Argentina bank heist echoes Woody Allen films and Sherlock Holmes tales

Here’s the plot: Thieves rent a building, dig a hole from their basement into a neighboring bank’s security vault, and quietly break in and make off with the goods.

Is it Hollywood or real life? Both, actually. On New Year’s Eve in Argentina’s capital, a band of thieves tunneled through a 100-foot-hole into a neighboring bank and stole the contents of up to 140 safety deposit boxes. Nobody was harmed.

The spectacular robbery seems to come straight out of Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story “The Red-Headed League,” about thieves attempting to tunnel into a pawnbroker’s basement, or Woody Allen’s comedy film “Small Time Crooks,” about a bumbling group of would-be robbers who open a cookie shop as a ruse for digging from their basement into a nearby bank vault.

“It has the feeling of a Pierce Brosnan film,” says Ulrich Boser, a senior fellow at the Center of American Progress think tank in Washington, referencing the 1999 film “The Thomas Crown Affair” starring the British actor as art thief.

Indeed, robbers have likely been inspired by film and fiction in the past, says Phillips Gay, president of National Association for Bank Security, which runs seminars and provides educational materials on bank security to 32 state banking associations. He says the 1991 action film “Point Break,” starring Keanu Reaves and Patrick Swayze, is “thought to have inspired quite a few robbers. There may be others.”

Some films in particular worry those in the banking industry, such as “Public Enemies,” starring Johnny Depp as bank robber John Dillinger.

“We were very concerned when the Johnny Depp movie came out a year ago and that it would inspire copy-cats,” says Mr. Gay in a phone interview from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

The robbers in Buenos Aires rented their building in June and spent six months digging and reinforcing a tunnel to the Banco Provincia branch in the district of Belgrano, according to the Associated Press. It was unclear how much the robbers stole, as the contents of the safety deposit boxes were unknown.

“It was a really impressive job,” prosecutor Martin Niklison reportedly said. Seismic alarms sounded during the break-in, which police dismissed, reported the BBC.

“Obviously they should have known there was a basement,” says Gay, of the National Association for Bank Security. “Somebody didn’t do their homework.”

But thieves don’t always do their homework either, says Mr. Boser, the author of “The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft,” about the 1990 heist of $500 million in paintings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. In the Gardner case, for example, thieves cut paintings out of their frames – a method perhaps used on TV or film, but not a smart way to preserve the value of artwork.

Or consider how TV crooks hold pistols sideways, a method copied in real-life even though it’s not the most efficient way to hold a gun, he says. “We’ve seen a lot of cases where thieves seem to be more impressed by film,” he adds.

Boser says he knows of no thieves who have cited specific movies or stories as inspiration, and that may be because the most studious thieves know how to escape arrest.

“I can’t think of any specific example where a thief was caught and later said, ‘I was inspired by ‘Y’ movie,’ ” he says. “I would imagine that the reason it’s hard to find an example is because a good thief doesn’t get caught.”

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