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Time was up for Israeli burglar's widow

Nili Shamrat of Tarzana was caught after she sold clocks back to the Jerusalem museum that her late husband, Na'aman Diller, stole them from in 1983, investigators said.

March 03, 2010|By Tony Barboza
  • This clock made by the Rochat Brothers in the early 19th century was among those stolen from the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem by Na'aman Diller in 1983.
This clock made by the Rochat Brothers in the early 19th century was among…

When prolific Israeli burglar Na'aman Diller discovered he was dying of cancer in 2003, he decided to leave his widow a collection of some 100 artifacts of decidedly questionable origin.

They included rare clocks, manuscripts, paintings and an item billed as "the world's most expensive watch": a gold and rock crystal pocket watch made for Marie Antoinette in the 18th century.

All the items had allegedly been stolen during a storied heist at Jerusalem's L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art in 1983.

But that didn't stop Diller's widow, Nili Shamrat, 64, of Tarzana, from trying to sell dozens of the timepieces back to the museum no questions asked, authorities said.

Her effort set in motion a lengthy international investigation that ended a few weeks ago when Shamrat was sentenced in L.A. County Superior Court to five years' probation and 300 hours of community service for receiving the stolen property.

The California insurance commissioner's office announced the end of the case Tuesday, saying most of the valuables had been sent back to the museum.

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Diller was a well-known burglar who operated in Israel and Europe in the 1960s and early '70s. He met Shamrat in Tel Aviv in 1970, and the two dated until he went to prison in 1972. Shamrat moved to the Los Angeles area soon after that, but regularly met up with Diller in Europe and Israel. They married in Tel Aviv in 2003 and it was then, investigators said, that Diller confided in her about the heist that he had pulled off 20 years earlier, willing her his entire estate.

Together they removed the stolen timepieces from Diller's Tel Aviv apartment and stored them in a safety deposit box under her name, according to state investigators. After Diller's death, Shamrat retrieved the stolen clocks from safety deposit boxes throughout Europe and hired an attorney to help sell them, investigators said.

In August 2006, a Tel Aviv watchmaker appraising 40 timepieces for an attorney hired by Shamrat recognized them as part of the renowned collection. The watchmaker told the museum. The same day, the museum board of directors contacted the attorney, who said her client would return the clocks to the museum if she were paid and granted anonymity and the police were not called, investigators said.

The next day, the attorney turned over cardboard boxes containing 40 antique clocks. The museum paid her $35,000, officials said.

In 2007, the story of the artifacts' return surfaced in the Israeli media, and the Israeli national police reopened their investigation.

"That's when the cold case got hot again and she got busted," said California Department of Insurance spokesman Mark Billingsley. "Why she tried to go through official channels to try to sell this back is beyond me."

Investigators with the Israeli police and California insurance detectives searched Shamrat's Tarzana home in May 2008, recovering millions of dollars' worth of items from the stolen museum collection, including three 18th century paintings and an antique Latin manuscript, authorities said. The search also turned up evidence linking Diller to the 1983 burglary, including display placards from the exhibit.

A year later, Shamrat was arrested.

The artifacts were part of a collection that belonged to Sir David Salomons, London's first Jewish lord mayor. The most notable pieces were crafted by French watchmaker Abraham Louis Breguet. Of the 106 artifacts stolen, 96, including the famed Marie Antoinette watch, have been returned.

tony.barboza@latimes.com

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