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Priceless watches stolen from Israeli museum 27 years ago land L.A. woman in court

March 2, 2010 |  6:26 pm
pistol-shaped clock: made by the Rochat Brothers in the early 19th 
century that disappeared from the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art in 
1983, and is now recovered.

When prolific Israeli burglar Na’aman Diller died of cancer in 2003, he left his widow a collection of more than 100 priceless 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 French Queen Marie Antoinette in the 18th century.

All the items had allegedly been stolen during a storied heist at Jerusalem’s L.A. Mayer Museum of Islamic Art back in 1983. But that didn’t stop Diller’s widow, Nili Shamrat, 64, of Tarzana, from trying to sell the treasures back to the art museum no questions asked, authorities said.

Her effort to sell the booty put in motion a lengthy international investigation that ended a few weeks ago when Shamrat was sentenced to five years of probation and 300 hours of community service for receiving the property. 

The California state insurance commissioner’s office announced the end of the case Tuesday, adding that most of the valuables have been sent back to the museum.

 Diller was a well-known burglar who operated in Israel and Europe in the 1960s and early 1970s. 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. 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 before, willing her his entire estate.

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

--Tony Barboza

Photo: Mayer Museum