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How easy is it to fence $50 million worth of stolen diamonds?

By now, the diamond thieves who pulled off a brazen $50 million heist on the tarmac of Brussels Airport are the most wanted men in Europe. They're most likely lying low somewhere, waiting for the heat to die down. Soon enough, though, they'll want to turn that loot into cash. But how does one actually go about fencing $50 million in stolen diamonds? In fact, it's easier than you might think.

Clearly, these guys planned their Feb. 18 heist well -- it was fast and efficient, and it employed minimal violence in intercepting the diamonds at a moment of vulnerability. Given their professionalism, it's quite likely that they planned just as carefully what to do with the loot.

I know a little bit about what they might have been thinking, from investigating the largest diamond heist in history, the 2003 burglary of $500 million in stones in Antwerp, Belgium, by a group of Italian thieves known as the School of Turin.

Let's assume these new crooks don't already have someone in mind on whom they intend to unload all the diamonds. They'll have to sell them slowly to avoid drawing attention, but that's OK, as diamonds don't lose value with the passage of time. The first thing to do with all those stolen diamonds is to divide them up into polished stones, rough stones, and anything in between. Polished stones are diamonds that look like those sold in jewelry stores, except, of course, they're loose -- not yet on a ring or necklace. Rough diamonds look nothing like what you'd find at Tiffany's. They generally resemble two pyramids stuck together at their bases with a frosted surface, like sea glass. The in-between stones, those that are partially polished, will be the toughest ones to unload. There's no real market in such stones, and they would need to be taken to an unscrupulous polisher to finish the job. But because these stones were leaving Antwerp (one of the world's polishing centers) for Switzerland, there are likely to be few if any partially polished diamonds in this stolen $50 million haul.

The biggest problem is getting rid of the stones' identifying characteristics. Some of the polished diamonds will have signature marks on them, such as tiny, almost invisible, laser engravings. These can be removed. But some polished diamonds have laser-inscribed marks on their girdle, commonly used for branding purposes: Canadian diamonds often feature a maple leaf or polar bear, while De Beers uses its distinctive "Forevermark." Such brands by themselves are not a concern; in fact, removing them might hurt the resale value of a stone. But the problem facing the thieves is that these markings often include a serial number used to identify a specific stone.

Thus, eventually someone might check this serial number and find out that a particular stone was reported stolen. A discovery like this would be a huge break for the dedicated diamond police squad in Antwerp -- a force that solely handles diamond-related crime and is leading up the investigation into this heist. And it has a difficult task ahead of it.

"Dealing in stolen diamonds is relatively easy, if you know where to go with those diamonds," Patrick Peys, one of Antwerp's crack diamond detectives, once told me. "Unfortunately, we know that stolen diamonds can be sold. If you get it for a cheap price, and you are sure that they can't be identified, you get profit. And as always, there will be people in the diamond business that want to make an easy profit."

One thing working in the thieves' favor is that in the complex, busy world of the gem trade, a single diamond can trade hands multiple times in a single day. And not everyone keeps clear records. By the time someone realizes that they're in possession of a stolen stone, it could have passed through dozens of hands, leaving the trail too cold for police to be able to track it back to the original trader who bought it off the thieves.

Another thing going for the thieves is that the individual marking of stones is still rather rare. Yes, diamond-grading laboratories offer services that will inscribe a unique number on a diamond to match that polished stone to a report detailing its attributes. But it's far more common to simply keep a diamond in a transparent, sealed, tamper-proof case along with a given report that notes cut, clarity, color, carat weight, and other details. Moreover, even the best labs don't note or keep track of any unique identifier such as an optical fingerprint of polished stones. There are indeed services geared toward retail clients that will analyze diamonds and keep extremely detailed records for insurance or identification purposes. But these kinds of services aren't used in Antwerp's wholesale diamond trade.

In fact, all the thieves need to do to launder the diamonds is to remove the inscriptions on the polished stones. Then, for a small fee, they could bring them back to one of the many labs in Antwerp, or any other diamond-trading city, where they'd be given a new report with a new number. Anyone could walk in off the street with a few million dollars in polished diamonds and ask for them to be graded. Unless the person were acting very strangely, it is unlikely anyone would find this suspicious. This is a business in which millions of dollars in stones are commonly traded.

Yes, it might be a risk walking back into the lion's den, but the odds are very high that there were few unique, identifiable stones among those stolen this week. The vast majority of diamonds traded in Antwerp are in the 1-to-2-carat range and on the white end of the spectrum -- without truly distinct colors or imperfections. Large stones, especially ones in desirable colors such as red or blue, would be harder to sell as the danger would be high that someone would recognize them. If the thieves are in possession of such a stone, they would do well to take it someplace far from Antwerp, where no one would recall having seen it before.

