Night At The Museum

photo credit: daniel torres jr.
photo credit: daniel torres jr.

On this day in 1964, a pair of amateur jewel thieves, Allan Kuhn and Jack Murphy, broke into the American Museum of Natural History in New York and got away with stones worth $410,000. The gems were part of the Morgan-Tiffany collection and included the ‘Star of India’, a star sapphire the size of a golf ball. It is one of the largest such stones in the world. Also taken were the Midnight Star Sapphire which is a large violet stone, the DeLong Star Ruby, the Eagle Diamond, several emeralds, two large aquamarines and over a hundred other natural diamonds. Historically speaking, the collection was priceless, but because the premiums were prohibitively high, it was not insured.

Murphy and Kuhn, along with their accomplice Roger Clark, had come to New York from Miami to visit the World’s Fair. They also saw a film, Topkapi, which is about a jewellery theft at a Museum in Istanbul. The prosecution would later suggest that they were inspired by the plot. When they visited the City’s Natural History Museum and saw the gems, they began to hatch their plan. They made frequent visits to the museum and thought they could easily get in by climbing up the outside and getting in through a window.

It does seem to have been remarkably easy. They climbed over an eight-foot fence and up a ladder on the outside of the building. This took them up to the fourth floor, where the Gem Hall was situated. From there, they climbed to the floor above, tied a rope to a pillar and used it to swing down to a window ledge. Every one of the nineteen sash windows of the Gem Hall had been left open. A gap of two inches at the top provided ventilation. It was an easy matter to slide down the window and get in. Using a glass cutter, they emptied a case of diamonds and a case of emeralds. Then, they turned their attention to the case containing the Star of India, the DeLong Ruby and the Midnight Star. Here, the glass cutting went less well and they had to smash their way into the case. It was noisy, but no one seemed to hear. When they lifted the Star of India from its display, they saw a needle pop up. It was the only stone that had been attached to an alarm. When they heard nothing, they assumed it was a silent alarm and left quickly with their haul. In fact the battery on the device had been dead for months and no alarm sounded anywhere.

The theft was not discovered until the following morning. No prints were found, but the men hadn’t been very discreet about their operation. The place where they had been staying was soon found and searched. There, the police found a floor plan of the museum, books about gems and their accomplice Roger Clark. He told them that Murphy and Kuhn had flown to Miami. There was a bit of a fiasco in which they were all arrested, released on bail and then arrested again for a different crime. Then the police were faced with the problem that the men they had under lock and key were the only ones who could help them recover the jewels. Kuhn was allowed to return to Miami under a heavy police escort. The case had been highly publicised and they found themselves struggling to stay one step ahead of the reporters that pursued them everywhere. On January 8th 1965, two bags were recovered from a locker at Miami’s bus station. Inside were the Star of India, the Midnight Star, five emeralds and two aquamarines. The ruby and smaller gems were still missing.

The three men were sentenced to three years on Riker’s Island for their crime. The DeLong Ruby was recovered eight months later, after a $25,000 dollar ransom was paid, from inside the roof on a Miami telephone box. The Eagle Diamond and other smaller stones were never recovered.

Most of the stones taken in the robbery have a well documented provenance, we know where they came from. This is not so with the Star of India. We know that it was mined in Sri Lanka. George Frederick Kunz, who acquired it for the collection, told us that it had a three hundred year history, but he never told us what it was or how he got hold of the stone in the first place. Perhaps October 29th 1964 was not the first time it was stolen.