Playing for time – the story of the biggest watch theft in history

Warning: this is not the usual blog post. It’s quite long. It’s a fictionalized version of a true story. I wrote it to try to understand the greatest mystery of this crime: why did he do it?

Contents

1. Dealing the cards – 5 January 1783

Abraham-Louis Breguet and Count von Fersen

2. A bold opening – 11 July 1968

Na’aman Diller

3. Queen of Hearts – 16 October, 1793

Marie Antoinette

4. Ace of Diamonds – 11.30pm, 15 April 1983

Na’aman Diller

5. Trump card – 11 July 1968

Na’aman Diller and the station commander

6. Dangerous play – 6.20am, 15 April 1983

Na’aman Diller

7. Jack of Clubs – 11.30 am, 21 April 1983

Jack Ochs and Eli Ramii

8. King of Diamonds – 4 April 2008

Nicolas G. Hayek

9. Counting the cards – 20th August 2007

Jack Ochs and Dado Chaim

10. December 1982 – A trick in hearts

Na’aman and Nili

Epilogue

Author’s notes

1. Dealing the cards – 5 January 1783

Abraham-Louis Breguet

Abraham-Louis Breguet

“Monsieur Breguet, I would like to commission a watch.” Abraham-Louis Breguet looked up from his drawings, removed his glasses and placed them on the dark walnut desk. His clerk left the room after having announced the visitor.

“And what sort of watch do you require, Count Von Fersen?”

“It is to be a gift, for a person for whom you have already made a number of watches. I believe that she owns your perpetuelle watch…”

“Aah… we are speaking, then, of Queen Marie Antoinette? She was the first customer to order a watch with the perpetuelle invention.”

“I am sure you appreciate the importance of this order. And of the need for confidentiality.”

“I am accustomed to working on the most delicate of commissions. And so for the Queen, you would like something out of the ordinary?”

“More than that. It must be the most spectacular watch possible. It must contain every function. Cost is no object.”

“Count, the problem is not so much cost, but more about time. Did you want to give this watch to the Queen for a certain occasion? Because if you wish to present the gift, say, for Christmas this year, I would suggest choosing from one of our movements that we have already perfected.”

“Breguet, take all the time you need. It will be an honour and a pleasure to wait for the watch. I can pay you an advance immediately, with further payments as you progress. Thankfully I have no hurry, and the Queen is young. I would like it to be a monument to your watchmaking… to French horology.”

“It will be an interesting project. Let’s see: hours, minutes, seconds… seconds that can be stopped and restarted for precise setting, the perpetuelle mechanism that you mentioned, so that the watch winds itself; a perpetual calendar, with phases of the moon; the equation of time; a repeater that chimes hours, quarters and minutes on demand; my pare-chute shock-absorbing system, a power reserve indicator… a thermometer would be an interesting addition…”

“That sounds excellent. Monsieur Breguet, I would like to ask one thing: that as much as possible of the mechanism can be seen, and so consequently, the parts of the movement that you usually make in brass should be in gold, like the case.”

“Of course, that is possible. What is more, we could use rock crystal for the caseback, and for parts of the dial, and the front cover, in order to reveal more of the movement. Please, Count, let me accompany you to the clerk, and we shall transcribe the order in detail.” Breguet put his glasses back on and opened a large volume. “According to my ledger, this should be watch number 160.”

2. A bold opening – 11 July 1968

North American T-6

North American T-6, photo Bryce Bradford/flickr.com

He shouldn’t be there. He really shouldn’t be there, he thought, but it was an opportunity too good to miss. And surely, to be a good fighter pilot, you had to show initiative and be prepared to take risks, and so even if they noticed, he was sure they wouldn’t mind. Na’aman Diller looked down from the T-6 at the parched brown landscape and tried to pick out some features on his map. He had taken off for his last flight of the day, and the last flight in his Israeli Air Force training, with instructions for a brief navigational exercise. He had decided to fly about seventy miles further and stage a brief aerobatics display over the kibbutz on which he had been born and grew up.

He had an ulterior motive. Keren was one of the few things that he remembered with pleasure from his adolescence. His second cousin, dark hair and spectacular long dark eyelashes. She was three years younger than him but of a maturity well beyond her age. He hadn’t realized how much he missed her until he left the kibbutz to join the Air Force. He had asked another trainee pilot to bring him some red roses when he returned from leave, and he had been able to keep them in a reasonable state for three days. They were close to his feet in the cockpit, tied in a bunch, with a message (‘Hope you liked the show, much love from Na’aman’).

