Intrigue and treasure: What makes museum heists so fascinating?

The story of the biggest jewellery heist in New York City history and the mystery of the gems and people involved.

A policeman dusts for fingerprints after Jack Roland Murphy, Allan Kuhn and Roger Clark stole $3m worth of gems from the Museum of Natural History in 1964 [File: Getty Images]

On the crisp fall evening of October 29, 1964, all was quiet on the Upper West Side of Manhattan when two men scaled an iron fence, climbed a fire escape to the fifth floor of the American Museum of Natural History and then tiptoed along the building’s narrow ledge.

Next, they propelled themselves 15 feet down a rope to the fourth floor, slipping through an open window into the JP Morgan Hall of Gems and Minerals. They were about to carry out the biggest jewellery heist in New York City history.

The men were violin virtuoso and world-class surfer 27-year-old Jack Roland Murphy, the mastermind better known as Murph the Surf, and his Miami beach buddy 26-year-old Allan Kuhn. Their lookout in the fancy white Cadillac on the street below was 29-year-old Roger Clark, who remained in contact via walkie talkie.

Using a glass cutter and a squeegee taken from a porter’s locker, the men carefully timed the smashing of three glass cases to planes flying overhead to avoid drawing the attention of any of the eight security guards tasked with protecting the sprawling museum.

The thieves took their time, spending several hours in the hall, and by the end of the night had made off with 22 gems worth the equivalent of $3m in today’s money. Among them were three rare stones: the Star of India – a 563.35-carat rock the size of a golf ball; the 100.32-carat DeLong Star Ruby; and the 116.75-carat deep-purplish Midnight Sapphire, one of the world’s largest black sapphires.

After the men collected their booty, they retraced their steps, disappearing into the darkness, but not before calmly walking past unsuspecting police officers in the small park around the museum. Murphy later recounted that he kept his cool, saying “good evening” to the officers who nodded back, none the wiser.

The American Museum of Natural History in New York in 1954 [Anthony Camerano/AP Photo]

The men then headed to a local jazz club where they sipped cocktails with the jewels still in their possession. Murphy, an experienced criminal who had already racked up a string of thefts that included robbing mansions and hotel patrons in Miami, did not even change his clothes, admitting years later that he had dressed well for the heist in case he was caught.

Drama, intrigue, and a slick getaway: this is the allure of a museum heist. Often erroneously perceived as the perfect victimless crime, art heists are the stuff of action movies, and as investigators look for leads, those following along feel as if they are part of the hunt for lost treasure. But while these crimes are often the fodder for splashy headlines, the truth is much more complex.

The mystery of the jewels

This complexity begins with the stolen objects. The Star of India’s past is shrouded in mystery. The light-blue two-billion-year-old gem, which measures two inches in diameter, with a unique six-pointed star-like pattern on both the top and bottom of the cabochon, was first discovered in Sri Lanka in the 1700s, but there is no record of its history until 200 years later.

In the late 19th century, American philanthropist and financier JP Morgan commissioned gem collector American George Kunz to acquire a collection of gems. The Star of India was among the jewels in the collection, which Morgan later donated to the museum.

According to Erin L Thompson, art crime professor at John Jay College in New York, “So much information has been lost about many artefacts in museums and especially in private collections.” Private ownership does not always provide a paper trail of past ownership. Thompson continues, “We think we are preserving the past when we collect antiquities, but so often we’re just destroying much of the information they could tell us.” We are left wondering about the Star of India’s journey and the hands it passed between until it came into Kunz’s possession.

A recent photo of the Star of India sapphire displayed at the American Museum of Natural History [John Minchillo/AP Photo]

Another mystery around this stone is why it is called the Star of India instead of the Star of Ceylon, the former name for what is now the nation of Sri Lanka.

One possible explanation is that because Sri Lanka was under British colonial rule in the 19th century, the origin of the gem was confused when it was sold on the European market. Another theory is that the name was tied to the British East India Company, which exploited trade with East and Southeast Asia, including India.

Sri Lanka, which has a long history of pit mining that is traditionally accomplished using manual labour, is considered one of the world’s most important resources for gems in part because of its location along main trade routes in the Indian Ocean. During colonisation, this aided in the expansion of the gem trade as European traders acquired precious stones to bring to the Western market for profit.

The six-rayed, purplish-red Delong Star Ruby, originally from Myanmar, was, at the time, considered the world’s most perfect star ruby. American socialite Edith Haggin DeLong donated the gem to the museum after having bought it from gem and mineral collector Martin Leo Ehrmann in 1937 for $21,400 (about $390,000 today).

Ehrmann, like many other collectors, travelled the globe in search of rare and expensive jewels, but who his sources were and their connection to the gem trade is unclear. Professor Thompson explains, “An object on display in a glass case in a museum collection often hides the history of violent looting and desperate poverty that brought it there.” Many valuable stones have been mined under forced labour and life-threatening conditions.

Though the world of gems is complex and at times underhanded, there is no trace of the channels through which the DeLong Star Ruby was originally bought or the price it garnered.

