Chronicling a grand diamond heist

By Jonathan Lopez
Globe Correspondent / February 6, 2010

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No vault, however secure, is impregnable. No criminal scheme, however cunning, is foolproof.

Well-constructed heist stories exploit the tension between these simple truths to produce a grand clash of vigilance and nerve, pitting a fortune’s defenders against its would-be usurpers. Such forces animated Steven Soderbergh’s glittering 2001 Rat Pack homage “Ocean’s Eleven.’’ And the formula is deployed with equal skill - and somewhat greater plausibility - in the new true-crime chronicle “Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History,’’ about a nighttime robbery at the Antwerp Diamond Center that netted thieves more than $100 million worth of precious stones during Valentine’s Day weekend in 2003.

Co-written by journalist Greg Campbell, author of “Blood Diamonds,’’ and Scott Andrew Selby, an attorney and diamond expert, “Flawless’’ offers a riveting narrative based on extensive research into the theft, including interviews with investigators, victims, and several of the perpetrators. Campbell and Selby reconstruct the crime, step by step, from its earliest planning stages to its execution and aftermath, plunging us headlong into the clandestine realm of the “School of Turin,’’ the network of allegedly mob-connected Italian criminals responsible for the robbery.

Following the exploits of the ring’s legman, Leonardo Notarbartolo, who cased the Diamond Center for two years by posing as a legitimate dealer in gems, we learn of the impressive security measures in place at the facility - round-the-clock guards, a vault with 18-inch-thick steel doors, multiple locks requiring separate keys and combinations, high-tech motion, vibration, and heat sensors - as well as the ingenious methods that the School of Turin devised to penetrate each successive layer of protection. Along the way, we are introduced to the history, structure, and customs of the international diamond trade and discover the vital role played in that industry by the City of Antwerp, where $50 billion worth of shimmering jewels change hands each year.

Campbell and Selby are particularly adept at drawing out the perverse symmetries that lie at the story’s heart: Just as a few careless oversights in the Diamond Center’s otherwise rigorous defenses allow the School of Turin to set its plans into motion, a series of uncharacteristically reckless blunders proves to be the thieves’ eventual, if only partial, undoing. The key conspirators are currently in prison, but the whereabouts of the loot remain a mystery.

At the book’s outset, the authors note that they encountered “conflicting details, divergent opinions, and incongruous theories,’’ in the course of their investigations. They have therefore relied on a “triangulation of facts from reliable sources’’ in composing their text. This technique allows them to provide a swift, cinematic account, but their sourcing remains a bit vague throughout. The fly-on-the-wall narration of the actual robbery seems, for instance, to be based on eyewitness testimony, yet it is unclear how the authors obtained their information.

Such questions of evidence begin to loom large toward the end of the book, when we learn that Notarbartolo, working from his jail cell, has teamed up with a competing journalist to write a very different description of what transpired at the Antwerp Diamond Center. In Notarbartolo’s version, a dark conspiracy of unidentified Jews is said to have been the true driving force behind the heist. The existence of a conflicting story - even one that is patently tendentious and improbable - suggests that Campbell and Selby might have been better served by adopting a traditional expository model, despite the possible loss of style and drama.

Jonathan Lopez is a columnist for Art & Antiques and author of “The Man Who Made Vermeers,’’ a biography of the forger Han van Meegeren.

FLAWLESS: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History By Scott Andrew Selby and Greg Campbell

Union Square, 336 pp., $24.95