Navigation wasn’t simple. For quite a way there weren’t any obvious features, not even a road. Just the craggy brown rocks. But he had a plan: he had calculated the total distance, and knew how long he had to fly on the course. Once he was there, he would conduct a square search with legs a couple of miles long. He knew that the kibbutz stood out from a distance, because it was like an emerald green oasis in the desert. Sure enough, on the second leg, he saw a glinting reflection of the sun, now low on the horizon, to the west, and turned towards it. The dark blotch began to resolve into lakes and clumps of trees. When he could see it clearly, he opened the throttle, pushed the stick forward, and the T-6 began to pick up speed. It was a fairly antiquated plane, a pre-war trainer built by North American, with a long glass cockpit and a massive radial engine, and tough, military looks that had made it a favourite with Hollywood for war films in which it was used to simulate the Japanese Mitsubishi Zero.

Na’aman aimed for the front edge of the cultivated area and watched the air speed indicator, the flickering needle gradually edging towards 180 knots and beyond. He powered down, and saw a few people outside the buildings, their faces upturned, and as he flashed overhead just above the tree-tops he glimpsed their mouths open in surprise. He pulled out of the dive and zoomed up, leaving the throttle open but climbing almost vertically until the aircraft had virtually come to a stop. He kicked on the rudder pedal and swung into a perfect Immelmann turn, the plane rotating downwards and starting a vertical dive. He roared over the little settlement again, aiming at the treetops and clearing them by a few feet. On the other side of the kibbutz he turned tightly, wings almost vertical, and flew over yet again, throttle wide open, black smoke pouring from the exhausts. He slid open the side window and waved to the group of people looking up. Perhaps one of them was Keren. He would find out soon enough.

He throttled back to a 140-knot cruising speed and mentally calculated the course back to base. Only then he remembered the roses. He turned back and set a shallow diving turn, grabbed the roses and pushed them out of the window. The piece of string with the message caught in the window catch and slipstream whipped away the piece of card, before shredding the flowers. He glimpsed the roses tumbling and turning as they fell, and swore under his breath.

He returned onto the course for home, and glanced at the fuel gauge. He was shocked to see that it indicated less than a quarter tank. He had checked it for his first flight that morning… but then he remembered that he had not been the only trainee pilot using the T-6 that day. Running out of fuel was bad news because the T-6’s gliding performance was rather similar to a brick. He throttled back even more and climbed slowly to 5,000 feet. At least he had the radio beacon to guide him back to the aerodrome, and he settled down to fly as economically as possible.

Half an hour later, Diller was watching the sunset, but all his attention was on the fuel gauge as it crept towards zero. When he saw the lights of the flarepath in the distance, he felt a sense of relief, and a silent satisfaction of a challenge accomplished. He resisted the temptation to land straight away, and put the aircraft into a wide circuit around the airfield.

“Ein Shemer, T-6 Seven Echo Sierra, two miles southwest, inbound for landing.”

“T-6 Seven Echo Sierra, Ein Shemer Tower, enter right downwind, runway one six, report entering right downwind.”

“T-6 Seven Echo Sierra will report right downwind, one six.”

Diller put the undercarriage down, checked it was locked, and turned onto the downwind leg. His lips were dry and he was desperately thirsty.

“Ein Shemer Tower, Seven Echo Sierra, right downwind, one six.”

“T-6 Seven Echo Sierra, cleared to land.”

Diller acknowledged. “Cleared to land, Seven Echo Sierra.”

He crossed the perimeter fence and brought the T-6 down gently onto the runway. For most student pilots, landing was the hardest part of flying, and the T-6 wasn’t an easy plane to land because of its reduced visibility from the cockpit, and the massive weight of the engine at the front of the plane that made a ground loop an ever-present risk. But Diller was a naturally talented pilot, and his three-point landing was perfect as always. He cleared the runway and taxied back to the hangar. A tan-uniformed figure was standing, watching, waiting. The station commander.

3. Queen of Hearts – 16 October, 1793

Execution of Marie Antoinette

The execution

He shouldn’t be there. He really shouldn’t be there, he thought. A gigantic risk. A watchmaker, supplier of timepieces made in gold, silver and precious stones, whose customers included royalty and the aristocracy, in the revolutionary crowd watching an execution. Paris had become a dangerous place, and, had he not heard the tragic rumours, he would have already departed for the safety of Neuchâtel, his birthplace in Switzerland. But Abraham-Louis Breguet felt it as his duty to be here today, a tribute, a useless, personal tribute to a woman who had bought about a dozen of his watches and helped make them fashionable amongst the courts of all Europe.

