Who are the real Last Panthers?

Ben Dowell finds out more about the Pink Panthers - the real-life gang of jewel thieves that Sky Atlantic’s thrilling new drama The Last Panthers is based on

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The Last Panthers, Sky Atlantic’s new six-part thriller created by This is England writer Jack Thorne, and starring John Hurt and Samantha Morton, starts tonight.

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With its diamond heist opening on the streets of Marseille leading to a dramatic fallout, this is set to be a drama that will grip viewers. And there’s even a David Bowie soundtrack to delight your ears..

But what about the real Pink Panthers, the inspiration behind this series? What do we know about this group of shady Balkan thieves?

Here’s the lowdown…. 


Why the Pink Panthers?

The real-life gang first came to global attention in 1993 when they earned their nickname after the 60s crime film The Return of the Pink Panther.

A £500,000 blue diamond ring was stolen from a jewellers in Mayfair, and was later found by police in a jar of face cream belonging to a girlfriend of one of the thieves. The press noted the similarity to the movie plot and the name was born.


How did they start?

The exact origins of the gang are unclear, but the group are believed to have emerged after the Balkan conflict tore apart the former Yugoslav Republic between 1991 and 2001.

Some experts claim the Serbian government at the time made a deal that gave the gang licence to steal abroad and invest their money at home. The Pink Panthers have certainly targeted western Europe, stealing from the rich, and this led them to develop a Robin Hood reputation in Serbia. Most of the robberies are covered by insurance pay-outs, so they appear to be committing victimless crimes (although that is not the case in episode one of The Last Panthers).


How do they operate?

They have been described as “criminal artists”, using often ingenious plans to steal jewels worth millions of pounds since the early 1990s from locations including London, Paris, Monaco, Biarritz, Cannes and other high-society cities. They often make their escape with speedboats, scooters and bicycles – comic-sounding perhaps, but every raid seems to be planned down to the last detail. 


How is the group structured?

The Pink Panthers are essentially a Europe-wide family of thieves, scouts and dealers comprising around 200 to 250 people, it is believed. There is thought to be no overall boss. In fact Interpol compares their structure to Islamist terror group al-Qaeda – in that they are essentially a group of cells working independently.

They share methods and contacts between the cells, but it is important for their survival that links between them are as loose as possible.


How much have they stolen?

Experts estimate they have netted a hefty £240m worth of jewels in the past two decades.


What is their most famous raid?

The gang crashed through the glass doors of the exclusive Wafi shopping mall in Dubai in two Audis, before making off with jewels worth £2.5m. It couldn’t have been scripted better. 


Where are they now?

Many of the real Pink Panthers are now in prison or keeping their heads down. Interpol’s Pink Panther Working Group has ensured that information like DNA evidence is shared across international police forces and intelligence agencies, making the gang’s work harder. DNA evidence was used to trace two men to the Wafi Mall heist, although a female getaway driver is still believed to be at large.


Does this mean they could not strike again?

No. Experts believe that the gang is still active and is recruiting a new generation of Panthers as unemployed young men without prospects in the Balkans. They are brought into the organisation for a share of the booty – and glory.

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The Last Panthers begins on Sky Atlantic on Thursday 12 November at 9pm