From petty theft to grand larceny, our columnist has seen it all, but some of the most legendary hotel robberies have slipped into myth.

In my 40 years of running hotels, I’ve dealt with my fair share of thefts. There was the typical toll of lost room amenities, fluffy towels and bathrobes, which in some cases must have required an extra suitcase to heave the loot out through the revolving doors.

I have witnessed smart women dining in the restaurant stealing other ladies’ purses, and elderly gentlemen lining up behind those at reception and walking off with their briefcases.

In one instance someone crawled along the lounge carpet and under a chair to steal a large Hermès carrier bag containing that iconic handbag, the Birkin, valued at just under £100,000. They almost got away with it until a security officer literally ‘stepped in’, by stamping their foot on the offender’s hand before they could crawl back.

Possibly the most outlandish thievery came during my time running the Carlton Tower in London (now Carlton Jumeirah), when the iconic cast-bronze bull statue was stolen from the Rib Room by some late-night diners who miraculously got it through the front door, despite it weighing at least 50 kilos.

In this case, a prick of conscience seemed to affect the culprits – and two days later a mystified doorman retrieved it from an otherwise empty taxi. The driver declined to say how it had flagged him down for a lift.

One of the best stories I can remember happened at Claridge’s Hotel while I was working with The Savoy Group of hotels in the seventies. On a cold January morning in 1975, the night manager was surprised to find a large lorry turning up outside the hotel entrance at just after 1am. Emblazoned on the side was the name Chappell’s, the purveyor of fine pianos, who had a store close by in New Bond Street.

Three workmen came out of the lorry in white overalls, with the company name proudly displayed on their back in red. “We’ve come to collect the concert grand piano in the ballroom for repairs”, they announced confidently.

The night manager had heard nothing of it, but dutifully led them to the hotel’s prized Steinway – an instrument some nine foot in length, beautifully crafted in mahogany and maple, and worth well over £150,000 in today’s money.

The workmen said it was so big, it was impossible for them to handle it alone – and of course, you’ve guessed it, the night manager helped them lift it into the back of the lorry… never to be seen again.

Missing jewels

The trouble with incredible stories about bold hotel thefts is that the legend begins to shroud truth.

Strangely, the same account appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2009, with an identical storyline – except that the piano theft had taken place at the Sheraton Grand London Park Lane this time.

After that news item was published, stories of grand pianos disappearing all over the world from hotel lobbies began to proliferate. I began to doubt myself that it had ever happened at Claridge’s. But I’d heard it from an impeccable source: the hotel doorman.

It reminds me of one of the most infamous hotel thefts of all: the legendary US$60 million diamond armed robbery from the Carlton in Cannes in 1994. In 1996, The Guinness Book of Records recorded it as the costliest jewel theft in history. Or was it?

In 2013, the unlucky hotel hit the headlines with an even bigger jewel theft – this time valued at US$136 million. The Los Angeles Times reported that a gunman walked into the Carlton InterContinental Hotel (now the Carlton Cannes under the Regent brand) and loaded his bags from a temporary exhibit of jewellery by a prestigious diamond house.

When it published the story, the newspaper wanted to reference the similar theft some nine years previously, but could find no trace of the original story. Neither the hotel management nor the local press could find any record of what had happened.

The details of what was stolen and whether anyone had ever been caught had vanished – like the supposed stolen goods – into thin air. Entertainment Weekly reported in 2019 that it was ‘the greatest heist that never was.’

But perhaps the most interesting thefts are when no one realises they have lost anything.  At one hotel I worked at, it took me some time to work out how an employee in the accounting office afforded such long-distance holidays on such a frequent basis.

Eventually, I discovered he’d been claiming airline mileage on all the hotel bills that guests hadn’t claimed for themselves and putting them onto his own mileage account. A warning to business travellers: always claim your miles before someone else does. And don’t let people collect your grand piano in the middle of the night…

Derek Picot has been a hotelier for more than 30 years, and is author of Hotel Reservations.