The 15 Greatest Thieves in the World

Everyone loves a good heist movie but while cinema has given us some of the best thieves in history, there are a whole lot more of them in real life.

Reviewed by Melina Theodorou

Famous thieves

From the United States to France to India, there isn’t a shortage of famous criminals who stole pretty much everything from the sun, be it legendary artworks from museums or large amounts of cash.

While we wouldn’t want to meet these guys face to face; their abilities are undeniable. Collectively, the efforts of these swindlers have racked up one of the biggest debts in the world, taken from right under our noses. Keep a close eye on your wallet; these notorious thieves would pocket it in a second.

Take a look at our list of 15 of the world's greatest thieves.

1. Doris Payne

Doris Payne famous thiefOrange County Register

As one of the most notorious jewel thieves in the world, Doris Payne is something of a cult figure; her six decades of criminal activity were immortalized in a 2013 documentary (in which she starred), including the story of her most notorious heist - a $500,000 10-carat diamond ring in Monte Carlo in the 1970s.

She had led a life of crime for over seven decades and has stolen from large businesses to small stores and anywhere she saw an opportunity. By often posing as a rich client, she managed to get shop clerks to let their guard down and slip items into her bag.

Payne has been convicted several times for her crimes but received minimal punishment. Now, in her 90s, she has shown little regret about her criminal life and is suspected of several other thefts, including the stealing of a $33,000 diamond ring in the great state of North Carolina.

2. Derek "Bertie" Smalls

Bertie Smalls criminalindependent

If you know about the widespread armed robberies in Great Britain in the 60s and 70s then you will also recognize the name Derek "Bertie" Smalls.

Smalls' pièce de résistance was his robbery of the Ilford Barclay's Bank branch in 1970, pocketing a mammoth £237,000 - a record at the time. Fleeing the scene, the east London native escaped to Paris and later to the Costa Del Sol, where he followed the hunt for his capture through newspapers.

After surrendering to the police, Smalls was able to secure immunity by becoming an informant for law enforcement and offering names and evidence to prosecute members of the underworld. As a result, Bertie Smalls is most famous for being Britain's first snitch or, as they call it in the UK, supergrass. He died of natural causes in 2008 despite the numerous revenge bounties - including the alleged £1m that the Kray twins (above) - placed on his head.

3. Carl Gugasian

Carl Cugassian criminalfollowatch

An Ivy League-educated army officer with a PhD in statistics and probability, Carl Gugasian probably never intended to become a career criminal; after planning a series of mock robberies in his spare time, though, the Pennsylvania native - a convicted juvenile offender - began to develop a notorious reputation as the "Friday Night Bank Robber".

To this day, he is still the most notorious bank robber in the United States’ history. During his long reign of criminal activity, he robbed many banks, shot several people and managed to steal $2 million.

Experts contend that Gugasian was immensely dedicated to his craft, doing whatever it took to get better in his field. It is comparable to any law-abiding profession. Still, once he was caught by law enforcements, he was remorseful. His willingness to co-operate with the subsequent investigation saw his sentence reduced from 115 years to 17; Gugasian, meanwhile, now teaches calculus to other inmates.

4. Frank Abagnale Jr

Frank Abagnale Jr famous thiefFortune

Immortalized by Steven Spielberg and Leonardo Di Caprio in 2002's Catch Me If You Can, Frank Abagnale Jr is one of the most celebrated con men in the world.

Indeed, Frank Abagnale was a cunning criminal, conman, impostor and check forger who later became an American security consultant. During his criminal era, he assumed many identities, including a doctor, airline pilot, lawyer and even a prison consultant – mind you, all this before he turned the age of 21. When arrested, he confessed to his crimes and assisted the government in improving its ability to detect fraudsters.

Today, he continues to work closely with the FBI and other security agencies through his Abagnale & Associates security firm.

5. Albert Spaggiari

Albert SpaggiariAFP Photo

Photographer by day and thief by night.