He pulled the rough cape that he had borrowed from his coachman more tightly around himself, and felt a cold, sinking feeling in his stomach when the cart carrying the queen, the executioner and his assistant drew up at the bottom of the scaffold, about twenty yards from where he was standing. He could see that she was wearing just a simple white cotton dress, beneath which he could discern a black petticoat. Her hair had been cropped short under an ugly white woollen bonnet. Her hands were tied behind her back. She jumped off the open cart, followed by the executioner and his assistant. She had a light step, and climbed the scaffold unaccompanied. At the top, she turned, and looked over the crowds, to the Palace of Les Tuileries, once her home, and glanced briefly at the faces all turned towards her. Then she turned again and looked upwards at the shining steel blade. At that moment, Breguet saw that she had somehow managed to carry a watch with her. She was holding it in her right hand, the chain hanging down and swinging. He recognized it as the latest piece she had ordered, a simple pocket watch, very different to the elaborate timepiece that he and his assistants was building for her. He felt guilty about the fact that nine years had passed since Count von Fersen had ordered the watch, making all the payments requested. He had no idea when he would finish it.

Marie Antoinette turned, and to Breguet it seemed almost as if she were looking straight at him. He watched as she took a breath, as if to prepare to say something, just as her husband, king Louis XVI, had done three months before. But the executioner’s assistant took her right arm, another guard held her left, and forcibly propelled her to the horizontal board of the guillotine. They quickly slid her into position, and immediately the silvery blade fell and severed Marie Antoinette’s head. The executioner held the grotesque trophy briefly before throwing it into a basket.

Abraham-Louis was stunned by the rapidity with which the young woman had passed from life to death. He tried to memorize the details of what he had seen, but all that he could think of was his wonder at where the slender, graceful neck had gone. In the enormity of tragedy, he could only remember one detail: the instant in which the executioner had held Marie Antoinette’s head by her hair, and htere seemed to be just the head, no neck; and so he had looked down at the body, and there also, the neck had disappeared. Where had it gone?

He wondered about the watch as well. He thought back to when he was young, and his very first watch, and how, after months of work, he had placed the balance wheel and its spiral spring into position on the movement. The thrill that he had felt at the moment that the watch came to life could only be compared to the birth of his children. And now, the heart of one of his mechanical children was still beating, while that of its owner was still and lifeless, at the bottom of a widker basket. As the crowd began to disperse, Breguet took one more look at the body and blood of the woman who had been queen. And as he turned, anxious not to seem out of place, he resolved that he would take that watch with him to Neuchâtel and finish it there. The Queen. Number 160.

4. Ace of Diamonds – 11.30pm, 15 April 1983

Windows of the L.A. Mayer Museum of Islamic Art

Windows of the L.A. Mayer Museum of Islamic Art, courtesy of BBC 4, bbc.co.uk

Na’aman Diller parked his van and switched off the lights and engine. He waited for a couple of minutes in the alley, a cul-de-sac off HaNasi Street in Jerusalem, between the building, the L.A. Mayer Museum of Islamic Art, and a high wall, beyond which was a lonely car park. He was only a hundred metres from the Presidential Residence and its garrison of guards. Everything was quiet. He opened the door quietly, jumped down and went to the back. He pulled out an old stepladder and placed it between the van and the pink stone wall. He climbed up wearing gloves, a rubber mallet and screwdriver tucked into his belt, and when he reached the top, he used the tools to break a small plastic ventilation grille at one side of a small square window. He waited again: from his observations made during repeated visits, he was fairly sure that the alarm system wasn’t functioning, but you could never be sure…

The silence continued. He had chosen the time carefully: Friday evening, the day before the Sabbath, and therefore early closing. He put his hand into the vent, and felt for the window catch. A pull, and it opened towards the inside. He returned down the ladder, took a thin rolled-up mattress from the van, and climbed back up to the window, pushing it through. He untied the rope and the mattress unrolled as it fell. With a few more journeys back and forth to the truck, he brought up five cases full of materials and threw them through the window down onto the mattress. The last item was another, much lighter ladder, which he posted in through the window, positioning it carefully on the other side. Then he began the last and most difficult part, something that he had been practising, and had lost ten pounds weight to achieve. He had to get through the window, 70 centimetres wide and just forty centimetres high. He used his fingertips like a rock climber to grip the rough-hewn concrete blocks of the wall above the window, then he put his legs through, sat on the lower sill, put his feet on the ladder inside, and gradually wriggled down. He twisted around as he went, and was soon inside. He dragged in the outside ladder, shut the window, and put some tape over the broken vent. He didn’t want anyone to see any light from outside.

