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'Millions' stolen in London jewelry heist

CNBC's Matt Clinch

It's the stuff of countless crime caper movies: while the rest of the city sleeps, a crack team of thieves break into a high-security building and make off with untold millions in jewels.

But this Easter in the U.K., fiction became fact as one of the London jewelry district's biggest safety deposit stores became the subject of an audacious raid.

Anxious jewelry traders returned to the safety deposit store in London's Hatton Garden on Wednesday morning, desperately seeking information after thieves broke into the building and stole valuables during the long Easter weekend.

London's Metropolitan Police were first notified on Tuesday morning by staff at the Hatton Garden Safe Deposit Ltd, who had returned to work after the four-day break. Heavy cutting equipment had appeared to have been used to get into the building's vaults, according to a police statement, and a number of safety deposit boxes had been broken into.

"This is a slow and painstaking process involving forensic examination, photographing the scene and recovering exhibits in meticulous detail in order to preserve the evidence," a press release from the police on Tuesday morning said.

The U.K.'s Sun newspaper estimated that the haul could be as much as £200 million ($300 million) in what could potentially be London's biggest jewelry heist. The police said that it believed approximately 60 to 70 safety deposit boxes had been looted.

Hatton Garden, London’s jewelry area
CNBC's Matt Clinch

The criminal gang had effectively four days to complete the operation and had managed to evade state-of-the-art detection devices at a firm, which has been operating in Hatton Garden since 1954.

Criminals cut through the roof of the building and abseiled down a lift shaft, according to local media reports, before using heavy cutting equipment to breach a door and enter the underground vault. Police are still on the hunt for the criminals.

A specialist, organized and economic crime command unit of the Metropolitan Police - colloquially called the Flying Squad - were still at the property on Wednesday morning and forensic investigations were expected to last for the rest of the day. Police told CNBC that enquiries are still ongoing and had little information for the steady stream of merchants who had traveled to the store to check on their own deposits.

A jewelry merchant from Knightsbridge in London called Michael, who preferred not to give his last name, told reporters outside the scene of the crime that he had potentially lost around £50,000. He said that the deposit store had not offered insurance but added that some of his belongings would be covered.

"There's going to be some big tears because there's a lot of money in there" he said. "I'm very shocked that it took all weekend (to discover the burglary)." He added that he felt "dismay" when he first heard the news and was particularly concerned about a watch which he had given to his son for his 18th birthday. He wasn't critical about the security at the store, however, which he described as being quite thorough.

Another merchant at the Andrew R Ullmann Ltd outlet, just yards for the deposit store, told CNBC that he had potentially lost £1,500 of valuables. He said that considered himself to be lucky compared to others and said that he wouldn't use the store again except to deposit documents.

Hatton Garden is famous in the U.K. for being the heart of the country's diamond trade and a popular jewelry area. Merchants spoke of a tight-knit community in the district and of the microcosm that it has become. A jewelry trader in the area for 50 years, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told CNBC that a private security firm had been in existence for 12 years around the area which had helped to cap the amount of crime, although the firm were not employed to look after that particular building.

He also said that the full extent of stolen valuables may not fully come to light as many merchants might not be willing to confirm what they had deposited in the boxes.

"(This organized gang) may have been stealing stuff that had already been stolen," he said.

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