The Jewel Robbery that Baffled the Best

It looked the perfect crime. When a box containing a string of 252 specially-made pearls and other valuable pieces of jewellery, ordered by Queen Saovabha Phongsri (the mother of the future King Vajiravudh, Rama VI), from a reputable agent in Britain and insured for £10,000, arrived in Bangkok in the middle of 1909, it was found to be empty. For almost three years the whereabouts of the pearls remained a mystery while police and diamond merchants followed a trail leading from Bangkok to Singapore, Penang, Australia, Batavia (now Jakarta), Colombo, Paris, and London.

When King Chulalongkorn made his second visit to Europe in 1907, among those accompanying him was Queen Saovabha Phongsri. In April 1909, Queen Saovabha arranged for a rope of pearls and other pieces of expensive jewellery to be been made up by the Association of Diamond Merchants, Jewellers, and Silversmiths Limited of Trafalgar Square in London.

queen-sri-bajarindra-with-her-sons

Queen Saovabha Phongsri, later known as Queen Sri Bajarindra, with her sons.

After completing their commission, the jewellers carefully packed the items in a strong wooden box secured with four big red seals. According to some accounts, this box was placed aboard a German steamer bound for Bangkok and deposited in its strongroom. In other accounts the box was placed in the strongroom of a steamer bound for Hong Kong. When it arrived at that British colony the box was then taken to Bangkok. Either way, when the Court Chamberlain in Bangkok opened the box it was found to be empty, even though none of the four seals did not appear to have been broken. It was as if the jewels had simply vanished.

 

Although the pearls were insured, the insurance company refused to pay out until strenuous efforts had been made to recover the jewellery. Representatives of the Association of Diamond Merchants would spend literally thousands of pounds following up leads in the search for the pearls over the next year and a half before finally reaching a definite suspect. Their only hope at recovering the pearls and tracking the thief, or thieves, lay with the chance someone would eventually try and sell some of the distinctive pearls.

For almost 18 months the trail was cold and the jewellers association investigators completely baffled by the seemingly perfect crime. There were early suggestions that close inspection by experts revealed the seals on the strongbox were very cleverly executed copies of the originals. This meant the theft may well have occurred before the pearls even left Britain, but this idea was soon discarded when a second and more plausible explanation came to light.

The thief, or thieves, worked out it was not necessary to disturb the seals in order to get at the jewels. The lid of the strongbox was made in two pieces, tongued and grooved. One piece was 22.5 centimetres (nine inches) wide; the other was 15 centimetres (six inches) wide. By taking out the screws securing the 15cm piece, it was possible to slip it out of the larger piece. After cutting through the zinc lining on the box it was then a simple matter to remove the pearls and other items. After replacing the 22.5cm lid and refastening the screws there was no evidence of tampering. This knowledge simply expanded the number of possible scenarios for the theft: from inside Britain, on the steamer, or at its final destination in Bangkok and anywhere in-between.

The first clue came late in 1910 when it was learned that 33 pearls suspected as having belonged to the original rope had been sold to a dealer in Singapore. This dealer, a man of doubtful character, was traced to Paris in early 1911. When the investigators found him to ask questions, they made sure to keep their pistols within easy reach.

The dealer claimed he had already sold the pearls, but gave investigators the name of the man who had sold the dealer the pearls. He was Paul de Boseck, a former wharfinger (owner), who had been working in Bangkok at the time the box containing the jewellery arrived. The box was in his possession for about five hours before being delivered to the Grand Palace.

Investigators soon learned de Boseck had sold a pair of the distinctive pearls to a bookmaker in Singapore. They travelled to Singapore and interviewed the bookmaker who told them he had already sold the two pearls to another bookmaker, who took them to Australia. This second bookmaker was found and the pearls brought back to Singapore where a director of the Association then purchased the pearls and positively identified them as having belonged to the original rope. He secured an arrest warrant for Paul de Boseck and the hunt was on.

The Association investigators traced de Boseck first to Batavia in the Dutch East Indies and then Ceylon, but lost his trail. That was in June 1911. In December a contact in the Straits Settlement (Singapore) government told investigators de Boseck was in England.

