At Nice Pebbles prospective buyers are offered tips on mortgages, insurance and opening a bank account. But they should think twice about visiting Société Générale…
For in mid-July 1976, the bank’s Nice branch opposite Galeries Lafayette played host to ‘the robbery of the century’.
The team of 20 Marseille hoodlums who stole €10m was led by Nice local Albert Spaggiari. As this true story proves, the criminal mastermind would get to have his gateau – and eat it.
It was the perfect crime. Spaggiari owned a photography studio in central Nice. Many of his high society clients maintained safety deposit boxes at that prestigious branch of Société Générale, stocked with gold, jewellery and hard cash.
Spaggiari found a sewer outlet than ran next to the Société Générale basement. To test the security of the adjoining vaults he too hired a deposit box and filled it with the biggest, loudest alarm clock he could possibly find. At midnight he waited in the next-door sewer for the alarm clock to go off. That it did, but no other alarms sounded. The Société Générale vaults were thought to be impregnable so no sound or motion sensors were installed.
The robbers drilled through the vault walls on Bastille Day in 1976, the start of laziest, sunniest weekend in France. (The break-in is dramatised on the YouTube video below.) Ever the showman, Spaggiari held a Champagne-fuelled party inside the bank vault. According to the New York Times: “they cooked meals, drank wine and used antique silver tureens as toilets.”
Staff returned from holiday the following Monday to find the vault doors welded shut from within. Locksmiths were called. Concerned customers queued outside the bank.
It took three hours to open the vault doors to Spaggiari’s devastation. Love letters, paper bonds and pornographic photos featuring some of Nice’s principle personalities lay strewn across the floor. Some €10m was taken in gold and cash. The only sign of Spaggiari’s team were the words: “Without guns, without violence, without hate” scrawled on the wall.
To cut a long story short, Spaggiari was tried for robbery six months later at the Palais du Justice in Nice Old Town. But the canny Frenchman stalled the prosecution with a series of coded documents while he formulated an escape plan.
During the trial in March 1977, he asked for a window of the third storey courtroom to be opened, from which he promptly leaped out of onto the roof of a parked car (Spaggiari was a former paratrooper). A waiting motorbike sped the criminal ace to safety, from which he yelled ‘au revoir’ to astounded police.
Spaggiari enjoyed the spoils of his robbery until his death in 1989. The Frenchman taunted police and prosecutors alike with letters and adverts in the press saying “Hello from Albert”. He even received an obituary in the New York Times. News reports also claimed that he send the owner of the car he damaged a cheque for 5000 Francs cheque in the post.