Feathers of the Gods: A spectacular case of mistaken identity
This story is an extract from our new book, Feathers of the Gods and Other Stories from the Australian Museum, in which scientists, collection managers, coordinators, conservators, archivists and volunteers share their favourite tales inspired by our collections.
The world’s largest diamonds have always held great fascination, and even displays of convincing imitations will help to satisfy the public’s curiosity. The curiosity of some individuals, however, can lead to obsession and even to crime, as was the case with the Australian Museum’s Great ‘Diamond’ Heist of 1968.
In December 1900 the Australian Museum made a payment of three pounds to the Mont de Pieté Pawnbroking Co., Sydney, for a set of 14 glass models of the world’s largest and most famous cut diamonds, including the Koh-I-Noor and the Orloff diamonds. Once the world’s largest known diamond, the Koh-I-Noor was confiscated from India to become part of the British Crown Jewels in 1877 and is now set into the Crown of Queen Elizabeth II.
The Orloff diamond, the size and shape of half a hen’s egg, also originally came from India, but was given to Catherine the Great of Russia by her former lover Count Grigory Orloff and incorporated into the Imperial Sceptre of the Russian Crown Jewels in 1784.
The Museum’s collection of sparkling imitations formed the basis of a popular display in the Mineral Gallery. On the evening of 30 March 1968, however, a thief hid in the Museum after closing time, smashed the display case and fled with 17 diamond models. The thief was obviously not very familiar with the appearance of genuine diamonds and may have been misled by the well-cut stones, but they had been clearly labelled as ‘models’.
Another clue that the haul was made up of fakes was that it included replicas of both the original cut and the re-cut versions of the Koh-I-Noor diamond – of course, the two could not have existed at the same time.
The diamond models mysteriously reappeared some months later, on 2 July 1968, when a torn brown paper parcel tied with string arrived from Vancouver, Canada. Addressed to the ‘Royal Museum, Sydney’ and labelled ‘Shels [sic], Mineral Stones’, the parcel included a note that said, ‘Sorry gentleman [sic], they are not real’.
The thief had also most obligingly put his name on the Customs Declaration label. Close inspection of the returned glass models revealed grooves where their hardness had been tested with a file. Curiously, the returned models included an extra one that had never been in the Museum’s collection.
There is an intriguing sequel to this story. In 1998 Lin Sutherland, then a Principal Research Scientist at the Australian Museum, was attending an International Mineralogical Association conference in Toronto, Canada. He happened to mention the story of the 1968 theft to a curator from the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM).
The curator looked thoughtful, and then related that the ROM had also had models of the world’s famous cut diamonds stolen. Similarly, these were returned with a note saying they were not real, along with an extra model.
Investigations ensued, checking whether the two museums had received each other’s missing stones. Unfortunately, it appeared that the extra models were from neither museum, so the thief must have stolen models from other institutions, too.
The mystery of the bonus stones remains unsolved.
The theft of the diamond models reveals much about human nature and obsession and contains a lesson for anyone who visits the Museum. The misguided thief failed to perform the most basic duty of a museum visitor – to read the labels.
For more stories like this see our Feathers of the Gods page.