Everything according to plan. No alarm. He used a torch to position a microphone on a door which he knew led to part of the guard’s quarters, running a cable to a wireless transmitter, and putting on a pair of headphones. He would be able to hear any movements from in there, but he trusted that they would sleep soundly. He taped over the gap between doors and floor, then took two lamps from his bags and plugged them into the mains.
He had been there so many times that he could start work immediately. He really only wanted one watch, but after all the preparation and effort, he’d already decided to take as many as he could. He had identified the display cases that interested him most, and so he worked on them in order, cutting the glass using a diamond cutter, knocking it out using the rubber mallet, packing up the watches, and moving on to the next case. He packed each watch in corrugated cardboard, taping it closed, and placing it into a cardboard box. When each box was full, he added it to the stack near the window.

Two hours later he was beginning to feel tired. He took out a bottle of Coke and a couple of chocolate bars from his bag of tools, and went over to the far side of the hall, where there was a chair next to the door to which he had fixed his microphone. A guard used it during the day. He liked the idea of sitting there, gazing over the scene of wrecked display cases, shreds of cardboard and tape, just a few yards from where the guards were sleeping, oblivious to everything. If only I could film it, he thought, just to leave a trace…to be able to watch it again, relive the moment and revel in the boldness and perfection. He reached into his pocket and took out his key-ring, on which there was a small bottle opener, popped open the Coke, and drank deeply. He unwrapped a bar of fruit and nut chocolate and enjoyed a ten-minute break with lots of added sugar.

Na'aman Diller

Na’aman Diller, courtesy of BBC 4, bbc.co.uk

It was 4.40 in the morning. He left the Coke bottle and wrapping paper on the floor, and began the process of carrying everything outside. He rolled up the mattress, tied it with a piece of rope, switched off his electric lamp, and climbed up the ladder. He opened the window, poked the mattress outside, undid the knot and let the mattress fall to the ground where it obediently unrolled. Then, in the dim light of the approaching dawn, he carried each box up the ladder and dropped it out of the window onto the mattress, where it fell, bounced and rolled, but he was confident that the way he had packed the pieces would protect them, and if a few were damaged, what the hell? Collateral damage. He’d managed to take about a hundred watches, over half the total in the hall, including that large, complicated pocket watch that he didn’t really want and knew would be impossible to sell because it was unique, but worth taking along anyway.

He left the microphone, headset, wires, lamp, cardboard boxes and tape inside, and threw out the bags with his tools. Then he sprinkled some carefully-selected rubbish around, stuff that he’d taken from bins around the city: cigarette butts, sweet wrappers, more soft drink bottles. The last thing was getting himself out. He climbed up with the ladder again, struggled out, extracted the lightweight ladder from inside and let it fall onto the mattress. He pulled the window shut, climbed down the ladder quickly, went to the back of the van, and opened the door. He’d left it open to save time. He pushed hin the two ladders, slid the boxes inside, and then threw in the mattress and the tools. He had to work fast and efficiently. He carried out a lightning inspection of the area, and, satisfied that he had left nothing, ran to the cab, climbed up, and felt in his pocket for the keys.

At first he couldn’t understand why the familiar combination of keys and keyring wasn’t there, and tried the pocket on the other side. But then, with a jolt in his stomach, he remembered opening the bottle of Coke with the opener on the key-ring, and realized he had left the keys of the van inside, on the floor, near the chair next to the door that led into the guard’s quarters.

5. Trump card – 11 July 1968

North American T-6

North American T-6, photo Bryce Bradford/flickr.com

Shutting down a T-6 was a procedure that took a few minutes, with a checklist that he knew by heart. While operating the switches and levers as the massive engine in front chuckled with a series of pings and crackles as it cooled, he wondered what the station commander would say to him. He’d transformed a short navigational flight into a two-hour joyride, but he’d got the plane back on the ground without any damage. He hadn’t had time to organize the flight to perfection, but he’d got through with intelligence and improvisation. He unhooked the radio lead, opened the harness, slid back the hood and climbed out, down onto the wing and then onto the ground. He walked over to the station commander and saluted. Stony silence.