The morning after

The director of the American Museum of Natural History, James Oliver, was having his tooth pulled when a museum attendant discovered the jewel heist the following morning. New York’s 20th Police Squad arrived on the scene shortly after 10am when the call came in, dusted for prints – finding whorls of thumb and index fingers – and opened an investigation. The hall was immediately closed to visitors.

Investigators found that, at first, the men had been methodical. They had cut a circular piece of glass from the case with the large stones by putting strips of adhesive tape across the circle to prevent it from shattering. Then, they hit it with the squeegee. Changing tactics, they thoughtlessly smashed the next two cases; perhaps in an attempt to move things along.

Oliver admitted that security was lacking and that he had been pleading with City Hall for upwards of 10 years to hire additional staff. Museum windows were routinely left open 2 inches (5cm) for ventilation, there were no alarms, and since nothing ever happened to raise even the slightest suspicion, the museum lapsed in its precautionary measures, including appointing a security guard to the gem room at night. The museum had no insurance on the gems because the premiums would have been extraordinarily high. Additionally, the alarm system had long since been disconnected, though later, no one at the museum could say why. Up until then, the imposing institution, which takes up four city blocks and is made up of 25 interconnected buildings, had been enough to provide a false veneer of security.

Officials had good reason to believe the thieves were amateurs when it came to estimating the worth of the jewels. For one, they overlooked a case of highly valuable sapphires, instead focusing on less costly diamonds and emeralds. Also, the rare gems would be impossible to sell because they were so well-known.

FBI agents flank Jack Murphy after his arrest in Miami in connection with the theft of the Star of India and other jewels in 1964 [Getty Images]

Cracking the case

A plain-clothes police officer followed up on a tip from a hotel staffer at the nearby Cambridge House Hotel that the trio had recently thrown a raucous party in the pricey penthouse suite. After obtaining a warrant and raiding the place, detectives found drugs, a floor plan of the museum, and books on gems. This was not all they discovered: Roger Clark walked in on the officers while they were searching the room.

He confessed that Murphy and Kuhn had already jetted off to Miami. The men were caught just two days after the heist and sent back to New York. Murphy quipped to reporters that it had ruined his planned trip to Hawaii where he had intended to spend the winter surfing.

But with no witnesses and no jewels, the case was shaky at best, and a low bail was set. Kuhn and Murphy were soon back to partying in Miami. District Attorney Maurice Nadjari began searching for other crimes the men may have committed that would keep them in jail or at least allow for higher bail. Scouring old files, he found the evidence he needed to lock them up.

Upon flying back to New York for their court date, the pair were charged with mugging a woman of her jewels in a Miami hotel months before. The woman turned out to be the famous Hungarian actress Eva Gabor. Bail was set at $100,000. Gabor later declined to press charges but it had been enough to put the men behind bars and encourage them to negotiate.

Allen Dale Kuhn tries to hide from cameras after his arrest in Miami in 1964 [File: Getty Images]

From his prison cell, Kuhn told DA Nadjari that he could recover the gems if he went to Miami alone. Not falling for that, on January 5, 1965, Nadjari and three plain-clothes officers boarded a plane with Kuhn.

After a series of shifty phone calls and multiple delays, they were given directions to find the key to a locker at the Northeast Miami Trailways bus station. Moments after their arrival at the bus station, one of the detectives, Richard Maine, came back with two water-soaked pouches holding nine gems, including the Star of India and the Midnight Star. The wet pouches had been stashed under Kuhn’s boat in Biscayne Bay.

The gems were put back on display, this time with better security, but the DeLong Star Ruby, remained missing. The thieves pleaded guilty and spent about two years at Rikers Island prison in New York.

The following September, a third party privately negotiated the return of the DeLong Star Ruby with an unknown holder. Millionaire John D MacArthur paid a $25,000 (more than $200,000 today) ransom, and the gem was recovered in a phone booth in Florida. Later, a man named Duncan Pearson was convicted in connection with hiding the gem.

Other gems from the heist, however, would never be found, including the Eagle Diamond, first discovered in 1876 near the town of  Eagle, Wisconsin, by a well-digger. It is thought that this gem was most likely cut into several stones, permanently destroying a natural wonder.

Escalating violence

Murphy did not exactly turn over a new leaf upon his release from prison in 1967, and his crimes escalated well beyond theft and burglary, becoming much more sinister and violent.

In 1969, he was found guilty of murder in what became known as the Whiskey Creek case for killing two women, Terry Rae Frank and Annelie Mohn, who had been accomplices in a theft involving almost $500,000 (worth about $4m today) in stocks and bonds.

During a boat ride in Florida, one of the women had threatened to rat out Murphy and co-conspirator Jack Griffith to the feds if she did not get a bigger cut of the profits. Both women were bludgeoned to death and then tossed overboard with concrete blocks tied to their bodies.

Murphy was convicted once again, this time spending 17 years in a Florida state prison. While serving his time, he began ministering to other prisoners about redemption. In 1986, he was paroled and spent the remainder of his life preaching to convicts.

