Martin Cahill was the leader of Dublin, Ireland's criminal underworld in the 1980s. In 1986, at the height of his power, he and his entourage stole 18 paintings from Russborough House, a stately manor house in the countryside south of Dublin. The Irish police with the help of Scotland Yard and international agencies eventually recovered all but two of the stolen paintings. The Cahill investigation uncovered an intricate web of underworld connections that thieves use to trade stolen art for drugs or money. Some of the stolen Russborough paintings were smuggled out of Ireland via criminal channels and ended up as far away as Istanbul, Turkey. The stolen Russborough Vermeer was recovered in an undercover sting in Antwerp, Belgium.
For more information about the Cahill investigation, read Mobsters in the Manor House.
Myles Connor is perhaps the greatest modern American art thief. Born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, Connor started breaking into museums in the mid 1960s. He often changed his methods from job to job; sometimes he would hide in the museum until it closed, or he would impersonate a rich collector, befriend the curatorial staff and get himself invited into the museum's storage areas. When he broke into Boston's Children's Museum, he climbed up onto the roof and rappelled down to a third-story window. Connor is very knowledgeable of art, and would often study the museum's layout and security system before striking. His boldest heist, though, was an armed daytime robbery at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He and an associate ran into the museum through a side door, grabbed a Rembrandt off the wall, and fled. He later used the stolen painting as a bargaining chip to reduce a prison sentence for an unrelated crime.
In the early 1990s, Professor John Drewe was known among his acquaintances as an accomplished physicist, lecturer, historian and philanthropist. His father had been a scientist at Cambridge University in the 1930s, and Drewe himself earned his Ph.D. in physics at SUNY Buffalo. In addition to lecturing at universities, he was developing new weapons technologies for Britain's Ministry of Defence. He was also a dedicated art dealer, historian and archivist, donating his money and expertise to the archives of some of London's most prestigious museums: the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, and the Tate Gallery. Because of his £20,000 donation to the Tate (and a promise of a half-million pounds more) he was granted unrestricted access to the museum's records for his historical research.
But everything about John Drewe was an invention. Drewe is a con artist and a pathological liar, and he was using his fake credentials to swindle art collectors, dealers, and museums on both sides of the Atlantic in what would be known as "the biggest art fraud of the twentieth century". With his partner-in-crime, art forger John Myatt, Drewe perpetrated a ten-year scam that was so elaborate and well executed that it took years for investigators to catch up with him. Art forgery is common, but the Myatt/Drewe case is unique. While Myatt was creating fake paintings, Drewe created fake provenances for these paintings that would fool even the most skeptical experts. It was this act of faking the documentation that allowed Myatt and Drewe to continue scamming the art world for so long. Drewe infiltrated the archives of England's most renowned art museums and inserted fake provenances for Myatt's paintings, thereby rewriting the history of modern art. To this day, archivists are unsure of the extent of the contamination. As a result, some files are stamped with a warning to future researchers: "This documentation may have been compromised."
Not much is known about Drewe's past. He was born John Cockett in 1948, raised in Sussex, England, and was a bright young student with a propensity for physics. When he was seventeen he took an internship at the Atomic Energy Authority--where he met John Catch--but two years later he dropped out of college, quit the AEA internship and disappeared. No official record of Drewe's whereabouts exists until 1980 when he reemerged in London, living with his partner Batsheba Goudsmid in the upscale neighborhood of Golders Green. It was during this fifteen-year absence that Drewe changed his name, supposedly earned his Ph.D. (although there is no record of him graduating from any of the universities he claimed to have attended) and claimed to have worked for the Ministry of Defence. It is not known if Drewe committed any other crimes during his absence, or if the art forgery/provenance fraud scam he perpetrated with Myatt beginning in 1986 was his first.
John Drewe continues to assert his innocence despite being caught, convicted, and sentenced to six years in prison.
See also John Myatt
Bridget Rose Dugdale, the "bandit heiress," is famous for stealing 19 paintings from Russborough House in Ireland with the help of the IRA. Dugdale was raised in English high-society and graduated from Oxford University, but after a brief stint lecturing at Bedford College and working at the UN, she renounced her family's inheritance and became a leftist militant. She received a two-year suspended sentence in 1973 for breaking into her father's house and stealing £82,000 of paintings and other valuables. After her trial, Dugdale became romantically involved with an IRA soldier named Eddie Gallagher and drafted herself into the IRA's violent campaign against the British.
Dugdale and her IRA associates are suspected of hijacking a helicopter in Northern Ireland in early 1974, but slipped undetected back into Ireland, reemerging at Russborough on the evening of April 26. Armed with assault rifles, the gang stormed the house, tied up the wealthy residents—Sir Alfred Beit and his wife Lady Clementine—along with their servants, then tore through the manor house, selecting the most valuable paintings and slicing them out of their frames with box cutters and screwdrivers. "Dugdale was in charge, telling the gang which pictures to take," said Sergeant Sean Feeley of the Irish police. "She pointed up at the walls and said, 'That one, that one'. She had been in the house before as a guest."
They fled 10 minutes later with 19 paintings valued at £8 million; it was at the time the greatest art theft in history. But Dugdale was not able to escape Ireland with her stash before the borders were sealed; the police caught up with her a week later. She had been hiding in a rented cottage outside a village on the southern coast, near Cork. Her IRA associates were not with her when she was arrested. Dugdale was sentenced to nine years in prison and the paintings were restored and returned to Russborough.
Reporter Oliver Harvey from The Sun interviewed Dugdale in 2009.