“Sir, I know that I changed the destination of the exercise, and that it took longer, but l solved a whole set of problems and brought the aircraft home intact…”

Still nothing from the commander.

“I think that I was applying the techniques that we have been taught, including the need to find solutions in the case of unexpected developments…”

The commander remained silent. Diller looked at him, his powerful, sunburnt, lined face with wide cheekbones tapering down to a projecting chin, on which end-of-day bristles were beginning to appear in the same salt-and-pepper colours of his close-cropped hair just visible below the cap. He was perfectly still except for a slight movement of the right temple, perhaps the tensing of a tiny muscle, or the pulsation of an artery.

“So, Diller, what would you like to fly?”

“Ah… you mean, now, sir?”

“No, once you have completed your training. Usually, they answer ‘fast jets’.”

“Yes, sir, of course, fast jets.”

“Good. And in that category, do you have a preference? Mig, Skyhawk, Mirage, Phantom?”

“Sir… a jet in the Israeli forces, so a Mirage or a Phantom.”

“I see. But what do you want to achieve in life, by flying a Mirage or a Phantom? Or being in the Israeli Air Force? What is your mission?”

“Sir, my mission? I don’t understand.”

“What do you want to be remembered for, at the end of your career?”

“Sir, I wouldn’t be so presumptuous…”

“Just answer the question, Diller.”

“To be honest, sir… I would like to leave a mark. I would like to be remembered as a good pilot, the best… a pilot who solves problems, who has ideas, who is creative in the air. Someone who succeeds in a mission even when things go wrong.”

“So, your aim is to be a creative pilot. An aerial composer. A flying genius. Someone like that French guy, Saint Exupéry, the writer who flew with a book and a notepad?”

Na’aman felt his chin nodding, stopped it immediately and said, “No sir, not in that sense. I believe in total dedication to the task in hand, to my comrades and country.”

“You don’t, Diller. A pilot is a soldier. A soldier obeys orders. There was a pilot on the same squadron as me during last year’s raids. We were ordered to take off for a mission, except for him, because his aircraft was due for routine maintenance checks. He took off anyway with us, the oxygen system failed at twenty-five thousand feet. He and his observer just fell asleep and ended up destroying their plane, and themselves. You disobeyed orders, and you were lucky to get the plane and yourself back without damaging anything. So, Na’aman Diller, tomorrow you will be off the airfield, and, as soon as possible, you will be out of the Israeli Air Force, for ever. You will be dishonourably discharged. There will be no appeal. Now get the hell out of my sight and go and be creative somewhere else. The Air Force has no need for cowboys like you.”

“B… b… but sir…”

“No buts, Diller, You have flown your last flight. I hope you enjoyed it.”

6. Dangerous play – 6.20am, 15 April 1983

Wooden ladder

The wooden ladder, courtesy of BBC 4, bbc.co.uk

He couldn’t understand how he could have been so stupid. In a few seconds of intense thought, he reviewed his possible courses of action. He could try to start the van by shorting the ignition, but he’d never done this before, and would run the risk of permanently disabling the vehicle. He could steal a car and transfer the watches, but this would take too long, and it would also need specialist knowledge which he didn’t have. He could abandon everything and leave on foot. Or he could go back inside.

In practice this meant that there was just one course of action, and he had to act fast. He jumped down from the van, opened the back, and pulled out the heavy stepladder from under the jumble of boxes on top, swearing under his breath as the corners of the boxes caught in the rungs. He hadn’t planned on needing the ladders again, otherwise he would have stowed them one on each side. He put the ladder up against the wall, ran back to the van, dragged out the second ladder, and climbed up to the window, pushing it open and sliding the second ladder through. This time, wriggling through took less time, and in a moment he was inside. The room was just light enough for him to be able to pick his way through the rubbish that he had left, across the room to the chair at the far end. He picked up the keys from the floor on the left of the chair, considered whether to put the earphones on again, but rejected the idea. He thought he could hear some faint noises from the other side, a shuffling, scraping noise. It was time to go.