While his first criminal act involved robbing a jewelry store because he wanted to give his girlfriend a diamond ring, Albert Spaggiari became famous after organizing a break-in at the Société Générale bank in Nice, France. He handpicked a gang of experienced thieves, including Gaby Anglade, to assist with his criminal plans and they made their way to the bank via the sewers to dug a tunnel under its vault. Then, during the Bastille Day festivities on July 16, 1976, they broke into the vault and stole 60 million francs. His team even had a picnic on the bank floors while emptying the safety deposit boxes.

After being caught, he devised a clever and dangerous escape plan during his trial that involved distracting the judge with a coded document, jumping out of a window, and escaping on a motorcycle. He lived out the remainder of his life on the run, probably in Argentina, after undergoing plastic surgery.

6. Jesse James

Jesse James legendary criminalShutterstock

Over the years, many novels, movies and documentaries have attempted to retell the life of legendary Western gangster, Jesse James.  

But who was this renegade, anyway?

Jesse James and his brother, Frank, were the kids of a preacher. They enrolled in the Confederate militia during the Civil War before they began their life in crime. They were only teenagers when they started to rob stores, banks, and trains throughout the southern states. The duo then formed the James Younger gang, causing mayhem in every town they visited. A reward was placed for Jesse James, but a criminal acquaintance, Robert Ford, killed him in 1882 at the age of 34.

While he has since been portrayed as a folk hero and a rebel, particularly in the American south, James was a coldhearted killer who robbed banks with zero remorse. As the old saying goes, sometimes the simplest explanation is the most correct. One more thing: He did not fake his own death. The outlaw's exhumed remains were verified by a team of scientists in 1995 to deduce that it was indeed James in his grave.

7. Bill Mason

Johnny Weissmuller thiefJohnny Weissmuller Official Website

If you can steal from Truman Capote, you have certainly made a name for yourself. And that’s what Bill Mason did.

During his life, he completed a string of high-profile jewelry heists across the US and like many of his peers, Mason started his long career in crime young. He made a living out of attending glamorous high society get-togethers, schmoozing with the assorted guests - and then robbing them blind. To put a dollar figure on how much he stole, Mason’s efforts amounted to the tune of $35 million. His victims included Phyllis Diller, Armand Hammer, Truman Capote and other high-profile individuals. Mason documented his story in a 2004 memoir, Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief, where he also explains how he returned the Olympic gold medal he stole from Johnny Weissmuller (above) out of guilt.

He also had a knack for planning robberies and remained a fugitive for nearly five years. Despite the huge number and value of items he stole, he only served a few years in prison.

8. Veerappan

VeerappanSri Lanka Mirror

Another divisive figure, Munisamy Veerappan Mallar - known more commonly as just Veerappan - was an Indian bandit who spent nearly 30 years evading police capture, before his death at the hands of a Special Task Force in 2004.

He carried out his criminal activities from the lush forests of Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. It is estimated that he killed nearly ten dozen Indians, poached thousands of elephants and smuggled tons of ivory and sandalwood. He killed numerous police officers and anti-poachers, as well as local civilians he suspected of being police informants during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Veerappan also kidnapped and ransomed several high-profile political and cultural figures. Although thousands attended his funeral, he remains a highly controversial figure in India.

9. Vincenzo Peruggia

Vincenzo Peruggia famous thiefPBS

Vincenzo Peruggia was perhaps the greatest art thief of the 20th century. Many people will make this case, especially considering how simple his magnum opus was.

Peruggia managed to steal the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in Paris. In fact, he worked at the Louvre and did not even have an elaborate plan. He hid in the museum one night and removed the Mona Lisa from the wall. That’s it! How ingenious, indeed.

Peruggia hid it in his clothes and walked past an unguarded area quite easily. However, he did get caught when he tried to sell the painting two years later. Peruggia spent just one year in prison, before serving in the Italian Army during the First World War; considered a hero in Italy, he died in 1925 of a heart attack at the age of 44.

Of course, Peruggia has been an inspiration for many other thieves as a total of four times the legendary artwork has been stolen or attempted to be taken by unscrupulous individuals.

10. Natwarlal

Natwarlal most famous thief and forgerMensXP

An attorney by trade, Natwarlal was an Indian fraudster, forger, and con man who became famous for his prison escapes and high-profile crimes. He duped hundreds of businesses, banks, and small shops for millions of rupees using a variety of aliases.