He was traced to an address in London and on 4 January 1912 Paul de Boseck was arrested by London police led by Detective Chief Inspector Bower.

Formally identified as Jules Paul de Boseck, alias Paul de Boseck (but also spelled Bosach and Debusick in some accounts), the alleged thief was a tall, slim 31-year-old (although other accounts stated he was 32) journalist. He had lived and worked in Bangkok as well as Singapore, but it would later be revealed he had led a something of a double life.

De Boseck was remanded under the Fugitive Offenders Act and charged with receiving jewellery which had been stolen at Bangkok. He submitted a written statement to the court noting he was known in Bangkok as lending money on goods and jewellery.

At his first hearing before a magistrate at the Bow Street courts in London, de Boseck was not represented by legal counsel. Inspector Bower, in the witness box, was asked by de Boseck, “Are you speaking of the two pearls I gave a bookmaker named Cohan or Cowan at Singapore in settlement of a debt?”

The police officer replied that he was, at which point de Boseck claimed he didn’t know the pearls were stolen.

Bower replied, “It is alleged you gave a bookmaker at Singapore one or more of those stolen pearls. One of those pearls has been identified as a portion of some valuable jewellery which was handed to you when you were at Windsor’s Wharf, at Bangkok, to forward to the Queen of Siam.”

De Boseck countered by saying a large number of cases of jewellery went through his hands while he was in Bangkok. Bower then asked, “…do you wish to tell me whom you got them from?” The defendant said he needed to talk with his solicitor first.

De Boseck then attempted to regain the initiative by adding that when he lived at one of his three known addresses in England he went by the name of Charles Chilsworth. He claimed he adopted this name “when making enquiries respecting a political offence in Java [then part of the Dutch East Indies] and I retained it in all correspondence in connection with that case. I placed the result of my enquiries before the Chinese Minister at The Hague, and corresponded with him always in that name.” The use of a pseudonym and reference to a clandestine inquiry reaching to the highest levels seemed intended to cast de Boseck in a Sherlock Holmes-style light.

He ended his defence by saying, “I parted with the pearls quite openly at Singapore, and had a receipt for them, but I think I destroyed it when I left Singapore with all other papers relating to my racing there. The receipt contained the weight and description of the pearls.”

Despite his defence, de Boseck was committed to be extradited to the Straits Settlement for trial and left Britain in April 1912. Arriving in Singapore he duly went to court.

Between that first hearing in February 1912 in London and his trial in Singapore, de Boseck refined his story. He claimed a steamer’s clerk who had lost heavily at gambling applied for a loan of 2,000 ticals, using a small box of pearls as security. De Boseck claimed he loaned the Chinese man just 920 ticals and received a receipt for 1,000 ticals. The following day the Chinese man told de Boseck he had lost all this money and asked him if he would buy the pearls. De Boseck claimed he asked the Chinese man where the pearls had come from, and he admitted they had been stolen, but did not say who the rightful owner was.

In his statement to the court de Boseck wrote, ‘I understood [the pearls were] part of a cargo. I gave him another 500 ticals, and the pearls became mine by purchase. My object in not informing the police of the occurrence was threefold – (1) I feared the worry and annoyance the matter would cause me, as I was in a very bad state of health. I was suffering from facial paralysis and brain trouble, due to the climate, opium, and other causes; (2) it was only a little while back that I had made a continued attack in the press on the police and the rottenness of the system. This caused a radical change to be made, one of the Royal princes who was then in charge being transferred to another department; (3) it was a notorious matter that stolen property was dealt with with immunity, the native police usually retaining it, when seized, for their own private benefit, and rarely restoring it to the rightful owners.’

With what was essentially a very weak defence, it was no surprise de Boseck was found guilty at the end of May 1912 and sentenced to two years in prison for possession of stolen property. It was only with the conviction of de Boseck that the £10,000 insurance money was paid to the Association of Diamond Merchants, almost three years following the theft.

In the end, only the two pearls sold by de Boseck in Singapore were ever recovered from the original necklace of 252. The remaining 250 are now scattered all over the world.

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