When the boxer Amir Khan clinched his sport’s world championship in 2020, he spent almost $90,000 on a bespoke rose-gold-and-diamond chronograph from Franck Muller. Then, last spring, it was snatched from his wrist at gunpoint after he left a London restaurant. Several of his fellow diners had been accomplices—so-called watch spotters who tipped off the thief to the target in their midst.
This theft is only one example of a disturbing new trend: the most identifiable trappings of wealth, especially watches and jewelry, are targeted in brazen robberies that often take place in the world’s toniest enclaves.
Recently, in London’s Chelsea neighborhood, two men used a stun gun to steal a $120,000 watch from an American tourist. Even worse was the gunshot wound inflicted on an unsuspecting diner in 2021 at Il Pastaio in Beverly Hills during the robbery of jeweler Shay Belhassen’s rose-gold Richard Mille RM 11-03 Flyback Chronograph, worth $500,000.
It’s happening to well-protected Hollywood types as well. Kim Kardashian’s ordeal during Paris Fashion Week in 2016 was only the beginning. Actor Jodie Turner-Smith’s hotel room was ransacked during the Cannes Film Festival last May, likely targeting jewels she borrowed that were worth around $22,000. When two moped-riding robbers grabbed a Patek Philippe worth $42,000 from the wrist of actor Daniel Auteuil as he strolled the streets of Naples last summer, the mayor’s unhelpful response was an apology—and the offer of a cheap plastic replica to wear in its stead.
Theft of high-priced trinkets has become such a phenomenon that one of its unintended consequences is that auction houses are being flooded with the stuff. ” A lot of clients are selling their collections,” says a specialist at Sotheby’s in Monaco, explaining that many are now afraid to wear expensive jewelry in public. (He does, however, take pains to mention that the principality is a rare safe haven in which to drip with diamonds. With video cameras on nearly every street and one officer for every 73 residents, it has the densest police presence in the world.)
Why are such robberies on the rise? Budget cuts at police departments in many municipalities may be one factor; the New York Police Department’s budget fell by 2.8 percent from 2019 to 2022. “There doesn’t seem to be a lot of accountability in these [robberies], as long as no one got hurt,” says Gregory J. Smith of Berkley Asset Protection, a security service that specializes in protecting the wealthy and their possessions. “If there are no consequences, [criminals] will take bigger risks.”
Two men used a stun gun to steal a $120,000 watch from an American tourist.
The rise of social media has been another factor, as the wealthy often use their watches or other flashy possessions as catnip for likes or followers on Instagram. Those posts can tip off thieves both to the existence of the booty and its whereabouts. “We have issued notes to the insurance brokers to pass on to their clients saying, ‘Don’t share where you are at the moment—share the memory of where you were later,’” says Smith.
Drew Neckar, president of Security Advisors Consulting Group, agrees. When he was hired by a newly installed C.E.O., one of his first orders of business was to analyze the social-media footprints of one client’s family members. The parents weren’t the problem—the couple’s teenage daughter, who posted regularly about her trips and purchases, required a talking-to. Another one of Neckar’s clients was compromised by his home’s floor plan, which was easily accessed online and could be used as a road map for a home invasion.
Income inequality could also be contributing to the rise of these thefts. “There’s an idea that these people must be bad because they’re rich, so [thieves] are just taking what’s rightfully theirs,” says Neckar. One of the gang members charged with robbing Kardashian cited her family’s reality show as justification for his crime. “Since she was throwing money away, I was there to collect it, and that was that,” he said later.
Don’t believe those excuses, warns Dr. Stanton Samenow, a psychologist and author of Inside the Criminal Mind. “One thing that’s important in understanding the psychology of criminals is that what they tell others when they’re held accountable often has nothing to do with the real reasons they committed the crime,” he says of these modern-day Robin Hoods. “These people do know right from wrong, and they don’t give a rat’s tail about the poor.”
Rachel Shteir, an academic and author of The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting, suggests that there are other factors at work. Namely, empty storefronts on the toniest shopping streets in the world. “In Chicago, the Magnificent Mile is unmagnificent now,” she says. “So there are not as many shoplifting targets. Theft from individuals is rising because these people are now functioning as a kind of store, especially influencers who are paid by Vuitton or Givenchy to sell their goods. The thieves are just doing what they have always done, but taking it one step further: robbing the entities that are selling goods. The only difference is that now they’re people.”
Consider this yet another reason to keep your flashiest possessions off the streets—or, at the very least, off the Internet.
As he says, Mark Ellwood focuses on “froth in all its forms.” He has written for AIR MAIL about the turmoil inside Moda Operandi. He is also a columnist for Bloomberg Pursuits, the creator and a co-host of Bloomberg’s Travel Genius podcast, and the author of Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World