical Royals
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