PARIS – A staggering $53 million worth of diamonds and other jewels was stolen Sunday from the Carlton Intercontinental Hotel in Cannes in one of Europe’s biggest jewelry heists in recent years, police said.

One expert noted the crime follows recent jail escapes by members of the notorious “Pink Panther” jewel thief gang.

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

A police spokesman said the theft took place around noon, but he could not confirm local media reports that the robber was a single gunman who stuffed a suitcase with the gems before making a swift exit.

The luxury Carlton hotel is situated on the exclusive Promenade de la Croisette that stretches a mile and a half along the French Riviera, and is thronged by the rich and famous throughout the year. The hotel’s position provides not only a beautiful view of the sea but also an easy getaway for potential jewel thieves along the long stretch of road.

“It’s a huge theft. Anytime you talk about a heist with many millions of dollars it turns heads and feeds the imagination,” said Jonathan Sazonoff, U.S. editor for the Museum Security Network website and an authority on high-value crime.

He said the likelihood of recovering the stolen diamonds and jewels is slim, because the thieves can easily sell them.

“The fear is, if you’re dealing with high-quality minerals, it’s hard to get them back,” Sazonoff said. “They can be broken up and so they can be easily smuggled and sold.”

Europe has been struck by several brazen jewelry thefts in recent years, some of which have involved tens of millions of dollars in treasure.

On Feb. 18 in Belgium, some $50 million worth of diamonds were stolen. In that heist, robbers targeted stones from the global diamond center of Antwerp that had been loaded on a plane headed to Zurich.

In December 2008, armed robbers wearing women’s wigs and clothing made off with diamond rings, gem-studded bracelets and other jewelry said to be worth $108 million from a Harry Winston boutique in Paris.

And in February 2008, masked thieves drilled a tunnel into a Damiani jewelry company showroom in Milan, Italy. They tied up the staff with plastic cable and sticky tape, then made off with gold, diamonds and rubies worth some $20 million.