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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Stolen Art Watch, Ruby Liberty Bell Heist, Send In Robert Wittman

Robert Wittman Needed To Solve Ruby Liberty Bell Heist

Priceless ruby sculpture taken in theft

Liberty Bell likeness had been headed for museum

WILMINGTON -- When four bandits pulled off a dramatic smash-and-grab robbery and tied up four employees at a swank Wilmington jewelry store in November, they made off with more than the $2 million worth of high-end pieces adorned with diamonds, gold, emeralds and other precious gems. They also took a rare piece, valued at about $2 million alone, made from what the FBI calls the largest mined ruby in the world.

That piece, known as the Liberty Bell Ruby, is a one-of-a-kind sculpture that its California owners hoped to sell to a philanthropist who would donate it to the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia.

Jim Stein, owner of Stuart Kingston Jewelers on Pennsylvania Avenue in Wilmington, kept the jewel in his walk-in vault for about two years while trying to broker a deal to sell the ruby.

About 5 inches high and weighing 4 pounds, the ruby found near Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa more than a half-century ago was sculpted into a Liberty Bell guarded by a bald eagle and bedecked with 50 diamonds, one for each state. Though the ruby is not of gem quality and lacks the clarity to be made into conventional jewelry, Stein said the sculpture is unique, more a work of art than jewelry.

The News Journal learned about the theft of the ruby when a reporter was searching the FBI's website for an unrelated story. On Nov. 1, when the heist occurred in broad daylight at the store in the same complex as the busy Michael Christopher hair salon and Santa Fe restaurant, a short news release by Wilmington police did not mention the ruby.

Wilmington police said they asked the FBI to disseminate more information about the crime within days. The FBI put the additional information on its website on Nov. 17, but neither agency notified Delaware media about the ruby. Neither the FBI nor city police would comment on the status of the investigation.

The FBI's release contained new details about the crime, including a picture of the ruby, surveillance photos of the four suspects -- three who wore ski masks and one who waved a gun -- and a replica of the U-Haul rental van with stolen New York license plates that the robbers used. The bandits took cash from the register and used small sledgehammers to smash glass cases holding the most expensive pieces, some valued at more than $75,000, Stein and fellow employees said.

'It cost me a robbery'

Stein and his staff gave The News Journal a blow-by-blow account about the bold, frightening four-minute heist, which will be the subject of a segment on the television show "America's Most Wanted" in February. When a reporter visited the store last week to conduct interviews, a film crew from the crime show was setting up its equipment.

Employees also revealed several new details, such as the fact that a witness followed the robbers' van up Interstate 95 at about 100 mph in a Mercedes sedan, speaking to a 911 operator much of the way, only to stop the pursuit north of Chester when the bandits opened the rear door and pointed a gun at his car.

Stein theorized that the ruby would have little value on the black market because it is so identifiable and few people would be interested in purchasing a non-gem ruby that cannot be worn. He speculated that the robbers probably sold it for $10,000 just for the diamonds.

The jeweler also thinks that a November 2010 News Journal article about the Liberty Bell Ruby might have spurred the crime. Stein had hoped the story about the ruby would generate interest and attract a buyer.

But Stein said an investigator told him an inmate had told authorities he knew that some people were discussing a hit on the store to get the gem, which the newspaper story said was kept in the vault. Though the bandits didn't ask for the ruby in particular, they demanded access to the vault.

"We were trying to trump up, publicize this as much as possible,'' Stein said, "and it cost me a robbery."

The theft

At about 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 1, a man appeared at the door to the store and the receptionist, only glancing up at his face, hit the buzzer to unlock it -- the normal security procedure for the store with millions of dollars worth of inventory on display. Once inside, the man waved a gun and the receptionist yelled while the bandit held the door open for three other men who burst inside.

The men raced around the store, found four employees inside, and bound them with plastic zip-tie handcuffs, forcing them to lie face down on the floor. They dashed to the display cases holding high-value jewels, smashing the glass and scooping out necklaces, earrings, rings and other pieces made of diamonds, platinum, gold, sapphires, emeralds and rubies. They didn't touch the less expensive silver, pearl or other semi-precious stones, such as blue topaz or aquamarine, said office manager Jamie Stein, one of the four employees who were tied up.

Stein recalled that, while lying on the ground, she thought to herself, "Please don't shoot anybody. Get what you are getting and leave with everybody alive."

Dan McGrath, the store's gold buyer, who also was bound, said the robbery "happened so fast I didn't have time to get nervous about it."

After clearing out the cases, the robbers forced Stein's son, Edward, to let them into the vault, where they took the box holding the ruby as well as other pieces, including an opal and several loose stones.

Jim Stein, who was in the back of the store, said he ran outside to call police, and after waiting a few minutes, ran back inside, only to be chased outside by the fleeing bandits. He saw them escape in the $19.99-a-day rental truck.

The ruby was created in 1976 for Beverly Hills-based Kazanjian Brothers jewelry company by sculptor Alfonso de Vivanco for the U.S. bicentennial. It was made in the same spirit as sapphire busts of presidents that the jeweler's charitable foundation presented to the White House when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president.

The ruby sculpture, however, went unsold, so two years ago, the jeweler partnered with Stein, who had been negotiating with potential buyers who would donate the sculpture to the National Liberty Museum just blocks from the real Liberty Bell at Philadelphia's Independence Hall.

The Wilmington jeweler said the Kazanjians are immigrants from Armenia who have become philanthropists and "very patriotic people who wanted to give back to America, which gave them an opportunity when they came here."

Michael Kazanjian, the store's owner, did not return calls for this story, but Stein said they are distraught about the loss.

Gwen Borowsky, chief executive at the museum, said she did not know about the ruby's theft until last week, when a reporter notified her.

"It's such a shame," she said.

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