Investigators examine the Royal Mail train involved in the Great Train Robbery. (Evening Standard/GETTY IMAGES)

Bruce Reynolds, who masterminded the so-called “Great Train Robbery,” one of the most audacious and lucrative heists in English history, and considered the episode his “Sistine Chapel ceiling” in a career of thievery, died Feb. 28 at 81.

The death was announced by his son, Nick Reynolds, a member of the band Alabama 3, whose song “Woke Up This Morning” was the opening theme of the HBO mafia drama “The Sopranos.” No other details were available.

Mr. Reynolds’s comparing the robbery to the artistry of Michelangelo might seem, on the face of it, absurd criminal bravado. But in the annals of lawlessness, the robbery of the Glasgow-to-London mail train in August 1963 ranks among the most daring exploits of modern times.

The theft netted 2.6 million British pounds, what would be the equivalent today of more than $40 million. Several participants — there were upward of 15 — evaded capture for years and earned a place in pop-culture lore as rebels presumably beyond the law’s reach.

The most notorious of the robbers was Ronnie Biggs. During his 36 years on the run, Biggs gained infamy for flaunting his freedom in Brazil and recording with the Sex Pistols (“No One is Innocent”). Ailing, he finally turned himself over to British authorities in 2001 and was jailed for eight years.

Bruce Reynolds was leader of the group that committed the Great Train Robbery, in August 1963, Britain’s largest theft at the time, netting 2.6 million British pounds from a Royal Mail train. He served 10 years for the crime but was jailed again for dealing amphetamines. (Aubrey Hart/GETTY IMAGES)

After the robbery, Mr. Reynolds escaped to Mexico with his wife, Angela, and young son and lived extravagantly with his share of the plunder, about 150,000 British pounds. As the cash dried up, Mr. Reynolds moved his family to Canada and then France under false identities in order to find work.

“Whereas we once bought a case of champagne every week, it was now a single bottle of vodka, sipped sparingly,” he later wrote in his acclaimed memoir, “The Autobiography of a Thief.”

He wrote poignantly about the effect of the crime on his son, who was forced to remember an ever-shifting series of aliases. When Nick Reynolds got lost one day at a swimming park, he refused to tell any grown-up his name out of fear he would give the wrong one and endanger the family.

Desperate for income, Mr. Reynolds slipped back into England with the promise of work from his old underworld contacts. He was arrested in 1968 in the seaside resort town of Torquay when chief superintendent Tommy Butler, long in pursuit, knocked at his door early one morning.

“Long time no see, Bruce,” he said. “But I’ve got you at last.”

To which Mr. Reynolds replied, “C’est la vie, Tom.”

He was sentenced to 25 years but was paroled in 1978. By that time, he was penniless, divorced and relied on handouts from old friends. His infamy precluded most other forms of income generation.

“As a Great Train Robber,” he said, “you are too hot for both the lawless and the lawful.”

Bruce Richard Reynolds was born in London on Sept. 7, 1931, and began his criminal life at 8 when he took money from his stepmother’s purse.

“I wanted to even up the score,” he once said, explaining that he was 4 when his mother died while giving birth to his infant sister. The child also died. His father, whom he idolized, swiftly remarried.

At 14, Mr. Reynolds left school and fell in with a street gang that smashed windows, robbed homes and fenced stolen goods.

After stints in jail, often learning at the knee of more-experienced prisoners, Mr. Reynolds developed a reputation by the late 1950s for profitable and increasingly sophisticated robberies. He drove posh cars, vacationed in the South of France and squired beautiful women to tony clubs.

“I was beginning to see the thief as an artist,” he wrote in his memoir. “Writing the scenario, choosing the cast, deciding the location, acting and directing the action. Nothing could match the tension, excitement and sense of fulfillment.”

The apex of his career was the Glasgow-to-London mail train heist, which took months of elaborate planning. His accomplices sprang into action on Aug. 8, 1963, overtaking a signal operator and climbing aboard the stopped train. The one casualty was the train driver, Jack Mills, who was struck on the head and died years later, ostensibly from the injuries.

After serving his penalty for the train robbery, Mr. Reynolds was jailed again in the mid-1980s for dealing amphetamines. He consulted on movie and book projects about the train heist and published his memoir in 1995.

“The Autobiography of a Thief” was a riveting look at criminality and the belated self-awareness of one of its most notorious practitioners. Writing in the Times of London, journalist Laurie Taylor called the memoir “skilful enough to capture both the immediate excitement of crime and the dull price it so often extracts.”

Survivors include his son, Nick, whose career spanned many art forms, including sculpture. He once cast the heads of noted criminals, including his father, for an exhibition called “Cons to Icons.”