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$50 million in stolen diamonds, and no one to buy them

Armed robbers who stole gems worth an estimated $50 million from Brussels airport may find the diamonds tough to get rid of. Even if they get away with the crime, they may only get a fraction of what the stones are worth.

Armed robbers have pulled off one of the world’s biggest diamond heists in a lightning raid at Brussels Airport. Disguised as police, the thieves cut a hole in the airport perimeter fence and broke into a plane that was about to take off. They stole an estimated $50 million worth of gems that were being shipped from nearby Antwerp -- the hub of the global diamond trade.

The chances are, these stones will never be recovered.

“The possibility that they will be sold by the burglars is a very big possibility," says Caroline de Wolf of the Antwerp World Diamond Centre. “And it’s also a product that is quite easy to transport. So we’re afraid that we won’t see them again.”

The stones were uncut and should carry a certificate under the Kimberley Process, a system designed to eliminate so-called blood diamonds that finance armed conflicts. But Annie Dunneback of the human rights group Global Witness says the process is not totally effective.

“Places like Dubai in the United Arab Emirates tend to have weaker controls and less government oversight. So that might be an easier place to dispose of these diamonds,” she says.

Even so, it could be very time-consuming. Fred Cuellar is author of “How to Buy a Diamond” and knows a thing or two about  brushes with law. Almost 15 years ago, he racked up what he calls an unjust felony conviction over diamond dealing. He says the thieves will need to trickle the diamonds into the market.

“They would take one or two stones and mix them in together with stuff that was not stolen and then slowly disperse them that particular way,” he says.

There are other possibilities. The stolen diamonds could become a kind of criminal currency -- used to finance the trade in illegal drugs and weapons. But however they’re disposed of, Cuellar says, the robbers should not expect to get more than 3 or 4 percent of the face value of the gems. Divide that between the eight people who staged the raid and the haul begins to look rather more modest.

“They’d be lucky to get a few hundred thousand,” claims Cuellar.

Meanwhile -- as police investigate the possibility that this was an inside job -- Antwerp is counting the cost to its reputation as a safe, secure and discreet diamond center.

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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