But even then, it's not hard to smuggle stones across borders. A million dollars in diamonds could fit into a cigarette pack. This week's entire haul, some $50 million worth, could be carried by one strong man. And you could easily turn some of the stones into jewelry and wear them right through customs anywhere in the world. There still isn't a dog on Earth that can sniff out a diamond. If you were looking to get rid of the large and fancy-colored stones, the best markets would be in Dubai and Hong Kong.

The rough diamonds will be a little more difficult to move. While anyone can bring in a polished diamond to a lab to be tested and then get a rough idea of its worth, a rough diamond needs an experienced eye. While dealers routinely trade polished stones over the Internet, one needs to actually see and hold a rough to value it. For the thieves, this means that it will be hard for them to know whether the person they're selling to is paying a decent price for these stones. Either they're prepared to sell them cheap, or more likely, they'll have an insider and expert helping to appraise the rough stones.

There's one more little hassle for the thieves when it comes to moving rough diamonds: The stones are supposed to be accompanied by Kimberley Process certificates attesting that they are not conflict stones, or blood diamonds. Such certificates are easy to forge or obtain fraudulently. Crossing borders with customs, such as those into Switzerland, requires having such certificates for all rough stones. These thieves won't be. There certainly are buyers for rough stones without proper paperwork, but selling to them would probably involve giving them a bit of a discount, as it is illegal. Once polished, however, the stones do not require such certificates anymore; instead, they become part of a toothless industry scheme called the System of Warranties. But both this system and the Kimberley Process are full of holes, and it's a good bet that thieves of this caliber won't have much of a problem finding a way around this issue.

There's one more thing working in the thieves' favor: If the police don't catch them with their loot early on, it is highly unlikely the diamonds will ever be recovered. In the case of the 2003 Antwerp heist, only a handful of stones was ever found, and those stones were in the home safe of one of the thieves. He was later caught with some diamonds in his car, but the police had trouble tracing them back to the theft. The 2003 thieves were caught as they dumped incriminating garbage on their way from Antwerp to Brussels Airport. This week's crooks learned this lesson: They torched their getaway vehicle to destroy evidence.

It's said there's no honor among thieves, but a diamond heist from Antwerp's past holds a key lesson: Don't leave the loot with someone you can't trust to hold onto it. In 1994, Antwerp was rocked by a robbery, but one in which the police actually did get back the loot. After a theft from one of the trading halls, the robbers left the stones with some local diamond dealers to hold onto for safekeeping. But the dealers felt so much guilt over the heist that they gave the stones to their rabbi. Then, as any good man of God would do, the rabbi took the cardboard box full of millions of dollars of diamonds and biked down to a police station, where he sat patiently for hours until the police took the time to talk to him. He handed over the diamonds to the flabbergasted police and then declared the matter over. The police, appreciative as they were for the diamonds' safe return, did not -- and eventually arrested everyone (barring the rabbi) who'd taken part in the heist.

The ironic thing about this week's heist, though, is that odds are that the vast majority of these stolen stones will end up back in Antwerp soon -- but the people buying and selling them will have no idea they were stolen. Even victims of this heist would be unlikely to recognize one of their stones. And once the stones are relaundered through Antwerp's vast diamond industry, the hunt will effectively be over. In fact, in a few days, weeks, or months, it's a good bet that some of those diamonds will end up on their way to the biggest retail market in the world for diamond engagement rings -- the United States. You might even find one on sale at the jewelry shop at your local mall.

Paul O'Driscoll/Getty Images

FP Explainer

Paging Bruce Willis

Whose job is it to stop an asteroid from hitting the Earth?

Update, February 15, 2013: Today, a 150-foot long asteroid with the bland designation of DA14 will pass approximately 17,000 miles from Earth, slipping within the orbit of some communications satellites. At 9:20 this morning local time, a much smaller meteor exploded in the atmosphere above Chelyabinsk, Russia. The fireball, called a "bolide," created a large shockwave that has caused upwards of 900 injuries as a result of shattered windows and damaged roofs. The meteor over Russia was relatively small -- the Russian Academy of Sciences estimates it weighed around 10 metric tons, compared to the 180,000-ton DA14 -- and it appears not to have been detected before entering the atmosphere. But what about larger asteroids, the ones like DA14, that astronomers find crossing Earth's path? Who's there to stop a much bigger bang than what happened at Chelyabinsk? We took a look last December, the last time a large asteroid came a little too close for comfort.

