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How easy is it to fence $50 million worth of stolen diamonds?

Paul O'Driscoll/Getty Images
Paul O'Driscoll/Getty Images

By now, the diamond thieves who pulled off a brazen $50 million heist on the tarmac of Brussels Airport are the most wanted men in Europe. They’re most likely lying low somewhere, waiting for the heat to die down. Soon enough, though, they’ll want to turn that loot into cash. But how does one actually go about fencing $50 million in stolen diamonds? In fact, it’s easier than you might think.

Clearly, these guys planned their Feb. 18 heist well — it was fast and efficient, and it employed minimal violence in intercepting the diamonds at a moment of vulnerability. Given their professionalism, it’s quite likely that they planned just as carefully what to do with the loot.

I know a little bit about what they might have been thinking, from investigating the largest diamond heist in history, the 2003 burglary of $500 million in stones in Antwerp, Belgium, by a group of Italian thieves known as the School of Turin.

Let’s assume these new crooks don’t already have someone in mind on whom they intend to unload all the diamonds. They’ll have to sell them slowly to avoid drawing attention, but that’s OK, as diamonds don’t lose value with the passage of time. The first thing to do with all those stolen diamonds is to divide them up into polished stones, rough stones, and anything in between. Polished stones are diamonds that look like those sold in jewelry stores, except, of course, they’re loose — not yet on a ring or necklace. Rough diamonds look nothing like what you’d find at Tiffany’s. They generally resemble two pyramids stuck together at their bases with a frosted surface, like sea glass. The in-between stones, those that are partially polished, will be the toughest ones to unload. There’s no real market in such stones, and they would need to be taken to an unscrupulous polisher to finish the job. But because these stones were leaving Antwerp (one of the world’s polishing centers) for Switzerland, there are likely to be few if any partially polished diamonds in this stolen $50 million haul.

The biggest problem is getting rid of the stones’ identifying characteristics. Some of the polished diamonds will have signature marks on them, such as tiny, almost invisible, laser engravings. These can be removed. But some polished diamonds have laser-inscribed marks on their girdle, commonly used for branding purposes: Canadian diamonds often feature a maple leaf or polar bear, while De Beers uses its distinctive "Forevermark." Such brands by themselves are not a concern; in fact, removing them might hurt the resale value of a stone. But the problem facing the thieves is that these markings often include a serial number used to identify a specific stone.

Thus, eventually someone might check this serial number and find out that a particular stone was reported stolen. A discovery like this would be a huge break for the dedicated diamond police squad in Antwerp — a force that solely handles diamond-related crime and is leading up the investigation into this heist. And it has a difficult task ahead of it.

"Dealing in stolen diamonds is relatively easy, if you know where to go with those diamonds," Patrick Peys, one of Antwerp’s crack diamond detectives, once told me. "Unfortunately, we know that stolen diamonds can be sold. If you get it for a cheap price, and you are sure that they can’t be identified, you get profit. And as always, there will be people in the diamond business that want to make an easy profit."

One thing working in the thieves’ favor is that in the complex, busy world of the gem trade, a single diamond can trade hands multiple times in a single day. And not everyone keeps clear records. By the time someone realizes that they’re in possession of a stolen stone, it could have passed through dozens of hands, leaving the trail too cold for police to be able to track it back to the original trader who bought it off the thieves.

Another thing going for the thieves is that the individual marking of stones is still rather rare. Yes, diamond-grading laboratories offer services that will inscribe a unique number on a diamond to match that polished stone to a report detailing its attributes. But it’s far more common to simply keep a diamond in a transparent, sealed, tamper-proof case along with a given report that notes cut, clarity, color, carat weight, and other details. Moreover, even the best labs don’t note or keep track of any unique identifier such as an optical fingerprint of polished stones. There are indeed services geared toward retail clients that will analyze diamonds and keep extremely detailed records for insurance or identification purposes. But these kinds of services aren’t used in Antwerp’s wholesale diamond trade.

In fact, all the thieves need to do to launder the diamonds is to remove the inscriptions on the polished stones. Then, for a small fee, they could bring them back to one of the many labs in Antwerp, or any other diamond-trading city, where they’d be given a new report with a new number. Anyone could walk in off the street with a few million dollars in polished diamonds and ask for them to be graded. Unless the person were acting very strangely, it is unlikely anyone would find this suspicious. This is a business in which millions of dollars in stones are commonly traded.

