Widow of Man Behind Fabled Watch Robbery Convicted in U.S. Court

The widow of one of Israel's most famous thieves was recently convicted in the United States of possessing stolen property and sentenced to 300 hours of community service, U.S. law enforcement officials said. The conviction of Nili Shomrat, 64, followed a three-year investigation and is the latest chapter in a story that has been unfolding for almost 30 years.

It began with a mysterious break-in at Jerusalem's Museum for Islamic Art on April 15, 1983, when a lone thief stole some 200 valuable watches from the museum's collection. The crown jewel of the haul was a watch originally made for Marie Antoinette by the 18th-century watchmaker Breguet. Ultimately completed decades after the French queen's death, the watch contained more sophisticated technology than any other timekeeper of its day.

The Israel Police were baffled by the theft. Only 23 years later, in August 2006, did they receive their first significant clue, when an antiquities dealer in Tel Aviv contacted the museum to report having seen several of what looked like the stolen watches in a Tel Aviv lawyer's possession. Museum officials contacted the lawyer, Hila Efron Gabbai, who said a client who preferred to remain anonymous had inherited them from her deceased husband, but would like to return them to the museum.

Not long afterward, the investigation led police to a warehouse in the center of the country, where they discovered the widow's name on a document. A computer search then produced the name of her husband - Na'aman Diller. It later emerged that Diller had hidden the stolen watches in safes not only throughout Israel, but around the world, with caches found in Germany, Holland and the United States.

In May 2008, Israeli and American police investigators finally reached Shomrat, who was then living in the United States. A search of her house turned up several stolen artifacts worth millions of dollars, including rare oil paintings from the 18th century that also belonged to the Museum for Islamic Art. Nevertheless, investigators initially had trouble linking her to the watch theft - until they discovered the original cards, removed from their plastic covers, which the museum had printed to inform visitors of the name and manufacture date of each watch.

At that point, the investigation split in two. The Israel Police continued tracking down the safes containing Diller's loot worldwide, while also investigating whether anyone else had been involved in the theft; the Los Angeles police, meanwhile, focused on whether Shomrat was guilty of knowingly possessing stolen property.

The latter force eventually determined that there were grounds for indicting her, and she was recently convicted. In addition to community service, the court gave her a five-year suspended sentence.