I love a good heist. The recent theft of paintings by Picasso and Matisse (among others) in Paris has been labelled the "heist of the century" - a bold claim, given we're only a decade in. But what makes a heist a heist, and not a burglary or a plain old robbery? The dictionary definition equates it with all these things, but a heist has a different feel to it, a status and a glamour, that leaves common-or-garden burglaries languishing in the boring realm of Neighbourhood Watch and changing your locks. You'd never say that you'd been a victim of a heist where your telly had been nicked, would you?

Heists are the grandest of crimes, exciting feats of derring-do. They're also oddly cool: the only crimes where you almost want the robbers to get away with it. It's not about (you hope) people getting hurt, or petty cruelty. A heist has to include an audacious act of subterfuge, involving disguises and ingenious ways of negotiating complex alarm systems. It has to build to a final act of theft of such magnitude that it leaves some unwitting security guard - whose life's work had been to watch the Picasso/crown jewels/diamond-studded antique elephant - open-mouthed with astonishment. When you hear of it, you should be thinking, "How did they do that?" and then, "Brilliant."

Clearly, in the Paris heist, the theft of hugely valuable paintings for the probable pleasure of an oligarch who will use the canvases as coffee tables on which to snort cocaine and polish guns is not something to be lauded.

No, the best heists are those in the Ocean's Eleven style, where a big, bad meanie (or Andy Garcia as a slick casino-owner) is shown up by a ragtag bunch of dodgy wheeler-dealers and Brad Pitt; where there's a sense of rebellion, the little guy upsetting the natural order of things, foxing
the staid authorities.

The Ocean's films weren't the first, of course. Heist movies are a genre in their own right. There's even one called Heist, directed by David Mamet and starring Gene Hackman and Danny DeVito (the ideal heisters). It just shows: heists sell. We can't get enough of them.

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 31 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war on the veil