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What You Can Learn From Two High Performing Conmen
how to add value to your brand

How to add value to your brand

Belgium, 2003, the world’s biggest diamond heist unfurls. Thieves have stolen 100 million from the impenetrable Antwerp Diamond Centre.

Manhattan Federal Court, 2014, the first U.S. wine fraud case is in session with a charge of selling more than twenty million dollars worth of fake wine.

Here lie two tremendous stories, with two protagonists who are unconnected other than the scope of their ambitious projects and a few performance characteristics

They are Leonardo Notarbartolo and Rudy Kurniawan and yes they both got caught but not before achieving something mammoth and looking at the personal qualities that they showed to the world there are a few common traits that appear.

Whatever your opinion on these crimes, I’m drawn to some of these features and can’t help thinking that they could help us all succeed in whatever our mission is.

Leonardo Notarbartolo

Flawless, the gripping, real-life account of one of the world’s biggest heists opens with a prologue describing the morning-after scene at the unbreachable Antwerp Diamond Centre.

Detective Patrick Peys, the first officer on the scene, looks down at a sea of opened safety deposit boxes and the treasures that the thieves could not carry: gold, silver, diamonds, emeralds, rubies and cash, enough capital lying discarded on the floor to secure a decadent retirement for his entire diamond division investigation TEAM.

“Peys didn’t say it out loud — not at the moment, anyway- but he couldn’t help but be awed by the skill required for such a heist” (XV, Selby and Campbell, 2010)

And impressed you cannot help be after reading the book. The centre, housed in the middle of a three-block, heavily guarded Antwerp Diamond District, which, as you can imagine, took it’s security very seriously. The basement vault that Peys looked down onto the morning of the discovery was two levels underground; protected by maximum impact security devices.

There were magnetic locks, infrared motion sensors, a foot-thick vault door and cameras everywhere; it was not only a daring feat but also an extraordinary triumph of engineering and logistical prowess.

Turin based thief Leonardo Notabartolo led his crew into the Antwerp Diamond Centre on a Friday night in February 2003 after years in the planning and escaped with millions of dollars of loot.

A legitimate jewellery designer with shops in Turin, Notabartolo fooled the centre manager and staff and rented an office within the diamond centre. From a small flat nearby and there he planned his mission to pull off the biggest heist in history.

Rudy Kurniawan

The story of Rudy’s infamous million-dollar wine scam was the subject of the fascinating Netflix documentary Sour Grapes.

He was the stranger came into town kind of cowboy, like Notabartolo he was a foreigner and he also left a trail of mystery behind him.

Wine consultant, Maureen Downey first noticed him attending the wine auctions in early 2000/2001, a skinny, harmless-looking kid drinking Californian merlot; a bottle with one zero instead of four on its price tag.

Roll on a few more few years and Rudy was a cult figure amongst the wine drinking glitterati. In 2006 his wine collections sold at Acker Merrall & Condit auction for a record-breaking thirty-five million dollars.

Sour Grapes interviews a collection of friends and business partners of Rudy’s, such as film producers Jefery Levy and Arthur Sarkissian, who were speaking after Rudy’s conviction and still had only warm things to say about him.

In 2013 Rudy was convicted of wine fraud to the tune of twenty million dollars and sentenced to ten years imprisonment.

The buyers of his famous wine collections were people with enormous amounts of money to burn. There’s early footage of an interview with Jef Levry and a private equity investor friend of his drinking in the back of a limo and educating us on the fundamentals of champagne drinking.

Buy ’96 Champagne. All-day,” he says, swirling a wine glass the size of a fishbowl while seated in the back of a chauffeured S.U.V. “If you can’t afford that, buy ’02. If you can’t afford that, drink fucking beer.”

Here follow a few observations about the traits of the two thieves.

THEY WERE ENIGMATIC

Conmen by nature, are unwilling and unable to give too much truth away about themselves or their lives. They’re not the obnoxious loud voice in the room; they’re never rude or pushy; they are enigmatic; mysterious.

