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Brink's-Mat Robbery and the biggest gold heists in history

Gold bars stacked up in a safe

Gold. There are more precious metals on Earth, but none have the same prestige, glamour or esteem.

Used for millennia to make jewellery, ornaments and idols for worship, gold was quickly utilised as a currency and a leverage tool. It’s universally understood and respected as a valuable asset. As such, it’s as desirable now as it’s ever been.

Central banks hold gold bullion for a variety of reasons, mainly for interest and collateral purposes. The Bank of England, for instance, looks after more than 400,000 gold bars, worth billions of pounds. Sometimes that gold needs to be transported, where it can become a target for thieves. Sometimes, ambitious thieves may even attempt to steal the bullion directly from the banks themselves.

These are the biggest gold heists in history:

1. Brink’s-Mat robbery (1983)

On 26th November 1981, three tons of gold bars were snatched in the now legendary Brink's-Mat robbery - the biggest gold bullion theft in British history.

The Brink's-Mat facility at Heathrow Airport was broken into by a group of six armed criminals from South London. Mickey McAvoy and Brian Robinson, the leaders of the heist, had hoped to escape with £3m in cash. Instead, they ended up with gold bullion, jewels and cash valued at over £26m. It was quite the score.

The gang quickly gained entrance to the location with the aid of Anthony Black, a Brinks-Mat security guard who was living with Brian Robinson's sister at the time. They then overpowered additional security guards by dousing them in gasoline and threatening to set them ablaze.

2. British Bank of The Middle East (1976)

With a brazen level of assuredness and an incredible lack of subtlety, eight men blasted their way into the British Bank of The Middle East in Beirut, Lebanon, via a wall shared with a neighbouring Catholic church. Once inside, they cracked vaults and safes and stole £40m in gold bullion and £130m in bonds, stock, currency and precious jewels.

It’s speculated that the robbers were working on behalf of, or in association with, the Palestine Liberation Organisation. However, no one was ever arrested to substantiate those claims. None of the gold or anything else stolen in the raid has ever been recovered.

3. The Guarulhos Airport robbery (2019)

On 25th July 2019, armed thieves took a significant haul of gold bullion valued at over $25m from Brazil's Guarulhos airport, in the state of São Paulo.

In two vehicles that resembled those of the Brazilian federal police, eight robbers drove into the cargo facility, knowing there was a serious stash of gold there. Four emerged from the vehicles, who were all armed with rifles and had their faces covered. During the robbery, two airport employees were taken as hostages but both were later freed without injury.

The tooled-up thieves ended up taking 750kg of gold bullion and other precious metals intended for transport to Zurich and New York. Three individuals were caught and detained. It turns out they were all members of the airport’s logistical staff.

4. The Golden Door Jewelry Creations theft (1983)

In a classic, almost cliched armed robbery scene, two men donned nylon tights over their heads as they stormed a building and robbed it of more than £7m of pure gold bullion.

The building was a gold smelter and jewellery wholesaler called Golden Door Jewelry Creations in Miami. They bought, refined, melted down and sold gold and would often have large quantities on the premises. Something the robbers knew.

During a severe thunderstorm early one evening, the two men entered through an open door, tied up the owner and two employees, and simply left with more than 400kg of gold bars, chains and other jewellery. They were never identified or arrested.

5. The Sibanye Gold Mine job (2014)

In 2014, 20 gold miners were arrested for taking part in a long con that saw them all pilfering more than 500kg of the sand-like ‘gold concentrate’ during their shifts working for the Johannesburg-based Sibanye-Stillwater gold mining company.

In scenes reminiscent of a South African version of The Great Escape, the men would grab and pour the concentrate into specially created sacks that had been stitched into the inside lining of their company overalls. A little at a time, every day…it adds up. In fact, it added up to over £16m in the end.

Non-heist gold plunderings

When you think of something like gold being stolen, it’s likely you’ll conjure up thoughts of men in balaclavas raiding underground safes. Robberies like those we’ve just looked at. While that’s more than understandable, the really heavy scores are usually carried out by a state or nation during a war or period of conflict.

When the Spanish conquistadors colonised large swatches of Central and South America, they did so in pursuit of gold, not just land. After first finding the stuff in Dominica and Haiti back in 1494, they got a taste for it. Decades later they had ransacked The New World, stealing more than £8bn worth of gold in today’s money.

It’s happened plenty of times down the centuries, the most recent large-scale example happening during World War II. Adolf Hitler used stolen bullion (as well as other assets) to help fund Nazi Germany’s invasive war efforts, taking more than a thousand tons of gold from various other European nations, worth more than half a billion pounds.