Crime doesn’t pay … in folding money

A rundown of recent coin heists

Published November 3, 2023

In late October, four men were charged with stealing $234,500 worth of—not jewelry, not artwork, not gold bars—but dimes. 

After picking up the coinage from the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, an unsuspecting driver pulled over in a parking lot north of town to sleep. Cue the thieves, armed with bolt cutters, who loaded the coins into smaller bags and transferred them into a waiting truck. Based on the big mess of scattered dimes, authorities believe the thieves were not prepared for what they would find on the truck: previous scores in their string of similar robberies included liquor, beer, meat, shrimp, and crab legs.

The more than 2 million coins maybe didn’t help fill the perpetrators’ bellies like their edible loot, but it sure did fill their pockets. They started converting the coins to bills at coin machines in Maryland, and deposited some at suburban Philly banks. They now face charges of theft of government money, conspiracy, robbery, and various other charges. 

(Lest you wonder: No, coin deliveries usually don’t happen via tractor-trailer. Per the U.S. Mint, they’re generally delivered to Reserve Banks and private-sector terminals by armored carrier)

Okay so this one could be called “The Accidental Coin Heist,” but we have others. Don’t try any of this at home, okay?

The Big Maple Leaf Coin Heist

Five “Big Maple Leaf Coins” were commissioned by the Royal Canadian Mint in 2007. The large coins – each 220 lbs., 20 inches in diameter, and with a face value of $1 million – featured Queen Elizabeth II’s face and (surprise!) a maple leaf on the other side. The coins were entered by Guinness World Records as the world’s largest – and the purest, with a gold purity of 99.999%. But only one of the five coins made news for being stolen in a heist. 

The 2017 robbery from Berlin’s Bode Museum was not a high-tech job. The thieves used simple tools—a hammer to break the bulletproof (but not hammer-proof) glass, a rope to lower it from the third-floor window, and a wheelbarrow to roll the heavy coin away.

The perpetrators were eventually caught, but the behemoth coin was (somehow) never found.

The 9-Minute Heist

In 2022, 483 Celtic coins, dating back to 100 B.C.E and worth some $1.7 million, were stolen from a museum in Southern Germany. The loss is a monetary one, but also a historical one. These “irreplaceable” gold coins, discovered in Bavaria in 1999, were part of the largest cache of ancient Celtic gold discovered in the 20th century. 

At 1:17 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 2, the thieves disconnected cables at a nearby telecommunications facility. Police rushed to nearby banks, thinking they were the target, but security systems recorded a museum door being pried open at 1:26, and the thieves left the building at 1:35. In only nine minutes the thieves had entered the building, broken through the cabinet containing the Celtic coins, scooped them up, and left.  

In July of this year, authorities recovered 18 lumps of gold that they believe could be the melted-down Celtic coins, dashing archaeologists’ hopes that they would be found intact.  

Rome’s Thief of Coins

Not every theft is so fast. Every morning from 1968 to 2002, a man named Roberto Cercelletta snuck into the water of Rome’s Trevi Fountain, where tourists throw in more than $1 million worth of coins every year. As for Cercelletta, police estimated that he collected more than $1.4 million over the decades. It was eventually revealed that Roberto was unemployed, and occasionally homeless; he used the money for his own needs, and to help other needy people in the city. When he finally got nabbed – not for the “theft,” which was essentially victimless, but for trespassing in the fountain – the arrest rated a story in The New York Times.

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