Israeli Museum Features Antique Timepieces

This photo provided by the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art Monday, Nov. 3, 2008 shows a pistol-shaped clock made by the Rochat Brothers in the early 19th century, and one of the items returned after Israeli police detectives have cracked a legendary clock heist at a Jerusalem museum after a 25-year search. The 1983 theft saw 106 clocks worth millions of dollars disappear from the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art. (AP Photo/L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art/HO)
AP Photo
Dozens of priceless timepieces, including a pocket watch made for French Queen Marie Antoinette, went on display in a much-anticipated exhibit Monday, more than a quarter century after they were stolen in one of Israel's most audacious robberies.

In the 1983 theft, 106 timepieces worth millions of dollars disappeared from the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art in a quiet section of Jerusalem.

The case remained unsolved for more than two decades until Israeli police detectives finally cracked it - pinning the crime on Naaman Diller, a notorious Israeli thief who fled to Europe and died in the United States in 2004.

Rachel Hasson, the museum's artistic director, said all but 10 of the items have been returned. They were displayed Monday in dramatic fashion, as a vault door opened to reveal a dark room filled with dozens of the priceless jewels enclosed in elegantly lit glass chambers.

The display included the Marie Antoinette timepiece made by famed watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet. Hasson called the gold and rock crystal watch "the Mona Lisa of the clock world," and "the most important watch ever made." It is valued at more than $30 million.

Also recovered and displayed were a Breguet creation from 1819 known as the "Sympathiques" and a clock shaped like a pistol from the same period.

"It's a miracle, a closing of a circle," to have the clocks back, she said. "It's an amazing story with a happy ending."

The exhibit opened with strict security at a festive cocktail party with a harpsichord and violin playing baroque music. Armed men stood on each side of the entrance to the vault.

The clocks have no connection to Islamic culture, but they were displayed in the museum because they originally belonged to the father of the museum's founder.

On the night of April 15, 1983, Diller used a crowbar to bend the bars on a back window of the museum, according to police. Using a parked truck as cover, he climbed inside with a ladder. Having staked out the museum, he knew the alarm was broken and the guard was stationed in front.

The slim thief was able to slither in and out of the opening unnoticed through the night and take off with the collection before anyone noticed, according to police.

The subsequent investigation delved into the murky world of international art dealing and antiquity trading. But detectives had no leads until a breakthrough two years ago, when the museum informed them they had paid $40,000 to an anonymous American woman to buy back some of the items.

The trail led to Diller, who apparently confessed the crime to his wife on his deathbed. When Israeli police and American law enforcement officials arrived at Diller's wife's Los Angeles home to question her, they found some more of the stolen clocks. Others were later found in hidden locations in Israel and around the world.

Eli Kahn, chairman of the museum's board, said officials assumed the timepieces - which he called the museum's "crown jewel" - were lost forever.

"The story of the theft, the attempts to retrieve the clocks ... it reads like a fascinating detective novel," Kahn said. "I can't believe that I am here to see this day."