A talented forger, his signature trick was posing as a government official and selling the Taj Mahal to gullible foreigners (as well as other Indian landmarks such as the Red Fort, the Rashtrapati Bhawan and the Parliament House of India). He had used 50 different names, forged documentation, and multiple impersonations to make this happen.

He escaped from jail numerous times during his distinguished career, including in 1996 when, aged 84 and wheelchair-bound, he somehow managed to evade his captors at a New Delhi railway station - the last time he was seen in public.

11. Anna Sorokin

Anna SorokinABC News

Anna Sorokin has made a name for herself as a fraudster and con artist. After arriving in the United States in 2013, she posed as a rich German heiress going by the name Anna Delvey. She defrauded banks, hotels, and even close friends for the sum of $275k.

In 2017, she was convicted her of her crimes and sentenced to a little more than four years in prison. In 2022 she was deported back to Germany and, believe it or not, she is now selling artwork online,  including drawings she produced while serving time in prison. Meanwhile, in February 2022, Netflix released a series, Inventing Anna, based on her story, capturing millions of viewers.

12. Simon Leviev

Simon LevievNetflix

Leviev is an Israeli con artist who has been convicted of fraud, theft, and forgery. Between 2017 to 2019, he stole at least $10 million in a Ponzi scheme that snared many Europeans. Despite stealing millions, he has only served two years in prison over the course of his criminal career. 

In 2022, Netflix released a documentary called The Tinder Swindler, which prompted Tinder to ban him from their app. Despite being exposed for his crimes, Leviev signed with a talent manager and joined Cameo where he earns $200 for personalized videos.

13. Bonnie and Clyde

Bonnie and ClydeWikimedia Commons

Bonnie Elizabeth Parker and Clyde Chestnut Barrow were a product of the Great Depression.

The two gangsters quickly became famous for their violent crimes as they traveled around the United States robbing banks, funeral homes and small stores. It is also believed that they murdered at least nine police officers and four civilians.

In the early 1930s, they were considered public enemy number one because of their crime spree. However, their story came to a violent end in May 1934, when a posse ambushed the couple and pumped hundreds of bullets into the vehicle they were onboard of.

14. Stéphane Breitwieser

Stephane BreitwieserWikimedia Commons

This notorious French thief stole more than 200 artworks from 172 museums in France and across Europe, totaling about $1.4 billion between 1995 and 2001, while working as a waiter.

However, unlike other art thieves, Breitwieser’s motif for stealing was not profit but rather his love for art, as he claimed. In 2001, he was arrested in Switzerland and he spent two years in prison before being extradited to France, where he was also sentenced to three years imprisonment in 2005 and again in 2013.

In his autobiography, published in 2006, Confessions d'un Voleur d'Art (Confessions Of An Art Thief), Breitwieser discusses his exploits and experiences.

15. Anthony Strangis

Anthony Strangis Sarma Melngailis mugshotsNetflix

A fraudster and convicted felon, Strangis was married to Sarma Melngalis, the vegan owner of Pure Food and Wine. Going by several names, including Shane Fox, he stole close to $1 million from investors and employees at his wife’s business.

Strangis told Sarma different lies about his past life, including having a military background and he was  convicted of grand larceny and criminal tax fraud in 2017. In 2018, he and Sarma were divorced.

In 2022, Strangis’ story was recounted in Netflix’s documentary Bad Vegan which detailed his fraudulent actions and his attempts to flee the police which resulted in a nationwide manhunt for himself and Sarma Melngailis.

Final thoughts

Robbing banks, stealing paintings, embezzling millions of dollars; these notorious thieves have gone down in history for their criminal escapades and illicit activities.

But as you will note in most cases, crime never pays. That said, their stories are still fodder for newspaper journalists, authors, film producers and the like. 

Do you know of any other famous thieves that didn’t make it on our list? Let us know in the comments section below!


This article is an updated version of an earlier article published in July 2015 and contains contributions by Hannah Lamarque.