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$50M diamond heist: Behind the crime, potential payoff on black market

(CBS News) The intense manhunt continues in Europe for the eight gunmen who pulled off one of the biggest diamond heists in recent memory on Tuesday. They stole some $50 million in jewels from a plane, minutes from takeoff at the Brussels airport.

Diamond heist at Brussels airport sparks hunt for 8 masked men and an estimated $50M in gems

The thing is, it sounds big -- $50 million -- but in diamond-speak, it isn't. Diamonds represent just about the most concentrated form of wealth there is. If you're a thief and your intention is to steal a lot of value in a small package, it's hard to do better than diamonds. The diamond industry has learned this lesson again.

Harry Levy, president of London Diamond Bourse, said, "The actual diamonds themselves would probably fit in a shoebox."

The diamond world is buzzing over the heist, but not shocked. Massive values of diamonds are assessed and shipped every day through Antwerp -- less than 30 miles from Brussels Airport -- the center of the world diamond market which handles about $200 million daily -- and it is a fortress.

The thieves knew where the weak link was -- the airport fence, which they cut through. Apparently disguised as police officers and driving two vehicles with flashing police-type lights, they made straight for the gate where the Swiss plane was loading passengers and freight.

They brandished weapons, but didn't need to fire a shot as they went straight for the diamonds, destined for Zurich, but which never got there.

Just as quickly, they were back through the fence and gone.

The only evidence left behind: a burnt-out van --- apparently set on fire to destroy any fingerprints or other evidence.

Greg Campbell, a writer on diamond crime and co-author of "Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History," said, "In terms of brazenness, this is really highly ranking. In terms of the amount of loot that they got away with, it still comes in pretty big: $50 million worth of diamonds and precious metals is quite a bit of money."

It was clever, but not that clever. Stolen diamonds don't sell like legit ones. Levy said, "I imagine if they get 20 percent of the value that's been stated that they've done very, very well."

Still, 20 percent of a big number is a big number, which is why diamond theft is a growth industry in real life and in the movies. Campbell said, "I would say that compared to other heists in the past, this was less 'Ocean's Eleven' because it wasn't necessarily as elegant as other crimes that have taken place in Antwerp, plus the fact that it happened in kind of a public setting-in an airport, so I would put this more on the 'Italian Job' end of the scale than I would the 'Ocean's Eleven.'"

The thinking is the thieves will have had a buyer -- or buyers -- lined up before the heist. And who knows? Maybe a Hollywood agent.

For Mark Phillips' full report, watch the video in the player above.

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