He climbed the ladder, bundled himself out of the window, and slid down to the ground. He decided to leave the ladders there, and the window open. The likelihood that someone would alert the police or the guards over the next hour or so, before the guards performed their morning inspection and discovered the theft, was small enough to be ignored. He shut the back door of the van, ran to the front, jumped in and switched on the engine. He drove away quietly, later accelerating as he turned onto highway 50 north and then highway 1 west. His heart gradually stopped thumping, and the feeling of panic was gradually replaced by a heady elation. He mentally reviewed the night’s events and felt certain that he hadn’t made any mistakes.

7. Jack of Clubs – 11.30 am, 21 April 1983

Scene of the crime

Scene of the crime, courtesy of BBC 4, bbc.co.uk

“So, what have we got?” Jack Ochs looked up at his assistant, detective Eli Ramii. Mohlco was lucky, considering his rank, to have a fairly attractive office in the Jerusalem police building. If all his cases went like this, he didn’t know how much longer he’d have it.

“We’ve got a lot of evidence. Wires, electornic equipment, cardboard, tape, lots of prints. We’ve checked them all, it looks like four people were in there, and none correspond to anyone on our files. No security cameras. The guards heard nothing. We thought they must have had inside help and we interrogated the entire staff. They weren’t happy. It looks to me like, whoever they were, they pulled off the perfect crime.”

Jack Ochs lit a cigarette. “It may have been the perfect crime, but sooner or later they’re going to have to share out the booty. And the only way they can do that is by selling the watches. The insurance company are going to have to pay the museum about 300 million dollars. If there are three people in the gang, and they manage to recoup twenty percent of the watch’s current value, that’s still 20 million dollars each. But you know what? Nearly all these pieces are unique. Most antique dealers would immediately link any oe of these watches to the crime. And it’s then that we’ll get them.”

“It was so well-prepared, right down to bringing their own lights and listening apparatus. And not bothering to clear up. They were meticulous, but brass-faced as well.”

“I wonder,” said Jack. Eli looked up, waiting for his boss to finish the sentence. “What if it was one person?”

“Why one person when all the evidence suggests a group?”

“All the evidence, ha ha. All we have are four different brands of cigarettes, a half-finished sandwiches and a few snack bar wrappings. It’s just that it reminds me of another break-in, it must have been back in 1967 in Tel Aviv. This kibutznik called Diller, he spent five months digging a tunnel in a back yard somewhere. He was in full view, he told people he was from the electricity company. He kept digging and installed a pipe running underground, from the street to right under a bank, with its vaults. One night, he took some dynamite in, blew up the safes, and took away thousands in cash and diamonds. He was only caught because he went home, had a rest and a shower, and returned to the pipe. But a few locals had heard something and the Tel Aviv police were there to catch him. This watches thing, it’s a bit different, but it’s the same sort of style. Let’s find out where the guy is right now.”

Eli was back a couple of hours later. “He’s out of the country, boss. It can’t be him.”

“Tell me more,” said Jack.

“On the eighth of February he left for New York on a Panam flight. He’d applied for a visa at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv in November 1982. He’s still there now.”

“Why did he go to the States?”

“It was a combined business and pleasure visa. At the moment we don’t know much else about what he’s doing there.”

“You’d better get confirmation from the American authorities about where he is. Though I guess we’ll have to keep looking here.”

8. King of Diamonds – 4 April 2008

Press release

Nicolas G. Hayek presents the replica Marie Antoinette watch, reference 1160

Nicolas G. Hayek presents the replica Marie Antoinette watch, Breguet reference 1160

Today, Nicolas G. Hayek, President of Swatch Group, presented the watch Breguet n° 1160, known as the ‘Marie-Antoinette.’ Marie-Antoinette was driven by a truly passionate desire for Breguet watches. Keen to possess any auspicious novelty, she had acquired a number of timepieces, including a ‘perpétuel’ watch embellished with a self-winding device developed by Breguet. In 1783, one of her admirers ordered from the workshops in the Quai de l’Horloge, the most spectacular watch possible, incorporating the entire body of horological science of the time, as a gift to the queen. The order specified that gold should, wherever possible, be used instead of other metals, and that the complications should be both multiple and varied. Unconstrained by limitations of cost or time, Breguet had a free hand.

The queen never had the opportunity to admire the timepiece. It was not completed until 1827, 34 years after her death, 44 years after it was ordered and four years after the death of the founder. Breguet n° 160 entered into watchmaking legend from 1783. Its extreme complexity, its roots and its story, as fabulous as it is epic, have haunted the watchmaking landscape and the minds of collectors for more than two centuries. More recently, its destiny shrouded in mystery – stolen from a Jerusalem museum and lost for decades – has written a new page in the saga.