Not to be overly alarmist, but Earth has had two near-misses with large asteroids so far this month. On Wednesday, a hunk of space rock three miles in diameter and going by the designation 4179 Toutatis passed by the planet, missing by 4.3 million miles, or about 18 times the distance from the Earth to the moon.  The day before, an approximately 100 foot-wide asteroid passed much closer -- within 140,000 miles, slipping between the Earth and the moon. Neither of these are the Planet X that some New Age doomsayers claim will bring the end of the world on December 21 (the date the ancient Mayan calendar ends) nor are they quite on the scale of the six-mile wide asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs -- but still, even a "small" asteroid impact could cause tsunamis, skyline-flattening blasts, and at an extreme, nuclear winter.

The problem is that while the effects might be monstrous, in the cosmic scale of things these "near-Earth objects" (NEOs) are tiny, and thus difficult to detect. XE54, the 100-foot asteroid that passed by on Tuesday, wasn't discovered until two days before its fly-by. The effect of an NEO impact would have global implications, but whose responsibility is it to find these space rocks and, if necessary, to stop them?

At present, NEOs are discovered and tracked by an informal international network of professional and amateur astronomers. Their findings are cataloged and published by the Minor Planet Center, which is run by the Smithsonian and has the support of the International Astronomical Union, the leading professional society of astronomers. In addition, the U.S. government has legally required NEO research. In 2005, Congress mandated that NASA identify at least 90 percent of all NEOs wider than 450 feet by 2020, though, as a 2011 report by the National Academy Sciences points out, Congress did not appropriate funds to meet this goal.

NASA's current efforts include surveys to identify the largest NEOs, and partnerships with some military- and university-operated telescopes. NASA is also cooperating with other countries' projects, including the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's Hayabusa space probe, which intercepted asteroid 25143 Itokawa in 2005 and returned samples to Earth, and the Canadian Space Agency's Near-Earth Object Surveillance Satellite, scheduled for launch next year.


Data from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Explorer (WISE), an orbiting space telescope, has led astronomers to estimate that there are approximately 20,000 NEOs with diameters greater than 330 feet. This is an improvement over previous estimates, but even with the revised lower numbers, astronomers have found maybe only one-fourth of the space rocks in Earth's path. Worse, when they are identified, it's often only a few days before they pass unnervingly close to home. If one of these NEOs were on a collision course, options to deflect it would be limited -- and though international law regulates issues of sovereignty and military use in space, there is no international framework for whose responsibility it would be to avert an asteroid impact. If the United States has a plan, it's not public.

That may be changing. The United Nations Scientific and Technical Subcommittee has a special working group on NEOs advised by a special coalition of experts (called Action Team 14), ranging from space agencies to advocacy groups. Together, they are working to formalize an U.N. framework for coordinating an international response to potentially dangerous NEOs. Their recommendations, which will be presented in February, are expected to include proposals to establish two institutions. The first is an international asteroid warning network to coordinate the search for NEOs, determine which ones are threats, and what their characteristics are (what they're made of, how fast they're traveling, and other factors relevant to trying to deflect them). The second group is a "space mission planning advisory group" -- comprised of engineers, astronauts (and cosmonauts, and maybe taikonauts), and other representatives of various countries' space agencies -- to plan potential responses to threats. It's a good start, but some experts feel it's moving too slowly (surprising no one familiar with the United Nations).

For now, it would probably fall to the few countries with advanced space-launch technology and powerful ballistic kinetic weapons -- the United States and Russia, most prominently -- to try to divert an incoming NEO. In testimony presented to Congress in 2007, NASA proposed two broad categories for methods to deflect an NEO: impulsive technology, which would use explosives to alter the object's course; and "slow push" technologies, which would use everything from directed solar energy to gravity wells to gradually shift the object away from impact with Earth. The effectiveness of these methods would depend on the size of the NEO and the time available -- and as NASA cautioned in its report, much of the technology is years from being ready for launch.

Experts' best estimates for the time necessary to successfully divert an NEO from hitting the planet is, at bare minimum, two to three years, although five years is probably more realistic. Given that it's impossible to get a three-mile hunk of rock hurtling through space to make a 90 degree right turn, small deflections far from Earth are required. And it takes time to prepare a spacecraft and fly it out to meet an asteroid deep in the solar system. With many of the slow push technologies still years away from being practicable, it would require brute force -- either crashing a spacecraft into the object or altering its course with nuclear explosions (delivered by unmanned rockets, not oil crews). Here there be legal trouble, though: using nukes would technically violate the U.N. Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space.

At this point, say experts, we're not quite ready to muster an international effort to save the planet from space rock disaster. But at least governments are getting more serious about the problem and taking the responsibility for detection from armchair astronomers. And should we all make it past December 21, 2012, don't start celebrating just yet. 4179 Toutatis, the three-mile wide asteroid that passed by yesterday, will be zipping by again in four years.