The French Riviera’s Famous ‘Queen of Thieves’
Just over a century ago, one of the biggest celebrities in the world was a charming and beautiful thief who targeted the wealthy on the French Riviera. Her arrest created a worldwide sensation.
For a jewel thief and con artist, the atmosphere of the French Riviera at the time would have been irresistible, full of wealthy marks attracted by the area’s popularity with royals and the nearby Casino de Monte Carlo.
The Comtesse was a master of disguise and deception, and she often changed her appearance and identity to avoid detection. She would frequently attend lavish parties and events on the French Riviera, where she would mix and mingle with the rich and famous. Once she had gained the trust of her victims, she would steal their valuables, including jewelry, cash, and other valuable items, often without them realizing it until it was too late.
She reportedly controlled a group of thieves who took on similarly grand identities, posing as an Italian diplomat or the son of a wealthy shipowner. While staying in a hotel or traveling on a steamship, she would observe fellow travelers and calculate their value as targets—a notebook detailing her assessments was discovered in a search of her Paris apartment following her arrest.
The Comtesse was widely admired and respected by those who knew her. She was known for her beauty, intelligence, and wit, and many people were drawn to her charismatic personality.
For two decades, the Comtesse de Monteil had targeted wealthy individuals on the French Riviera, stealing jewelry, cash, and other valuable items such as paintings and antiques.
What makes her exploits extra-impressive is that, at the time, French nobility was a very closed society. The pseudo-comtesse risked giving herself away just by not knowing how to pronounce a particular name correctly.
By 1892, the Comtesse de Monteil had come to the attention of the French police due to 4 years of strangely coincidental thefts at hotels where she was a guest. Despite that, this stylish swindler continued to operate around the Mediterranean for another 16 years before her arrest.
In the wee hours of the morning, she would break into her target’s hotel room, pocket their valuables, and then slip out again, entirely undetected. At trial, none of the jewels in her possession were identified as stolen, suggesting that she and her network of thieves worked with underground jewelers who would either buy the stolen goods or place the gems in new settings unrecognizable to their owners.
One of the Comtesse’s most famous heists took place at a party in Monaco, where she managed to steal a necklace worth over a million dollars. She also stole a large sum of money from a wealthy businessman at a casino in Nice, and a very valuable painting from a collector in Cannes.
Newspapers emphasized her pluck and daring, such as when she robbed the same Swiss banker three times. The third time, he awoke and raised the alarm, but she sprinted back to her room, where she pretended to be asleep and was never suspected.
On another occasion, a hotel accused her and an accomplice of theft; the pair fought the accusation in court and won a defamation suit against the hotel. While she was a criminal conning the wealthy, she was also portrayed as a woman of the people. Le Petit Parisien noted that her maid liked and respected her, and that she was a generous tipper.
After years of pursuit, French police were about to catch the so-called Comtesse de Monteil in the act. In the predawn hours of March 8, 1908, Nice’s famed Promenade des Anglais, bustling during the day, was quiet. So too were the corridors of Nice’s Hôtel Impérial. Down one plush hallway, a woman in black moved noiselessly in felt-soled shoes, melting into the shadows. She wore a black veil that shrouded her features, and carried a set of silver lock-picks. But this time, she was followed by the police, who caught her upon her escape and arrested her on the banks of the Bay of Angels.
The capture of the Comtesse de Monteil was an immediate media sensation, making international headlines. Reports emphasized her beauty and cunning, calling her “The Hotel Mouse” and “Queen of Thieves.” Exhaustive worldwide coverage detailed her lavish lace evening gowns and expensive armoire luggage.
After her arrest, the comtesse became something of a folk-hero in the media. Income inequality in turn-of-the-century France may have colored her image. “It seems like every time society is in a state of economic crisis and flux, the burglar suddenly becomes this iconic, glamorous villain character,” says historian Eloise Moss. “I think it acts as a really important political commentary, a dissatisfaction with economic inequality, and also a way of imagining yourself into a different, more illicit, adventurous lifestyle.”
The story of the Comtesse de Monteil spread through the news as a cautionary tale about the dangers of trusting strangers, especially those who appear to be charming and charismatic. It was a salacious story that highlighted the greed and excess of the wealthy elite on the French Riviera at that time. It was shocking that they were willing to let their guard down in the face of such a skilled and cunning thief.
The glamour of the Côte d’Azur was a far cry from where the future queen of thieves, born Amélie Condemine, grew up. Her father was a butcher in the rural town of Mâcon, in the Saône-et-Loire region of Central France, which is chiefly known for its vineyards. At age 18, she married Ulysses Portal, a wine merchant 14 years her senior, and the couple moved to Paris.
Little is known about this period of her life, but the press reported that, after ten years of marriage, the couple separated and she moved to the United States. The only clues to her activities there are photographs police later found among her belongings, which showed her in the company of New York’s elite—and even aloft in a hot air balloon—according to news reports.
In 1888, she returned to France, calling herself the Comtesse de Monteil, and began her two-decade-long crime spree. However, her luck eventually ran out and she was arrested and sentenced to 10 years of hard labor for her crimes. She appealed the decision, but her request was dismissed.
The pseudo-comtesse never confessed to her crimes, insisting throughout her trial that her jewels and money were gifts from a Spanish grandee and an Egyptian pasha, among others.
After being convicted and sentenced, she slipped out of public consciousness and back into the shadows. Although records confirm that she was released from prison in 1918, her fate is unknown…