In 2005, Nicolas G. Hayek set himself the challenge of reproducing it identically. After almost three years of work by a team of engineers and watchmakers, just when the manufacture of the watch had reached its end in 2007, the spoils of the 1983 robbery suddenly appeared as if by magic in Jerusalem. To date, Nicolas G. Hayek and his team have not yet had the opportunity of inspecting the original made by the company founder.

9. Counting the cards – 20th August 2007

On the set of Southlands, police office

On the set of Southlands, police office, photo Bob Parker/flickr.com

“So, what have we got?” Jack Ochs had not even completed the familiar phrase when he was struck by the feeling of déjà vu. This time it was for real. The new chief of police had invited him as a courtesy. To help his senior come to terms with his past.

“You know, I said the same thing to Eli Ramii; he was my assistant back then, 25 years ago. At that time, we didn’t have anything. But now it’s all come together at last.”

“Yep,” said Dado Chaim. The Sergeant-Major was leading a new investigation into the 1983 wathes theft. “You were right back then. The case came alive again when someone tried to sell the watches. A lawyer from Tel Aviv contacted the museum director, Rachel Hasson. After negotiation, Hasson bought the watches – just 43 pieces – for thirty thousand dollars, and put them into the museum safe…”

“Thirty thousand. Ironic really. At that stage, the problem was the insurance, I suppose.”

“That’s right. The museum had received millions from the insurance company, and deciding how much had to be paid back took months. Hasson only contacted us after they’d resolved that part of the question.”

“You can’t help wondering,” said Jack, “whether it was all a set-up by the museum. They got the insurance money, and even got back half their watches.”

“It’s a logical conclusion. But, just like you back then, we talked to everyone still left to talk to, and we couldn’t find anything that remotely suggested an inside job. Or any sort of inside help.”

“And in the end, it was Diller on his own. Amazing.”

“Yes. If you’d have had the technology we have now, you would have got him straight away. Stuff like closed-circuit TV cameras and DNA fingerprinting. Though I must say, something went wrong in your efforts to trace him in America.”

“Well, in the end we just had the information from U.S. immigration. He arrived in New York in February, and returned to Israel in August.”

“But in actual fact, on the eighth of February he flew from Tel Aviv to New York as Na’aman Diller, carrying another passport in his case. He returned on the twelfth as Ned Lidor, did the raid on the night between the fourteenth and fifteenth of April, stashed the watches in bank boxes and left luggage offices, went back to New York as Ned Lidor, and finally returned as Na’aman Diller in August.”

“Diller had never done anything like that before, I mean, forged documents. But it would have fitted into the scheme of things, the way that he worked. He was a bit like an Olympics marathon athlete: four years training, dedication and planning, just for that one big day. Everything worked right for him, we missed him, it really was the perfect crime. The truth only emerged when he died, three years ago by now…”

“That’s right. He hadn’t said anything to his wife Nili. He married her, but only four years ago, and told her about the watches just a few days before he died. It was after that that she started making moves to sell them. She asked a lawyer to contact the museum, they went ahead with the purchase and then contacted us. From the lawyer, we traced Nili Shamrat. We discovered that she had married Na’aman Diller in 2003, but they’d been lovers for years. We haven’t been able to question her – she’s in the States – but we think that they met at about the time of the raid.”

The two men were silent for a moment. Ochs stood up and went to the window, staring out over the city rooftops.

“It was good of you to ask me here.. to my old office. Sort of like to close the case once and for all. But there’s still something that doesn’t fit…”

“I know. The motive.”

“I mean, robbing a bank is one thing. You cart away the money, launder it, and it keeps you going for a bit. But what was the point of stealing three hundred million worth of watches? He never tried to sell them. He just kept them, all over the place.”

Chaim nodded.

“I thnk that that’s a secret he took to the grave.”

10. December 1982 – A trick in hearts

Elegant couple

Photo by Lynn Friedman/flickr.com

“Pardon?” said Nili.

“I said, could I walk you home?” The music was still loud in the hall, and both of them felt their ears buzzing.

“It’s been a great party, it was such a pleasure to meet you… I’d appreciate another few minutes of your company…”

“And what if I live miles away?”

“Oh, no problem, I’d call for a taxi.”

“Well… alright then… Na’aman, you said your name was? Sorry, the music was so loud. Hand on, let me look for my coat. Have you got a cigarette?”

