LOS ANGELES — The widow of a notorious Israeli thief has been convicted of receiving stolen property from a 27-year-old heist that included more than 100 expensive timepieces and museum artifacts, including what's been called "the Mona Lisa of the clock world."
Nili Shamrat, 64, of Tarzana, was convicted Feb. 23 and sentenced to five years' probation and 300 hours of community service, state Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner announced Tuesday.
In 1983, 106 timepieces, paintings and artifacts were taken from the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem. It was hailed as the costliest theft in Israeli history and included a pocket watch made by famed watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet for French queen Marie Antoinette that museum officials valued at more than $30 million.
There was a hefty insurance settlement and the case went unsolved for nearly two decades.
Detectives say the theft was committed by Naaman Diller, and he was caught because of his deathbed confession and will, which left everything to Shamrat after he died in 2004.
Diller and Shamrat met in 1970. They lost contact in 1972 when he went to prison and she came to the United States to study, but they reunited a few years after the theft and were married in 2003, said Capt. Randall Richardson of the California Department of Insurance.
Los Angeles lawyer Jeff Rubenstein, who represented Shamrat in the Los Angeles County case, said his client was "a misguided victim."
"It was her ex-husband's deathbed actions that placed her in this position," Rubenstein said. "Her accepting responsibility for her small part is hardly the insurance commissioner cracking an international case."
Shamrat has no comment now and wants to go about her simple, private life, Rubenstein said.
The big break in the case, Richardson said, came in 2006 when an appraiser told the museum he had been contacted by an attorney about 40 of the stolen clocks.
The attorney wanted $2 million for the clocks – the amount of the reward offered in the case – but that was negotiated down to $35,000, and the first of the stolen items, including the Antoinette watch, were returned to the museum. That batch of recovered items also included a Breguet design from 1819 known as the "Sympathiques" and a clock shaped like a pistol from the same period.
Detectives then followed a paper trail, Richardson said, that led to safe deposit boxes and storage units in France, the Netherlands and Israel. Some items were found in Shamrat's home when a search warrant was served there.
"She had all his documents and some of the stolen items, as well as display placards from the museum," Richardson said.
So far, 96 of the 106 stolen items have been recovered.
Although the stolen clocks had no connection to Islamic culture, they were displayed at the museum because they originally belonged to Sir David Lionel Salomons, the father of the museum's founder and the man who became London's first Jewish mayor in 1855.
There was no immediate comment about Shamrat's plea agreement from the museum, which was closed when the announcement was made.
Diller's notoriety followed a string of bold thefts in the 1960s and '70s. He was renowned in Israel for daring break-ins and an ability to keep one step ahead of the law. He meticulously researched sites for hours and used innovative techniques that earned him the admiration of the same people who were trying to stop him.
Investigators used words like legendary and unique to describe him, and one detective said he was disappointed they were unable to sit and talk to him about his exploits.
On April 15, 1983, knowing the museum's alarm was broken and the guard was stationed in the front, Diller used a crowbar to bend the bars on a back window, according to police reports. Behind a parked truck, he climbed inside with a ladder and was able to slither in and out of the opening throughout the night. Most of the timepieces were small enough to get through the hole, and if they weren't, he knew how to take them apart, police said.
On the Net:
L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art: http://www.islamicart.co.il/en/