The artist known as Punch first gained fame as the world’s greatest safe cracker who could punch open a safe in under sixteen seconds. He was also a master forger, vandal “aerosol artist” whose legendary street art inspired Sean Sullivan, aka Layercakeny, and the youngest and highest-ranking member of what the FBI first termed the YACS, now known as the Pink Panthers. He served sixteen years in prison, where his artistic talent made him an in-demand tattoo artist for the Latin Kings.
Punch didn’t become a criminal because he was poor and needed money. Born to wealth with parents who were both artists, Punch received his first canvas and brush from a family friend, Phillip Pearlstein.
I was a kid, and Mr. Pearlstein had nude female models. I was surprised to see them at first,” he recalls, “but I soon became comfortable with that. My parents took me everywhere, and when we went to see Mr. Pearlstein, he would give me a paintbrush, paint, and a canvas to keep me entertained—and enthralled with art in specific. Both my parents were artists, and I recall my mother and Mr. Pearlstein having great conversations on the topic. He admired my mother’s art and was always so positive and supportive. I knew him then as a nice man who was a friend of my parents. His college pal and former roommate, Andy Warhol, was also one of my father’s friends and a client. Today, of course, I know Pearlstein’s fame for Modernist Realism nudes, for which he is so admired and respected. Gifting me a paintbrush and canvas means even more today, as an adult and an artist, than it did back when I was a mere child. I also think seeing my parents, especially my mother, so enthralled and joyful in his presence had a very positive impression on me. My mother was always beautiful, but when discussing art, she became as dazzling as a diamond.”
Despite a love of art shared by both parents, Punch became a criminal—to make his father proud of him. His father, the famous “Mr. Stan,” was a respected member of New York high society with six offices in New York’s diamond district and several legitimate business enterprises that were all covers for his primary venture of planning and executing brilliant gem heists from the 1970s up to and including the mega-heists of the mid-1990s totaling over one billion dollars in gold, diamonds, and precious gems. Never captured, never prosecuted, and never a day in prison, Punch’s father retired out of the country several years ago.
I was raised to be an exceptional diamond thief, but my true love was always art. When I turned away from my life of crime, an emptiness had to be filled. Art, my first love, came to my emotional rescue. I approach my art with the same focus and dedication to precision that I did when planning and executing a complex diamond heist. Elaborate multi-million-dollar gem heists where no one is hurt or even in danger are considered an art form in the criminal world. There is the art of the heist. Those days are in the past, but art transcends time.”
Even during his most active days as a criminal, Punch always manifested his artistic talent, be it as a master forger of originals in the style of the masters or as a street artist and tattoo master. He did murals for correctional institutions while incarcerated and brought art as therapy programs to American prisons.
At the age of ten, young (Palve/Paul) Punch was sent to the world’s most expensive and exclusive boarding school in Switzerland—a far cry from his parent’s home on Long Island, where international criminals were often in residence and where John Gotti and Punch’s father had sandwich-making competitions.
I can still recall the sound of Gotti’s laugh coming from the kitchen; my father was always the winner because he had the advantage of owning delicatessens.”
Punch returned from education abroad as a sophisticated and erudite young man who spoke several languages fluently, was adept at all manner of martial arts, and was a world-class tennis player and skier who actually instructed Sir Roger Moore in downhill skiing.
However, all his medals for sports accomplishments never impressed his father as much as the night Punch pulled his first multi-million-dollar gem heist at age sixteen.
While my father knew my love of art, there was only one way to really gain his approval—and that was for me to be a successful diamond thief. If I were to win his admiration, I had to do it in the midnight hour from the top of a building in the diamond district illuminated only by light reflected from Rockefeller Center.”
For a glorious period in the 1990s, Punch was King of the New York streets until a brilliant and admired cop, Joseph Keenen, caught up with him.
He haunted me and hunted me and finally nabbed me – but that didn’t stop me; I was on the run for four years with numerous aliases: Reginald Mathews, Brian Bentley, Paul Lombardozzi, Paul Panarella, Paulie Hermes, Peter Terry, Pasha Strah, Mali Paja, Paulie Zaza, and Paul Montana. Even my capture was remarkably cinematic: SWAT teams, helicopters, and hundreds of cops with tactical weapons, M-16s, and a dog named Billion who got a big fat Fillet Mignon as a reward.
Prior to the inevitable intervention of fate wearing a badge, I took more than 100 pounds of marijuana from the Mob and sold it back to them the next day. I cleaned out the high fashion houses such as Esscada, Versace, Hermés, and Bijian because I like high fashion. Escada fashion wasn’t my style. I hit them as a gift for my mother.”
Punch’s mother, now Branka DiGangi, acknowledges her son’s past deeds and misdeeds.
Our son followed his father’s path and, in the process, created and refined methods and techniques used worldwide by the Pink Panthers who, despite reports to the contrary, originated not in Serbia but in New York’s diamond district when my former husband, Mr. Stan, and our only son, Punch, were stealing Manhattan.”
Famous people surrounded Punch all his life due to his parent’s wealth and social position. Charles Bronson was a close family friend, and Burt Reynolds was honored with a lavish party at his parents’ Long Island home.
With Edgar Award-winning author Burl Barer, Punch (Palve/Paul) Stanimirovic is proud to tell his story in STEALING MANHATTAN: The Untold Story of America’s Billion Dollar Gem Heist Masterminds, coming this spring.