Yes, it might be a risk walking back into the lion’s den, but the odds are very high that there were few unique, identifiable stones among those stolen this week. The vast majority of diamonds traded in Antwerp are in the 1-to-2-carat range and on the white end of the spectrum — without truly distinct colors or imperfections. Large stones, especially ones in desirable colors such as red or blue, would be harder to sell as the danger would be high that someone would recognize them. If the thieves are in possession of such a stone, they would do well to take it someplace far from Antwerp, where no one would recall having seen it before.

But even then, it’s not hard to smuggle stones across borders. A million dollars in diamonds could fit into a cigarette pack. This week’s entire haul, some $50 million worth, could be carried by one strong man. And you could easily turn some of the stones into jewelry and wear them right through customs anywhere in the world. There still isn’t a dog on Earth that can sniff out a diamond. If you were looking to get rid of the large and fancy-colored stones, the best markets would be in Dubai and Hong Kong.

The rough diamonds will be a little more difficult to move. While anyone can bring in a polished diamond to a lab to be tested and then get a rough idea of its worth, a rough diamond needs an experienced eye. While dealers routinely trade polished stones over the Internet, one needs to actually see and hold a rough to value it. For the thieves, this means that it will be hard for them to know whether the person they’re selling to is paying a decent price for these stones. Either they’re prepared to sell them cheap, or more likely, they’ll have an insider and expert helping to appraise the rough stones.

There’s one more little hassle for the thieves when it comes to moving rough diamonds: The stones are supposed to be accompanied by Kimberley Process certificates attesting that they are not conflict stones, or blood diamonds. Such certificates are easy to forge or obtain fraudulently. Crossing borders with customs, such as those into Switzerland, requires having such certificates for all rough stones. These thieves won’t be. There certainly are buyers for rough stones without proper paperwork, but selling to them would probably involve giving them a bit of a discount, as it is illegal. Once polished, however, the stones do not require such certificates anymore; instead, they become part of a toothless industry scheme called the System of Warranties. But both this system and the Kimberley Process are full of holes, and it’s a good bet that thieves of this caliber won’t have much of a problem finding a way around this issue.

There’s one more thing working in the thieves’ favor: If the police don’t catch them with their loot early on, it is highly unlikely the diamonds will ever be recovered. In the case of the 2003 Antwerp heist, only a handful of stones was ever found, and those stones were in the home safe of one of the thieves. He was later caught with some diamonds in his car, but the police had trouble tracing them back to the theft. The 2003 thieves were caught as they dumped incriminating garbage on their way from Antwerp to Brussels Airport. This week’s crooks learned this lesson: They torched their getaway vehicle to destroy evidence.

It’s said there’s no honor among thieves, but a diamond heist from Antwerp’s past holds a key lesson: Don’t leave the loot with someone you can’t trust to hold onto it. In 1994, Antwerp was rocked by a robbery, but one in which the police actually did get back the loot. After a theft from one of the trading halls, the robbers left the stones with some local diamond dealers to hold onto for safekeeping. But the dealers felt so much guilt over the heist that they gave the stones to their rabbi. Then, as any good man of God would do, the rabbi took the cardboard box full of millions of dollars of diamonds and biked down to a police station, where he sat patiently for hours until the police took the time to talk to him. He handed over the diamonds to the flabbergasted police and then declared the matter over. The police, appreciative as they were for the diamonds’ safe return, did not — and eventually arrested everyone (barring the rabbi) who’d taken part in the heist.

The ironic thing about this week’s heist, though, is that odds are that the vast majority of these stolen stones will end up back in Antwerp soon — but the people buying and selling them will have no idea they were stolen. Even victims of this heist would be unlikely to recognize one of their stones. And once the stones are relaundered through Antwerp’s vast diamond industry, the hunt will effectively be over. In fact, in a few days, weeks, or months, it’s a good bet that some of those diamonds will end up on their way to the biggest retail market in the world for diamond engagement rings — the United States. You might even find one on sale at the jewelry shop at your local mall.

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