Na’aman helped her with her French cashmere trench coat, gently lifting her masses of long, dark, wavy hair as she adjusted the collar. He offered her a cigarette and lit it for her, then lit one for himself. They walked out onto the street in a city where people celebrate the same sort of things as in other places, but at different times. The acrid smell of fireworks still hung on the air.

“So, mister Na’aman, apart from being a good dancer, what else do you do in life?”

“Oh, really boring stuff. I’m an investment consultant. You know, helping people make their money work for them.”

“Yes, I know what they do, and you look the right type for it.” She looked at him from head to foot. “But you’re missing something to be really convincing.”

“Huh?”

“Look at me. Describe what you see.”

“Ah… well… you have a curious way of standing, like a Renaissance contrapposto. The rest is all very beautiful, I must say…”

“I know that. I want the details.”

“OK, from top down, smart hair-do – I love the curls on your forehead…” he ventured a hand to her hair, lifted it back from her ear – “earrings in pearl and… steel…”

“White gold…”

“A black dress, looks good on you, but I’d need to see the label…”

“Chanel of course.”

“Coat… the bag’s easy, it’s got the name on the clasp. Stockings, heels… hang on, I’m forgetting the important things, right? There was a necklace, I remember, probably pearls again. Stop for a moment.”

Nili stopped obediently, and Na’aman stepped in front of her. He took her hand theatrically and examined her ring.

“Hmm, unusual the way it seems to float above the fingers. Cartier, I suppose?”

“No, Van Cleef & Arpels. She started walking. “Now, do the same thing for yourself.”

“OK, point taken. But are you saying that class is the same as fashion? In that case, I’m not sure i agree.”

“No, class is class, and that’s all there is to it. But don’t worry, Na’aman, you look like a nice guy. Stay that way. I’ve arrived.”

She opened her bag and took out her keys.

“Thanks for walking me home.”

Na’aman took her left hand in his right, lifted it, but before bowing his head he succumbed to an impetus of desire. He put his left hand behind her shoulder and attempted a kiss. Nell stopped him, raising her hand and putting it on his chin.

“Na’aman, you’re a nice guy,” she said, “but..:”

She took his left hand, and pulled back the cuffs of his coat and jacket, revealing a black plastic digital watch.

“I mean, Na’aman, there’s no way I’m going to date a man who wears a watch like that.”

Epilogue

Several of the characters in this story never saw the watch known as the Queen. Marie-Antoinette was executed 35 years before the watch was delivered in 1827, 44 years after its commission by Count Axel von Fersen. Abraham-Louis Breguet himself died four years before its completion. The company managed by his son xxx sold it to another client, Marquis de la Grose, who took it back for repairs in 1838 but never collected it. From then on, it changed hands many times before reaching the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem.

Nicolas G. Hayek, CEO of Swatch Group which had purchased Breguet in 1999, died in 2010, two years after presenting the replica, without having seen the original Marie-Antoinette watch.

Author’s notes

The page from the Breguet archives detailing work on watch number 160.

The page from the Breguet archives detailing work on watch number 160. Courtesy of BBC 4, bbc.co.uk

Jack Ochs, Eli Ramii and Dado Chaim are invented names. The other people in the story correspond to real people; all conversations have been invented. I have tried to keep as close as possible to the facts, adding extra invented detail, but there is one thing that I deliberately changed: Abraham-Louis Breguet probably left Paris before the execution of Marie Antoinette.

There is nothing in the Breguet archives about the person who commissioned watch number 160. Count Hans Axel von Fersen has often been suggested in this regard: this Swedish nobleman was a close friend, perhaps a lover, of Marie Antoinette.

The Swatch Group press release in Chapter 8 is a shortened and abridged version of the original.

In October 2016, BBC 4 transmitted a documentary titled ‘The incredible story of Marie Antoinette’s watch with Nicholas Parsons,’ also available on their website for about a month. Some of the images in this article are stills from that programme.

Breguet are currently sponsoring an exhibition dedicated to Marie Antoinette in Japan, a partnership with the Château de Versailles. This follows the brand’s sponsorship of the restoration of the Petit Trianon. The exhibition titled “Marie Antoinette, a Queen in Versailles” will be held from Tuesday, 25 October 2016 to Sunday, 26 February 2017 at the Mori Arts Center Gallery in Tokyo, Japan.

© Ambrose Lancaster 2016

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