The Great Jewel Heist: The Daring Theft of the Star of India

Nestled in the grand galleries of the American Museum of Natural History sat one of the world’s most prized gemological wonders – the Star of India. This behemoth blue star sapphire, weighing a massive 563 carats and roughly the size of a golf ball was a true marvel. Expertly cut and polished to reveal its mesmerizing asterism patterns on both its top and bottom domes, the star sapphire dazzled visitors with its otherworldly beauty.

Star of India Sapphire (American Museum of Natural History)

Originally mined from the gem-rich depths of Sri Lanka, the Star of India embarked on a mysterious journey spanning centuries and continents before finding its home at the New York museum. After financial titan J.P. Morgan donated it in 1900, the legendary gem went on display as the centerpiece of the museum’s revised mineral gallery.

For over half a century, the Star of India cast its brilliance upon throngs of amazed visitors who flocked to see its splendor firsthand. But this priceless artifact was about to be caught up in one of the most daring and brazen jewel heists the world had ever seen.

The Heist

a policeman dusts for fingerprints on case broken into by a cat burglar who made off with some $200,000 in jewels from the Museum of Natural History. © Bettmann/CORBIS

In October 1964, a young group of audacious thieves from Miami began meticulously casing the museum during visitor hours. Their leader, Jack Murphy, known as “Murph the Surf,” had already gained infamy for past high-profile robberies.

Murphy and his two accomplices, Allan Kuhn and Roger Clark, were determined to pull off their biggest score yet – swiping the invaluable Star of India and other rare gems in a daring overnight raid on the museum. On October 29th, they carefully unlocked a bathroom window on the museum grounds, creating their entry point while avoiding the gem hall’s security systems.

When the museum closed for the night, Murphy’s crew clandestinely scaled the exterior walls and slipped through the unlocked bathroom window into the darkened halls. With expert precision, they tampered with a skylight to gain further access, then smashed open the display cases and snatched 24 priceless gemstones including the Star of India, the DeLong Star Ruby, and the Midnight Star Sapphire – a total haul valued at around $410,000 in 1964 dollars.

The Pursuit

Jack “Murph the Surf” Murphy is escorted to the Miami Beach Police Station by detectives in Miami Beach, Fla.
AP Photo, File

The morning after the heist, pandemonium erupted at the museum as staff discovered the shattered gemstone cases and their vacant shelves. A massive manhunt was immediately launched as law enforcement realized the perpetrators had to be skilled professionals to have pulled off such an ambitious caper.

Using an inside informant’s tip, the police quickly honed in on Murphy and his crew, who had rented a luxury New York apartment to lay low after their successful museum raid. Authorities swooped in and arrested one of the thieves on site while Murphy and Clark narrowly avoided capture by escaping out another window and fleeing to Florida.

The chase was on as state and federal agents pursued the two remaining jewel thieves from Miami to the Florida Keys. After a tense two days, Murphy and Clark were finally apprehended. However, the mystery over the stolen gemstones’ whereabouts still remained.

A Bizarre Recovery

Despite being in custody, the arrested thieves continually taunted authorities by dropping vague clues and hints about where they had stashed their pilfered treasures. It took months of following bizarre trails and misleading tips before any of the gems began turning up.

The $25,000 DeLong Star Ruby was finally recovered in September 1965 when philanthropist John D. MacArthur paid the thieves’ ransom demand, with the ruby being uncovered at a Florida highway rest stop.

It wasn’t until January 2, 1965, that the prized Star of India itself was miraculously located – soaking in a damp leather pouch stuffed inside a bus station locker in Miami. More of the stolen gemstones were slowly recovered through the following months.

However, the spectacular 16-carat Eagle Diamond was never recovered, believed by experts to have tragically been re-cut into several smaller, untraceable stones.

The Aftermath

Murphy, Kuhn, and Clark were swiftly convicted and served sentences for their roles in the audacious heist. Their sentences varied, with some reports stating they served shorter terms due to plea bargains and good behavior. While their unrepentant attitudes showed no remorse over stealing such priceless antiquities, the incredible saga of the Star of India’s harrowing theft and recovery became forever cemented in historic gemological lore.

“Murph The Turf” in 2006. AP Photo/Phil Sandlin, File-AP

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