Stolen Marie Antoinette Watch Exhibited In Israel

Marie Antoinette must have turned in her grave to see her pocket watch taken apart and wrapped in old newspaper. But that was its fate after an agile thief lifted it and others from a Jerusalem museum in 1983 and hid the evidence by taking them apart, wrapping them up and stashing them around the globe. The trail lay cold for two decades, until the burglar made a deathbed confession to his wife. In 2006, she tried to sell some of the watches back to the museum; administrators sent the police. This summer, the spectacular Marie Antoinette watch, valued at about $30 million, will be the star of a show in Jerusalem. In a setting more worthy of a queen, the collection will go on view for the first time since its recovery.

The collection includes more than 100 rare works by Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747–1823), who fashioned Marie Antoinette's piece, and other leading watchmakers. It was originally the property of Sir David Lionel Salomons, a London mayor and avid art enthusiast. In 1974, his daughter bequeathed it to Jerusalem's L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art. Then, in 1983, a lean cat burglar managed to remove the bars from one of the museum's narrow back windows and shimmy inside. He proceeded to help himself to a range of clocks, watches and music boxes, methodically prising open glass cases and dropping the booty into cardboard boxes. By morning, all that was left was an empty Coke bottle and a half-eaten sandwich. "I was shocked, like someone had died," recalls the museum's director, Rachel Hasson, who is responsible for the new show. The police were more impressed—in fact, they were stumped. Oded Shamah, one of six investigators on the case, says the heist was the work of a "perfectionist" who had staked out the premises and knew the alarm wasn't working. "It was such a simple plan; it was pure genius," he said.

Such genius, in fact, it would be years before the case was solved. First Naaman Diller, an ex-kibbutz member and known antiquities thief, confessed the crime to his wife just before his death. Then, in 2006, she tried to sell some of the treasures back to the museum. This led the police to her home in Los Angeles, where the couple had relocated. Police discovered dozens of items Diller had swiped and clues leading to many more. The widow was questioned but has not publicly commented on her pending case.

It turns out that to evade detection, Diller had scattered the loot in warehouses and safes throughout Europe and the United States, often disassembling the delicate mechanisms first to make them harder to identify. Yet he was probably able to sell just a few, since most were still recognizable. Boris Sankov, the Mayer Museum's watch expert, says Diller had "two left hands" and did a lot of damage in the disassembly, but took meticulous notes in English and Hebrew that helped him put them back together.

Flanked by jumpy guards, a NEWSWEEK reporter was recently given a rare glimpse of the timepieces being painstakingly restored by Sankov. Dubbed the Mona Lisa of watches by museum staff, the queen's piece is an intricate golden maze that includes a thermometer, a perpetual calendar and a self-winding mechanism with a clear crystal dial. Also impressive is a bejeweled, early 19th-century Frères Rochat pistol with an inset watch that releases a bird when the trigger is pulled. Sankov's personal favorite is a 1820s Swiss clock in the shape of a church in gold and diamonds. It's the item that he worked on the longest, replacing more than 30 minuscule parts.

The collection grew further recently when 43 clocks worth a reported $10 million were retrieved from Parisian bank vaults after an investigation by Israeli and French police. Almost the entire collection is now home. The 10 still at large, investigators say, were probably sold at auctions. And the museum won't be taking any chances when the exhibition reopens in early summer. Collectively worth an estimated $200 mil-lion, the reassembled pieces will be displayed behind reinforced glass in a custom-built windowless room with half-meter-thick walls. Scores of cameras and sophisticated surveillance equipment have been installed to help ensure that the biggest horological robbery of all-time will not be repeated—no matter how ingenious or skinny the next thief.