Nili Shamrat of Tarzana, Calif., was convicted Feb. 23 of receiving stolen property and sentenced to five years of probation and 300 hours of community service in a 27-year-old case that involved the world’s most expensive watch and stolen museum artifacts, the California Department of Insurance reported.
The L.A. Mayer Museum of Islamic Art in Jerusalem was burglarized in April 1983 and more than 100 priceless watches and clocks, rare manuscripts and paintings were stolen.CDI said.
The artifacts were part of the collection of Sir David Lionel Salomons, who became London’s first Jewish mayor in 1855. His daughter, a British philanthropist who founded the L.A. Mayer Museum of Islamic Art, donated the collection to the museum. Among the items stolen was a pocket watch made for Marie Antoinette by the French watchmaker Abraham Louis Breguet in the late 18th century. The watch is considered to be the rarest and most expensive watch in the world. The collection was insured, and a large settlement was paid by the insurer after the theft.
The director of the museum received a tip from a Tel Aviv watchmaker in Aug. 2006 that a Tel Aviv attorney invited him to her office to appraise 40 clocks she had in her possession. The watchmaker recognized the clocks as those stolen in 1983 from the Museum of Islamic Art and reported what he saw to the Museum, according to CDI.
Members of the Museum’s board of directors contacted the attorney on the same day, and she acknowledged that she was in possession of the clocks. The attorney indicated that the clocks belonged to her client, allegedly a resident of another country, who had inherited them following the death of her husband. The attorney indicated that she would return the clocks if she and her client were compensated financially. The attorney indicated that her client wanted to remain anonymous and did not want the police involved.
The next day, the attorney showed the board members three cardboard boxes, containing 40 antique clocks wrapped in newspaper. The board members recognized the clocks as some of those stolen from the museum in 1983. The Museum paid the attorney $35,000, and the clocks were returned. When the story leaked to the Israeli media in Nov. 2007, the Israeli National Police learned of the recovery and reopened the cold case.
The investigation revealed that the attorney’s client was Nili Shamrat, the widow of Na’aman Diller, one of Israel’s most notorious burglars in the 1960s and 1970s. Shamrat and Diller met in Tel Aviv in 1970 and dated until Diller went to prison in 1972. Shamrat moved to Los Angeles in the 1970s, but she and Diller renewed their connection in the late 1980s. Shamrat continued living in Tarzana, but she and Diller met regularly in Israel and Europe. Shamrat and Diller married in Israel in 2003, a year before Diller died of cancer in Tel Aviv. He willed all his estate to Shamrat.
In Dec. 2007, Israeli National Police contacted the California Department of Insurance (CDI) Fraud Division, and requested assistance in the investigation. A CDI detective traveled to Israel in March 2008 and met in Jerusalem with Israeli Police investigators working the case.
In May 2008, CDI detectives served a search warrant at Shamrat’s home in Tarzana. Two Israel National Police investigators arrived in Los Angeles and assisted with the search. The detectives recovered several antique artifacts, three rare 18th century oil paintings and an antique Latin manuscript that were identified as part of the stolen museum collection. The items were estimated to be worth millions of dollars. The detectives also recovered evidence linking Diller to the 1983 museum burglary, including the display placards stolen from the museum exhibit.
The investigation revealed that in 2003, when Diller discovered he was dying from cancer, he and Shamrat married in Tel Aviv, coincidently on the 20th anniversary date of the 1983 museum burglary. Diller told Shamrat about the 1983 burglary and they removed stolen clocks from Diller’s Tel Aviv apartment and placed them in a bank safe deposit box that was opened in Shamrat’s name. Diller willed his estate to Shamrat. Diller’s estate included safe deposit boxes and bank accounts throughout Europe.
The investigation also revealed that Shamrat hired the Tel Aviv attorney to help sell the stolen clocks. She also retrieved artifacts from safe deposit boxes in Europe, which she brought to the United States. Based on evidence found in Shamrat’s residence, Israel National Police recovered additional stolen timepieces from the collection in a safe deposit box in a Paris bank.
The CDI investigators handed over the recovered artifacts to the Israeli National Police, who returned them to the museum. Of the 106 artifacts stolen in 1983, 96 have been recovered, including the Marie Antoinette watch.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office Major Fraud Division prosecuted the case.
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