Inside the Strange History of Stealing Perfume

Including a 1987 heist from the United Nations

Perfume bottle
Perfume heists are, in fact, a thing.
Rae Wallis/Unsplash

Archaeologists have done it. So, too, have shoplifters. And one particularly bold example of the form took place at the headquarters of the United Nations. The act in question? Perfume theft. And while stealing perfume doesn’t necessarily have the cultural profile of, say, robbing a bank or making off with copious amounts of maple syrup, it is nonetheless a lot more widespread than you might think.

In a new article at CrimeReads, Timothy Schaffert chronicled the wide-ranging history of perfume theft — which includes everything from grave robbery to industrial espionage. Schaffert came upon this information while researching his latest novel, The Perfume Thief, and — in his words — “I devised the title character’s career before I’d had any sense of such a bandit’s inclinations.” As it turns out, he had plenty to work with.

Schaffert notes that perfume and cosmetics are frequently shoplifted in both the United States and United Kingdom, but the phenomenon goes a lot deeper than that. Perhaps the apex of this came from a thief at the United Nations who, in 1987, “[broke] into a display case to make off with two antique, solid-gold bottles filled with a rare Omani perfume, gifts to the UN from the sultanate of Oman.”

Several of the cases Schaffert unearthed included people accused of stealing particular scents, who denied the crime but were found out when it became clear, in olfactory terms, that they had used the perfume at the heart of the case. The scale of some of these thefts may be small, but the interest the culprits had in their quarry is massive indeed.

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