In a scene worthy of George Clooney’s screen alter-ego, the gentleman thief Danny Ocean, a robber threatens to blow up a high-end jewellery store on La Croisette in Cannes with a hand-grenade. While his accomplice points a gun at staff, the robber fills a sport holdall with expensive watches and heads for the door. Suddenly, he stops and turns. “Desole,” he says to the terrified sales staff, “C’est la crise.” (Sorry, it’s the economic crisis).

As a film script, the scene would have been cut as overly implausible. Of late, however, real life on the French Riviera has seemed even more unlikely.

Last Sunday, in a jewel heist described by police as “absolutely incredible” a lone thief strolled into a diamond exhibition at the luxury Carlton International, on the chic Croisette, and walked out 60 seconds later with $138 million in jewels.

Astonishingly, the robber fell as he jumped from a hotel window dropping his loot, but was still able to gather up the most expensive pieces and escape.

The daring daylight raid that resonated with Hitchcock’s film, To Catch a Thief, entered the record books as France’s biggest jewel theft.

Three days later, the apologetic thief targeted the Cannes jewel store, Kronometry.

Police are not linking the robberies — attributing the latter to nifty opportunists — but officers say the Carlton robbery bears certain hallmarks of the notorious Pink Panther gang suspected of carrying out two other high profile heists netting around $3 million in the French Riviera in the last two months.

The Cote d’Azur lives up to its schizophrenic reputation as a playground for the world’s beau monde and what Somerset Maughan described as “a sunny place for shady people”. Luxury yachts moored in the shimmering blue-green Mediterranean are more than a mirage of fantastic wealth.

When bored of bronzing, the rich go shopping. Often for diamonds. It is no secret that at the height of summer, the designer and jewel shops here are packed with valuable stock.

Interpol believes the Pink Panthers, named after the Peter Sellers comedies, is a loosely affiliated gang of 200 jewel thieves from the former Yugoslavia.

Since the 1990s, the gang has been linked to dozens of spectacular robberies in 20 countries, including Dubai, Japan, London, Paris, Belgium and the United States, snatching jewels to the tune of some $500 million.

Their heists are characterised by impeccable planning, attention to detail, threats of extreme violence and Hollywood-style theatrics.

In Dubai, they drove a pair of limousines through a jewellery store window, in Paris, they donned blonde wigs and scarves to rob the Harry Winston store, in St Tropez they wore flowery T-shirts and escaped with their loot on a speed-boat.

Coincidentally, or perhaps not, a leading gang member was busted out of a Swiss jail just three days before the Carlton robbery. Milan Poparic, serving a sentence for a 2009 heist, was the third Panther to escape from jail in the last two months.

One “Panther”, speaking to journalist David Samuels, who spent a year investigating the gang explained it emerged from the black market created by international sanctions against Serbia during the Balkan wars. It operates using a centralised command which picks targets and assigns crews to carry out jobs. The man told Samuels there were four main Panther groups originating from an original gang of diamond thieves from Montenegro. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013

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