Jack Murphy is escorted to the Miami Beach Police Station by detectives after he was arrested for armed robbery in 1968 [File: AP Photo]

The dark underbelly of the museum world

What made the American Museum of Natural History heist so fascinating? For one, Murphy and his crew were young, smooth-talking and played to the media. Second, as with most heists, the crime was well-planned against a large institution, not an individual, which somehow made it easier for many to forgive because the perception, however untrue, was that no one got hurt.

The dark underbelly of art and jewel crimes are frequently romanticised, especially in films. But the fascination with these crimes becomes problematic when they are divorced from the long-lasting damage they cause. According to Anthony Amore, director of security and chief investigator of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, “Art heists are intriguing because they often involve works of great beauty and value, and that adds an air of mystery to them. Usually, no one is harmed in the commission of an art heist, so the public mistakenly views such crimes as victimless.”

The public’s captivation with art heists shows no signs of fading, and the popularity of a recent documentary, “This Is a Robbery”, about the Gardner Museum heist on Netflix attests to this.

In the early hours of March 18, 1990, two men dressed as police officers were admitted into the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the Venetian-inspired palazzo once owned by the philanthropist and collector after whom the museum is named.

The men walked in through the employee entrance under the guise of investigating a supposed disturbance. After tethering the guards, they spent 81 minutes in the museum before making off with 13 pieces of art worth $500m, including a Vermeer, three Rembrandts, and five Degas, all of which are still missing to this day.

According to Colin Barnicle, director of “This Is a Robbery”, “Most portrayals of art crime are of a dashing thief spiriting away an invaluable piece through a skylight. But, the vast majority of these crimes are done by hardened criminals.”

Gardner’s will states that nothing in the museum can ever be moved or changed, so the empty frames hang on the walls, a constant reminder of what has been lost.

The Vermeer piece, “The Concert”, had been Gardner’s first significant acquisition; valued at $250m, it was the rarest and most pricey of the stolen paintings.

The FBI has scoured leads throughout the world, but all have grown cold, and it is thought that some of the people involved have since died. Yet, hope remains.

“Research shows that when a masterwork is stolen, it is recovered either right away or a generation or so later. It is usually because the most dangerous people involved either die or become less of a threat,” states chief investigator Amore, who has created a database for the investigation with more than 30,000 elements, including scanned microfiches of old Boston newspapers of crimes committed by people impersonating police officers.

Though the museum is working closely with the FBI, who is still very committed to the case, as a private investigator, Amore says he has an advantage of being “able to speak to people who might otherwise be wary of speaking to the authorities”. He adds, “It doesn’t hurt that I have a $10m reward to offer as well.”

The documentary has also served to renew public interest in the missing art. Barnicle suggests, “The idea of something so visually spectacular, readily identifiable, up and vanishing is unbelievably intriguing.” There is hope that someone who has seen the film will come forward with new information.

A final getaway

The question begging our attention is: why is security so lax in places that house priceless masterpieces? Museum security is a balancing act between maintaining a welcoming space for the public and keeping up with new technology and creative criminals who find innovative ways to buck the system.

According to Amore, “The entire point of a museum is to make great works accessible to all. The key is to ensure that there are multiple layers of security protecting the collection, some visible, like cameras, guards, and stanchions, and others invisible, like behind-the-scenes personnel, procedures, and technology protecting the art and building.” Though, even with security in place, sometimes things still go wrong.

From top to bottom, Roger Clark, Jack Murphy and Allan Kuhn in 1965; the man at the top of the stairs is unidentified [File: Harold Valentine/AP Photo]

In the 21st century with the prevalence of advanced technology, heists still occur much more often than one would expect, and thieves continue to take advantage of opportune moments when they arise.

On March 30, 2020, while the world was locked down in their homes due to the pandemic, a thief pulled up to the Singer Laren Museum in the Netherlands on his motorbike, lifted a sledgehammer high in the air and shattered the reinforced glass doors. He stepped over the broken shards, making his way through the gallery. Then, swiping a $6m van Gogh off the wall, he tucked the masterpiece under his arm and disappeared into the darkness.

A year later, on April 6, 2021, a 58-year-old man was arrested at his home in Baarn, a small town in the Dutch countryside near Utrecht, and charged with breaking into the Singer Laren Museum and a smaller museum nearby where a Frans Hals painting was stolen. Investigators are now hopeful this arrest will lead to the recovery of two priceless works of art, which still remain missing.

Following along with the thieves on the run and the investigators searching for clues offers a means of escapism, and it is easy to forget we are watching real-life events unfold, rather than a movie. But as Barnicle reminds us, “Most films portray art thieves as in it for the art, with a respect for the art – they aren’t – they’re in it for the money.”

On September 12, 2020, Murph the Surf died of heart failure in his home at the age of 83. The legendary thief had made his final getaway. Criminals disappear, some die without ever being held responsible, and many get caught, but the stories of the heists – and the damage they inflict – remain.

Source: Al Jazeera