It was cocktail hour and the Ritz hotel’s celebrated Hemingway bar was filling up, when the refined atmosphere of one of Paris’s most luxurious palace hotels was shattered by masked robbers armed with axes and pistols.
Letting off a few rounds to show they meant business, the three men set to work smashing display cases and bundling watches and jewels – whose price tags only the five-star establishment’s guests can afford – into bags.
When Ernest Hemingway declared: “When I dream of afterlife in heaven, the action always takes place at the Paris Ritz,” it is doubtful the American writer had this in mind.
Among the tourists enjoying a pre-dinner apéritif was the best-selling French author Frédéric Beigbeder, who was sipping a Moscow mule when the robbers struck.
Like most people in the bar, Beigbeder fled, assuming, as most do these days, it was a terrorist attack. Staff locked down the bar and ushered guests into the kitchen and basement.
The attack on the Ritz was the latest in a string of audacious multimillion-pound jewel heists in the French capital over recent years.
One of the most high-profile involved the reality TV star Kim Kardashian West, robbed at gunpoint inside her room at a luxury private mansion in 2016 by a gang disguised as police officers who made off with million of pounds-worth of cash and jewellery.
The Ritz robbers’ modus operandi was the same as a successful attack on the Buccellati jewellery store a stone’s throw from Place Vendôme – location of the Ritz – last May, when thieves made off with more than €6m (£5.3m) from display cases, a robbery that came two days after armed men stormed a flat in the chic 16th arrondissement and stole a €4m ring.
Many of these spectacular jewel heists, including those in London, Tokyo, the French Riviera and Dubai, have been attributed to the Pink Panthers, a network of ex-soldiers and criminals from the former Yugoslavia, mostly Serbs – some veterans of the Bosnian war – whose international exploits have won almost grudging admiration from criminologists.
However, the bungled Ritz attack, while daring, lacked the precision and planning of the notorious gang.
Three of the robbers had entered the hotel via the discreet staff and delivery entrance at the rear of the 18th-century mansion, adjoining the French interior ministry, that reopened in 2016 after four years of renovations, in Rue Cambon, a narrow one-way street. They left two accomplices outside, one in a car, the other on a scooter.
There are high-end boutiques in this back area of the hotel, near the Hemingway bar, and more than 90 display cases in the gallery that stretches the length of the building to the main entrance.
After smashing and grabbing an estimated €4.5m-worth of watches and jewels, the three turned to retrace their steps and make their getaway to find they had overlooked a vital element: the hotel’s security system, which had automatically locked all the doors and alerted a passing police patrol.
One of the gang managed to throw a bag of jewels out of a window and it was grabbed by the accomplice on the scooter who sped off, the wrong way down Rue Cambon, hit a pedestrian and dropped the bag.
Police are still doing an inventory of the items snatched, but have suggested most – if not all – have been recovered. Three of the robbers, all of whom were in their 20s and 30s, are reportedly known to police in connection with other armed robberies, violence and receiving stolen goods – including one allegedly on bail for robberies at the exclusive Chopard jewellers in 2015 and Chanel in 2016 – and were arrested at the scene. The other two are still being sought. The getaway car was found burned out in one of Paris’s northern suburbs.
Sandrine Marcot, the president of the French jewellers and watchmakers union, said even high-security glass was no match for an axe, but that jewel crimes had dropped to a 10th of previous levels since 2013, when the French interior ministry set up a special unit to track stolen gems.
“It’s no longer interesting to sell jewels, especially if they are unsellable,” Marcot told LCI radio.
The Paris record remains the 2008 heist at the Harry Winston store when a group of thieves dressed in women’s clothing and wigs snatched a haul worth nearly €100m. A year earlier the same thieves, eight of whom are now behind bars, snatched about €30m-worth of jewels from the same store.
Twenty-four hours after the robbery at the Ritz, the refined atmosphere had returned to the hotel, which is owned by the Egyptian billionaire Mohamed Al Fayed and where the price of rooms start at €1,000 a night.
Out on the Place Vendôme, the Christmas trees were still sparkling as brightly as the jewels in the hastily repaired display cases and the black limousines with their smoked windows lined up. Out the back staff smoked on the pavement and the voituriers – vehicle valets – stood chatting.
And in the Hemingway bar where it was cocktail hour once more, guests were shaken but not stirred.