Notabartolo’s enigma lay in his ability to deploy his most effective tools; his charm and good looks but also the facility to break the spell by making you forget him within minutes.

THEY-WERE-ENIGMATIC

Inconspicuous is a conman’s best friend, but when you’re convicted thief visibility is no longer an issue.

In 2009, Notabartolo gave an interview with Wired magazine where he ‘revealed’ for the first time a version of the heist story in which he was approached for the heist by a mysterious stranger for an insurance job. In this “remarkable” tale he made out that the crew were double-crossed and that the legendary missing loot, all 100 million of it was not in his possession.

Flawless believes that the timing of this interview coincided with his anticipated early release and it served as both a means of earning money by selling his story and also to convince authorities or potential criminals that he no longer had the loot.

Notarbartolo’s ability to play an assortment of public roles leaves a mysterious feel to his truth; an unquenchable and enigmatic allure that keeps us guessing and importantly, listening for the truth.

Likewise, Rudy’s character is difficult to pin down. Interviews with his friends Jef and Arthur convey a sense of allegiance. Despite him defrauding them with his fake wine, sold for top prices they still spoke warmly about him.

The documentary records Jef taking wines from Rudy’s collections around to well-known sommeliers to try and make a point that not all of the wines were fake. Jef couldn’t reconcile his experience with his friend with the convicted criminal reality.

Mythologies sprung up around Rudy; labelled the ‘Generation X Great Gatsby’ with stories such as him being the rich descendent of the Heikenken family with a billion-dollar wine expense budget circulating. He added fire to the rumours by acknowledging them but refusing requests to talk about them.

“I don’t talk about my family,” he told one reporter solemnly. Was it an act?

Maybe Rudy just understood the common language of the fine wine collectors; money.

A 2009 New Yorker article report that the most intriguing elements of his crime remain elusive. Was it an epic job in planning or for years? Or the story of a man desperate for cash to maintain an affluent lifestyle?

Lesson: Less is more. Create more of an enigma by saving some of your stories. Whether you’re a business or creative networker or you’re pitching for a new project, try and leave some mystery for your audience. Be enigmatic. All that is required is a little holding back of details. Nobody is interested in hearing your entire life story anyway.

Well Studied — They do their research

Well Studied

Something that you’ve got to respect about these conmen is the effort they put into researching their fields. While we’re all dashing around for quick, three-month program results, these guys put years and years into their craft?

Deliberate practice perhaps?

One reason why Rudy was so quickly accepted into the connoisseurs club was his genuine palate. The man knew his wines; there was no faking this part of his scam.

From Tony, the sommelier to Jef and most of the interviewees’ everyone was in agreement that the kid had a palate, something Maureen likened to athletic ability alongside the vocabulary to articulate it. Tony, the sommelier, ventured that the only way to cultivate this kind of palate was to get your drinking practice in.

As for Notarbartolo he first signed a lease on his office in Autumn of 2000, three years before the big heist and who knows for how much longer he was planning it. Given the brevity and complication of the job, he didn’t rush into the glory side of the heist until he was entirely ready.

From the layout of the town centre, from entering the vaults to getting out again all required meticulous planning and research.

Suddenly my 9 months of blog writing seems insignificant.

Lesson: Our fast-food and convenience lifestyle has done it’s best to edge those age-old qualities of graft and patience out the door.

Want it now, buy it now. Want to make thousands writing blogs in Medium, you follow these instructions, but the truth is that we need to research and know our stuff before we can put it into place.

Otherness: Fighting the system

Tell me you’re not onside with Rudy just moments after you start watching the documentary.

In Sour Grapes, wine writer Jay McInerney chronicles the growth in the auction scene and the emergence of fine wine parties such as the ‘angry man’ evenings where super-wealthy collectors would gather to drink wine. He started seeing emails from the auction house celebrity John Kapon about the legendary parties of the ‘angry men’. The descriptions of the wine often took on a sexual nature.

“wine was pure sex on the nose.”

“rich acids lingering like call girls at casinos.”

