Are there, in fact, cat burglars?

We know the cliché from countless movies: the lithe, athletic figure, clad in head-to-toe black, enters the museum/bank vault/government facility usually through a vulnerable rooftop entrance. He knows intimately all of the security measures he must counter, and has at his disposal a staggering collection of highly specialized technological tools. One by one, he neutralizes every obstacle in his way; his patience is as great as his skill and daring. Having pulled off the perfect crime without breaking a sweat, he may even go so far as to leave a calling card marking his presence, taunting the authorities with their helplessness.

Is this complete bullshit?

I realize there are people who steal things and are pretty good at it, but what I’d like to know, esp. from people with some knowledge of law enforcement/criminology:

• Is there such a thing as a professional freelance thief, someone who actually specializes in stealing well-guarded things and will do so for anyone who pays?

• Does the technology frequently employed by cinema cat burglars — hydraulic pulleys and grappling lines, cantilevered mirror systems that defeat security lasers, electronic codebreakers that plug into alarm panels and somehow neutralize them, etc. — exist in any fashion whatsoever? If it does, who makes it, and how does one go about getting it?

• Are there real cases on file of sophisticated cat burglars penetrating highly secure premises and making off with valuable swag, without tripping any security devices?

I was led to thinking along these lines by two things: the recent smash-and-grab theft of Munch’s The Scream, and the trailer to a new Nick Cage movie in which he steals the Declaration of Independence (apparently just moments ahead of Sean Bean, who presumably had his own plan for stealing it). The contrast is instructive: most successful thefts seem to involve the use of deadly force or the threat of it, banking on people’s sense of self-preservation to enable the thieves to get what they want. It’s only in the movies that you see some slick operator worm his way into Fort Knox or the National Archive and make off with priceless treasure. Realistically, I would think such a crime would be enormously difficult to plan and execute, and my common sense tells me that the “cat burglar” exists primarily if not exclusively in movies, comics, and pulp thrillers. Yet the archetype is so well-trodden and familiar that I can’t help wondering if there isn’t some factual basis for it.

Now that’s a damn good question. I have heard that somewhere out there true ninjas still exist, though in modern form. They are basically industrial spys who companies hire to perform sabatoge and steal information from competitors. I’d love to know more about this kind of thing too.

I’d love to know, too. Bump.

Some of my movie favorites are the Pink Panther burglar and the Thomas Crown remake scenario. Of course, no one could ever approach the sheer genius and command of disguise and technology exhibited by this mysterious gentleman:

Wasn’t there a huge diamond heist in Antwerp in the last year or two? It was probably done with a team of people with a person on the inside. Anyway, I would imagine they had to be pretty sophisticated to pull it off. Hmm… I see that they have been caught:

Here is more info:

“Police said the thieves methodically dismantled security measures one by one to gain access to the main underground vault, where they broke into more than 100 safe deposit boxes full of diamonds and other items. There were so many valuables inside they couldn’t carry all of the loot with them.”

The theft of The Scream did not require sophistication, but it makes you wonder what thieves like this will do with famous things. I guess diamonds are easy to pass on, but some valueables must be traceable.

I want to know too.

Does the technology frequently employed by cinema cat burglars — hydraulic pulleys and grappling lines, cantilevered mirror systems that defeat security lasers, electronic codebreakers that plug into alarm panels and somehow neutralize them, etc. — exist in any fashion whatsoever

It has happend at least once:
MONTREAL CANADA - September 4, 1972 thieves entered through a skylight at Montreal’s Museum of Fine Art. They took decorative art objects and paintings from the museum’s European collection.

From this link of the BIG still unsolved Art Robbery’s. Unromantically almost all involve armed assailants
Site doesn’t include this from July:

Unknown assailants robbed the house-museum “Ivan Lazarov” last night.

The damages caused are still unclear, though police officials at the crime scene claimed that the damages are insignificant. It is still unclear how did the assailants enter the house as no doors or windows were broken.

