The Breguet Marie-Antoinette & Horology’s Most Notorious Heist

The Breguet Marie-Antoinette & Horology’s Most Notorious Heist

Attention, would-be watch thieves: The story of the missing “Mona Lisa of timepieces” proves that crime does not, in fact, pay.

By Rhonda Riche

There have been a plethora of news stories about high-profile watch thefts. In July alone, F1 Driver Lando Norris was relieved of his Richard Mille at Wembley Stadium. Meanwhile, in New York, the police arrested a pair of alleged criminals behind a months-long armed robbery spree that netted more than $2 million in high-end timepieces from brands like Rolex, Richard Mille, Audemars Piguet, and Patek Philippe.

These cases are alarming in their brazenness. First of all, as any kindergarten teacher will tell you, violence is bad. Secondly, the idea of expertly crafted timepieces being taken to a horological chop shop to be sold disassembled and for parts or disguised for resale makes us sad (and a little nauseous). But we can take some satisfaction in the fact that these criminals almost always get caught.

There are many reasons why this is. For example, Richard Mille pieces are instantly recognizable as expensive. Moreover, the watches are difficult enough to get your hands on that, when a Richard Mille comes up for sale, it commands a lot of attention. Thus, trying to flip a hot watch is like me, Rhonda Riche, showing up in the Hampton’s driving a flaming red McLaren. In other words, it’s going to raise so many questions.

Speaking of questions, we asked ourselves if anybody has ever gotten away with such a high-profile heist? It brought us back to the story of Marie Antoinette’s Breguet, which was stolen from a museum in Israel and hidden away for almost 25 years.

And they almost got away with it until, you guessed it, somebody tried to sell it.

Dangerous Liaisons

The Breguet timepiece No. 160, a.k.a. the “Marie-Antoinette” a.k.a. the “Queen,” has also been called the Mona Lisa of watches because it is the most important watch ever produced for technological, aesthetic, and historical reasons.

It is the 160th clockwork made by the legendary Abraham Louis Breguet (1747-1823). A genius of horology, Breguet was only 28 when, in 1775, he established his watchmaking firm in the Île de la Cité in Paris. In 1783 Breguet was commissioned to create a special timepiece for the Queen of France, Marie-Antoinette.

If you remember your history, you’ll know that the court of Marie Antoinette’s husband, King Louis XVI, was one of the most opulent ruling governments in history and came to a bloody end during the French Revolution. Before that, however, Breguet was secretly commissioned to make a pocket watch that met the excesses of the day. Specifically, it had to incorporate every complication and function known at the time, with gold used to replace brass wherever possible.

From its inception, the No. 160 was also surrounded by scandal and intrigue. The identity of the person who commissioned it was steeped in mystery. Rumor had it that it was ordered by Marie-Antoinette’s supposed secret lover and Hans Axel von Fersen, a Swedish count.

Regardless of who commissioned this exquisite timepiece, the instructions Breguet received were to take his time and spare no expense for the No. 160. That meant the Queen and the Count never got to see the finished piece – she carted off to the guillotine on October 16, 1793. Seventeen years later, von Fersen would be lynched by a Stockholm lynch mob who suspected him of conspiring to assassinate Crown Prince Charles August.

Even Breguet got marked for execution. Luckily, his friend Jean-Paul Marat helped him (and the still unfinished No. 160) flee to Switzerland and eventually England until French society stabilized. By the time he returned to Paris, his original client base was long gone, but he was still committed to completing the No. 160. The allure of this masterpiece was so magnetic that even after Abraham-Louis died of natural causes in 1823, his son Louis-Antoine Breguet dedicated himself to finishing the project.

Quiet Time

Although it took decades to complete, it was centuries ahead of its time. This pocket watch had an automatic movement that was wound via a platinum oscillating weight. It also featured a minute repeater; a perpetual calendar that displayed weekday, date, month, and leap-year cycle; an equation of time; a power reserve display; a metal thermometer; and a stopwatch function without a reset ability.

The completed “Queen” remained in the collection of the Breguet company until it was sold to Australian flour magnate Sir Spencer Brunton in 1887. After that, the watch passed into the hands of Dutch art dealer and collector Murray Marks (1840-1918), who flipped it to French watchmaker Louis Albert Desoutter (1858-1930). Desoutter then sold it to Breguet expert Sir David Lionel Salomons in the 1920s.

Salomons was a scientific author and lawyer. In his lifetime, Salomons assembled the most expansive private collection of Breguet watches and clocks in the world. It included 124 pieces of horological interest, including the two pieces considered to be the pinnacle of Breguet’s craft – the “Queen” (No. 160) and the Duc de Praslin (No. 92).

