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To catch a thief: Masked man hunted after $136M Cannes jewel heist

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CANNES, France – The estimated value of diamonds and jewels stolen from a glamorous French Riviera hotel more than doubled on Monday to $136 million, making it one of the world’s biggest heists.

Police previously estimated the worth of the stolen collection to be around $53 million, but a more complete inventory conducted by the Dubai-based organizer of the diamond show resulted in the value of the stolen goods to sky rocket even higher, a French state prosecutor told the Associated Press.

The audacious raid prompted one security expert to speculate that the notorious "Pink Panther" jewel thief gang was "on the warpath again."

The lone robber walked into the Carlton Intercontinental Hotel in Cannes late morning Sunday and demanded to be handed several bags containing jewels and diamond-encrusted watches.

"Everything happened very quickly," a judicial source told Reuters, adding that there was no violence.

Philippe Vique, an assistant prosecutor in the Riviera town of Grasse, said Monday that the man covered his face with a scarf, cap and wore gloves while pulling off the logistically simple crime.

Vique told the Associated Press that the man broke in through French doors, held up participants of the show with a handgun and fled on foot.

The robbery took only about one minute, and three private security guards were on hand, along with two vendors and a manager of the sale exhibit, according to the AP.

No customers were present during the crime.

The hotel, a haunt of the rich and famous, was where Alfred Hitchcock filmed scenes from the 1955 film "To Catch a Thief", starring Cary Grant as burglar alongside Grace Kelly.

It was hosting a temporary jewelry exhibit over the summer from the prestigious Leviev diamond house, which is owned by Israeli billionaire Lev Leviev.

The heist came two months after two smaller jewelry robberies hit the annual Cannes film festival, where many of the world's top movie stars are lent gowns and gems to parade on the red carpets and at glamorous parties.

The crime follows recent jail escapes by Pink Panther gang members.

Jonathan Sazonoff, U.S. editor for the Museum Security Network website and an authority on high-value crime, told The Associated Press that police would likely probe whether the heist is linked to the escapes.

On Thursday, gang member Milan Poparic escaped his Swiss prison after accomplices rammed a gate and overpowered guards with bursts from their AK-47s.

"The brazen drama of it is their style... The possibility of the reemergence of the Pink Panther gang is very troubling and taken seriously by law enforcement worldwide," Sazonoff said. "The theft of high value diamonds is exactly what they do, so it's not a great leap to assume they are on the warpath again. They are a crime wave waiting to happen."

The heist would appear to top a raid of a store in Paris in 2008 that netted more than $100 million worth of gems and jewelry.

"It's a huge theft,” Sazonoff told The AP. “Anytime you talk about a heist with many millions of dollars it turns heads and feeds the imagination.”

In a statement seen by Reuters, Leviev said: "Company officials are cooperating with local authorities investigating the loss and are relieved that no one was injured in the robbery."

“There are three types of jewel thieves,” said financial crime author Jeffrey Robinson. “There’s the idiot who walks into a jewelry store with a shotgun smashes and grabs and gets caught, then there’s the people who break into your home and try to steal a wedding ring.

“But then this third type - and this is the important one - he is the professional businessman. And his business is jewel thievery.”

NBC News' Andrew Rafferty, the Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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