The “Ivan Lazarov” house-museum boasts 100 pieces of art and is a part of the National Art gallery.

cantilevered mirror systems that defeat security lasers,

This particular part of the equation I can speak to with some authority. I sell light curtains used to protect workers from dangerous machinery. The standard response time for most of them is 13 milliseconds. In other words, if you wanted to redirect the beam with a mirror, you would have to place that mirror into the path with perfect alignment in less than 13 milliseconds. I have read of 7 millisecond response times and I would imagine than money-is-no-object security systems could have even faster response times. Not to mention that these systems tend to be emitter - receiver pairs. You can’t simply bounce the beam back to the emitter, you would have to reroute it up and over and down to create a “hole” in the pathway so that means simultaneously placing 4 mirrors with perfect alignment in less than 13 milliseconds. No way.

These guys aren’t as subtle as the pinkpanther but they did try to steal the world’s most valuable diamond:

But 24 hours later, on the morning of 7 November, the raid finally went ahead. At 8: 45am they boarded the JCB. Clad in gas masks and body armour, the gang were also armed with two and a half pints of ammonia, described by medical experts as “ a vicious weapon of assault”. They also carried smoke grenades, stink bombs, bolt cutters, and a hi- tech scanning equipment to intercept police radio messages.

The standard answer to the theft of famous artworks is that is that some rich private collector will pay dearly for it, even though they can’t show it to anyone, just for the satisfaction of knowing that they have it. I’m skeptical about that, too. Another route is possible, and sounds more likely to me - ransom - “Give us the money or you’ll never see your painting again.”. “The Scream” was actually stolen before, in 1994, and the thieves attempted to collect a $1 million ransom for it. It didn’t work, and the painting was recovered.

Stink bombs? That is darstardly. How can we possibly protect ourselves from such olfactory menaces!

Well, no, using a JCB as a battering ram doesn’t exactly qualify one as a cat burgler. Or running in off the street with a gun and grabbing a couple of paintings, for that matter.

I’m fairly sure that there’s indeed no documented example of the legendary “rich private collector” being behind such a theft. If not, I’d like to see the details. And in the current case of the Munchs’, that a ransom demand will follow appears pretty plausible.
But a significant part of the stolen art market appears to be criminals using the paintings as collatoral in other deals, notably involving drugs.

Having worked in the banking and security industry since 1980, I’m not the guy you want to take to a some sort of ‘break-in’ movie, because most of it is total crappola. The early 80’s movie ‘Thief’ with James Caan, IIRC was pretty good technically, but still had flaws.

A good book to read is ‘Game of Thieves’ by Robert R. Rosberg. It is a story of 14 different heists, including the Brinks facility in Syracuse, New York. I’d bet that the '70s film ‘Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’ starring Clint Eastwood, George Kennedy, and Jeff Bridges was based on the Brinks job.

In reality, if you have enough information to plan such an elaborate heist as shown in movies, then you’re enough of an insider that you don’t need one.

Actually, it was a different version of “The Scream.” Munch apparently did four paintings on the basic theme. Cite.

Sure. See here.

They also decorated their workspace (the vault) with pornographic pictures some bank clients had apparently stored in their boxes! That’s style!

A few years ago, there was a guy in Greenwich, Connecticut who broke into houses during the dinner hour and stole jewelry. He was called the “dinnertime burglar” but his modus operandi fit the classic cat burglar definition.

A little off topic, but Blane Nordahl is alleged to have stolen over $3 million in sterling silver in 150 buglaries over the course of the last twenty years. From a fascinating article about him in the New Yorker back in May:

Well, I know that the “grappling hook guns” exist, more or less. Something based off a mortar was used during a Ranger operation in Normandy, in '44. And Mossberg makes a “line launcher” shotgun modification that might—might—be able to be used for something like you have in mind.

I kinda doubt the devices mentioned above are really suitable for a “stealthy” operation, though.

And today we have the Spider-Man Burglar.