See also the IRA
The Greenhalgh Family
Shaun Greenhalgh, an art dealer, and his elderly parents, George and Olive, were caught in 2005 attempting to sell a fake Assyrian stone frieze to the British Museum. The resulting investigation into the Greenhalghs revealed that they had perpetrated an eighteen-year-long art forgery racket, defrauding many of Britain's museums and auction houses, including Christie's, Southeby's, the Tate Modern, the British Museum, and the Bolton Museum. They even sold a fake Gauguin sculpture to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1997.
The British Museum's suspicions were first raised when George Greenhalgh demanded £500,000 for the Assyrian artifact, which he claimed had been in his family's possession for a hundred years. Upon closer inspection, museum officials noticed that a portion of the cuneiform writing on the artifact was misspelled. They called Scotland Yard's art and antiques unit.
When Scotland Yard detectives raided the Greenhalghs' home in Bolton, Lancashire, UK, they were shocked to find it was a veritable forgery factory. Shaun's fakes were everywhere, as well as the materials he used to create them: ancient Roman silver and gold, Egyptian glass, black limestone, sandstone and marble. They also found a number of forged documents intended to be used to convince buyers that their fakes were in fact authentic. Detectives seized approximately twenty forgeries from the Greenhalgh's home. They estimate that the seized objects would have earned the Greenhalghs £10 million, or $27 million. They also project that the Greenhalghs successfully sold nearly a hundred fake paintings, sculptures and artifacts over the previous eighteen years.
One of these artifacts is the Amarna Princess. Shaun Greenhalgh created it sometime before 2003, when his father, George, sold it to the Bolton Museum for £440,000. The museum displayed the artifact until 2006, when Scotland Yard began its investigation into the Greenhalghs. The Amarna Princess was never suspected as a forgery.
On November 17, 2007, Shaun Greenhalgh was sentenced to four years and eight months in prison. Olive Greenhalgh was given a 12-month suspended sentence, and George was given a 2-year suspended sentence. They each admitted to defrauding museums and auction houses, including Christie's, Southeby's, the British Museum, the Tate Modern Museum, and the Art Institute of Chicago, over the course of the previous 18 years. The family was ordered to pay the Bolton Museum £363,000 for the Amarna Princess scam.
Here is a list of Shaun Greenhalgh's known forgeries.
Eric Hebborn caused a panic in the art world in the early 1980s when he confessed to infiltrating the auction market with hundreds of forged master drawings. He eventually published two books about his life as an art forger: Drawn to Trouble, his autobiography, and The Art Forger's Handbook, in which he revealed his trade secrets. Hebborn was unrepentant and accused art dealers of being the real crooks. He claimed that dealers knew the drawings they were selling were fakes but sold them anyway. "No drawing can lie of itself," said Hebborn. "It is only the opinion of the expert that can deceive." Hebborn was murdered in Italy in 1996 while promoting the Italian edition of The Art Forger's Handbook.
Han van Meegeren
Han van Meegeren is often given the honor of being called the "greatest forger of the 20th century." It certainly wasn't because his fakes were convincing copies of the artists he was forging: they were in fact nothing like the originals. He sold no fewer than eight "Vermeers" in the 1930s, convincing art historians that they had discovered Vermeer's missing early period. Paradoxically, it was because his forgeries—such as his Christ at Emmaus—were not close copies that he was able to succeed. Van Meegeren was no Vermeer; this was evident when he first attempted to closely emulate the master's style. Surprisingly, he was not caught because his paintings were poor imitations—he confessed to being a forger after he was arrested for selling what the authorities thought was an original Vermeer to Nazi commander Hermann Goering. In post-war Holland, selling an object of national heritage was a treasonable offense. It is reported that Goering was heartbroken to hear that his beloved Vermeer was a fake.
One of the most destructive cases of art forgery was committed by a British two-man team: John Myatt and John Drewe. In the late 1980s, Myatt, a single father struggling to make ends meet, posted an ad in a magazine offering to paint copies of famous paintings for people. John Drewe answered the ad, requesting Myatt to make some paintings in the style of Matisse. Drewe continued to buy more painting copies from Myatt: Matisses, Giacomettis, Braques and others. But after a while, Myatt realized that Drewe was selling his copies to third parties as originals. Despite his guilt, Myatt went along with the scam for years. But what Myatt did not know was that Drewe had taken his forgery scam a step further: he was gaining access to the archives at prestigious museums such as the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Tate Gallery and inserting forged documentation that would convince anyone suspicious of Myatt's forgeries that they were authentic. Scotland Yard eventually closed in on the duo, and Myatt confessed. To this day, though, nobody is sure how much damage Drewe caused to the museum archives.
John Myatt continues to paint, and has built a career for himself selling "Genuine Fakes." This time, though, his painting reproductions are clearly labeled as such, and his own name is signed on the back.
See also John Drewe
Perhaps the most unlikely of thieves was Vincenzo Perugia, who stole the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911. He hid in a closet overnight and walked out of the museum the next morning with the painting tucked under his coat. Perugia hid the Mona Lisa in his apartment a few blocks from the Louvre for two years before trying to sell the painting to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. He had never stolen anything before the Mona Lisa, and his motives are still unclear.
More to come!
...just as soon as this grad school quarter ends. Look for more information on Myles Connor and a few new entries, such as Lord Elgin, Jiri Frel, Robert Hecht, Giacomo Medici, the Nazis, Pio & Alfonso Ricardi, Marion True, and the Marquis de Valfierno.