The ‘angry-man’ name came about following frustrations by the occasions when they would go to the effort to bring along a bottle of wine to a party, and everyone else would bring crap, so they decided to host parties for true connoisseurs.

These evenings would see 200,000 dollars worth of wine consumed in one night.

In the case of the Antwerp Diamond Heist I do of course have sympathy for people whose family heirlooms were stolen from the vault, but there is a shady undertone that accompanies the mining and wealth dispersions associated with diamonds.

Award-winning journalist and co-writer of Flawless, Greg Campbell explores the dark practices and war complicity of the diamond trade in his book Blood Diamonds, also made into a film starring Jennifer Connelly.

So, with his story, Notarbartolo comes off as a status quo warrior; robbing from the rich, albeit not to give to the poor. His entire quest from beginning to end; to enter a forboding physical space to steal diamonds also presents the idea of breaking into the wealth divide and inequality.

Or am I just being romantic?

Both cases here offered up a story the small man, the David breaking into worlds that had assumed themselves so safe and unquestionable — do opportunities exist for us to do the same with other realms?

Lesson: Can we apply the same principle to ‘insurmountable’ problems such as corruption or climate change? Is anything possible? Can we use these stories to be more ambitious though for more positive reasons?

Charm

Even during his time in prison and when spinning fanciful yarn tales about the new version of the Antwerp heist Notarbartolo’s charm radiated.

From early police interviews to the relationship he had with the staff at the diamond centre the man oozed charm.

Likewise with Rudi. Arthur Sarkissian describes him as ‘full of class, warmth and graciousness.’ Jef states with confidence that the experiences he shared with the thief outweighed the hurt and loss of trust that came in the fallout.

Laurence Ponsot, Rudy’s antagonist and the owner of the Burgandy vineyard who had first started the investigation when he spotted the fake vintages testified at Rudy’s trial and said

“At a certain point our eyes got in touch, he made a sign to me, and he smiled ‘I found it bizarre but in the meantime nice.”

Lesson: you don’t need to overdo it, but basic charms include looking people in the eye, manners, listening and remembering. Don’t forget, a little bit of magic goes a long way.

THE END

Perhaps it was inevitable. We know, from popular culture in film and television, that crime doesn’t pay and that every thief will eventually come to a disastrous end.

So it was that both these high performing conmen did get discovered and sentenced to prison time. Here are a few thoughts on their downfall.

Perhaps for Rudy, it was just a matter of time, but one big mistake started the ball rolling on investigating his wine collections.

Lauren Ponsot, owner of the vineyard that produced the burgundy Domaine Ponsot wine went on the trail to hunt down bottles of wine that claimed to be vintages from the 1940s and 60s when his wine had only been around since the 80s. He set out on a trail to discover the source of the obvious fake.

The 2008 auction house magazine was full of inconsistencies. A series of events followed, and when the F.B.I. raided Rudy’s house, they found a full suite of wine faking implements such as wax, fake labels and old bottles.

Oh Rudy.

Leonardo’s downfall was even more agonisingly avoidable than Rudy’s. It was partially lousy luck but also down to a rushed response. Driving away from Antwerp with the purported 10 million dollar heist value the crew dumped their garbage bags; full of clues that put the investigators on their trail just a day after the heist.

The bags included video, receipts, a load of incriminating evidence and the worse; a half-eaten salami sandwich with which the investigators traced back his D.N.A.

Just hours later, a forest caretaker discovered the rubbish by absolute mischance. If the crew had burned the litter as they should have, then they might not have been found.

Litter was one of the caretaker’s pet hates, and when he saw the trash, he launched his investigation about the origins of the rubbish — planning on tracking them down and holding them accountable. What he found instead in the grey bags were clues that lead the investigators directly to the movements and whereabouts of the thief.

Damn.

In both instances, these mistakes cost each of the conmen their freedom; ten-year sentences were handed down.

IN CONCLUSION

Are there elements of the workings of these conmen that you can add to your Brand You journey in life?

  • Being Enigmatic
  • Taking The Road of Otherness
  • Research
  • Charm

Thanks for reading.

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