Felonious Fact: In 1924, Salomons donated the Duc de Praslin to the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris, where it was subsequently stolen. It was recovered when the thief took the No. 92 to a watchmaker for repairs.

The Heist

Upon his death, Salomons’ watch collection passed to his daughter Vera, a nurse who settled in Jerusalem after World War I. There, she used her inheritance to build the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art in memory of her professor, Leo Aryeh Mayer, a scholar of Islamic art who died in 1969. Now known simply as the Museum of Islamic Art, it houses Mayer’s private collection of antique chess pieces, dominoes and playing cards, daggers, swords, helmets, textiles, jewelry, glassware, pottery and metalware, and Salomons’ collection of watches.

Around the same time, in the 1960s and ’70s, a skinny and disgraced pilot in the Israeli Air Force named Na’aman Diller was emerging as a sort of Robin Hood figure in Israel.

Diller was skilled in forgery and break-ins. His slight frame allowed him to scale walls and slip through small windows with ease. And he was able to create fake travel documents to make it look like he was out of the country at the time of any given robbery.

He was most famous for a 1967 bank job in Tel Aviv. Diller planned the robbery meticulously. Five months before the heist, he told the bank’s neighbors that he was an engineer and began digging a trench to the back of the bank. Along this trench, Diller buried a 300-foot length of pipe and then covered it. When the time finally came to carry out the caper, he spent days cutting through the bank vault and systematically cracking each safe deposit box. But his patience had it limits. In the end, Diller got caught after becoming so frustrated with a stubbornly secure safe deposit box that he banged on its door loudly enough to draw the attention of a neighbor and the police.

Despite his ultimate failure at the bank, Diller learned an important lesson after that arrest: Be quiet.

Thus, after he got out of jail, Diller led a reclusive life in Tel Aviv and then in the US. But that didn’t mean his cat burglar days were over.

On the night of April 15, 1983, someone broke into the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art and relieved the institution of its horological collection, including the priceless “Queen.” It was the costliest history theft in Israeli history, and while the authorities rounded up the usual suspects (including Diller), the case went cold.

That brings us back around to my original point: Crime doesn’t pay. Certainly, thieves can have a myriad of excuses for why they steal, but usually, it boils down to money. But in the case of watch thieves, the minute they try to sell their horological haul, their eventual capture is all but assured.

In the case of the “Marie-Antoinette,” the motive behind the heist was less clear. It was not held for ransom. Nor did anyone try and sell it. Decades passed, and the case remained unsolved.

The Prodigal Breguet Returns

In 2005, Nicolas G. Hayek, the head of Breguet’s parent company, Swatch Group, decided to replicate the disappeared timepiece using original drawings and documents from brand archives, the Breguet Museum, and institutions like the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris.

The publicity renewed interest in the mystery. In 2006, the museum told police hem it had paid some $40,000 to an anonymous American woman to buy back 40 items an anonymous person to purchase 40 timepieces, including the missing “Marie-Antoinette.”

It took two years, but in 2008, investigators followed the paper trail straight to Diller’s widow, a Los Angeles-based Hebrew teacher named Nili Shamrat. She claimed that Diller had confessed to the crime on his deathbed in 2003.

How did he get away with it for so long? For one thing, Diller acted alone, so there was no accomplice to snitch on him. Diller was also meticulous. He studied watchmaking so that he could take the larger clocks apart, making them easier to carry. Beforehand, Diller surveilled the museum and knew the alarm was broken. On the night of the robbery, he parked his truck in front of a back window so that passersby couldn’t see him then used a crowbar to bend the bars wide enough for him to fit. Diller even lost weight so he could more easily pass through the bars.

The biggest remaining mystery is the why. Diller’s motive wasn’t profit (he never attempted to sell any of the treasure) or glory (Shamrat was the only person he confided in, and even then, only when he was at death’s door). We all know collectors who will go to extraordinary lengths to get their grail watch, but other than a few watchmaking manuals found among his possessions, there were no signs that Diller was a watch obsessive. But once the case was closed and the “Marie-Antoinette” returned to the Museum of Islamic Art (where it leads a quiet albeit heavily guarded life), investigators could only lament the fact they never got to interview Diller before he died.

We can only assume that, like Breguet laboring over the “Queen” long after the death of Marie-Antoinette, Diller just needed to see if he could pull off the perfect crime.

(Images © Breguet)

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