by Brian R. Williams
Russborough House is a stately manor house set against the rugged hills of rural County Wicklow, Ireland, about 20 miles south of Dublin. Built in the 1740s by the 1st Earl of Milltown, it stood as a symbol of the wealthy Protestant English minority who ruled predominantly Catholic Ireland. In 1952, fifty years after the last living descendant of the earls of Milltown moved away, Sir Alfred Beit (1)—heir to a South African diamond mining fortune—and his wife, Lady Clementine Beit (2), moved into Russborough. They required a house large enough to display their considerable collection (3) of art, sculpture, and antique furniture (Hart, 2004). The Beit collection was known for its impressive array of masterpieces, including Vermeer's Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid, the only Vermeer to be part of a private collection in Ireland. But their collection's notoriety attracted unwanted attention over the years: Sir Alfred and Lady Beit were robbed of their valuable paintings no fewer than four times since they moved to Russborough. This fact alone is remarkable, but the Russborough heists are more significant in what they have taught us about modern art crime. Each robbery has shed a little more light on the motives of thieves who target artwork as well as offered further insight into the connection between stolen art and organized crime.
The Beits lived quietly at Russborough until 1974 when Bridget Rose Dugdale (4) and her IRA (5) compatriots broke in, held them at gunpoint, and stole 19 paintings. Dugdale, the "bandit heiress," was raised in English high-society and graduated from Oxford, 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. A year before her Russborough heist, she was arrested for stealing £82,000 of paintings and other valuables from her father's house (Hart, 2004). At her trial, Dugdale said, "In finding me guilty, you have turned me from an intellectual recalcitrant into a freedom fighter. I know no finer title" (Hart, 2004, p.11). She received a two-year suspended sentence. 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 (Hart, 2004).
Dugdale was greeted at the door by James Horrigan, a footman. She masqueraded as a stranded French motorist, allowing her three co-conspirators—armed with AK-47 assault rifles—to ambush the man and force their way inside. They found Sir Alfred and Lady Beit in the library. After restraining Sir Alfred, Lady Beit, and the staff, Dugdale guided her associates through the house, pointing out which paintings she wanted to take. They fled ten minutes later with 19 paintings, including Franz Hals' Portrait of a Cavalier, two oils and a sketch by Rubens, a Velázquez, Goya's Doña Antonia Zárate, a Gainsborough, two paintings by Metsu and Guardi each, and the most valuable painting in the collection, Vermeer's Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid (Hart, 2004, p.13). The stolen art was valued at £8 million; it was at the time the greatest art theft in history (Hart, 2004; rte.ie, 2001).
The Irish police immediately sealed the border. A few days later, the director of the National Gallery in Dublin received a ransom note demanding £500,000 as well as the release of four Irish political prisoners in Northern Ireland for the return of the art. But the police soon caught up with Dugdale. She had been hiding in a rented cottage outside a village on the southern coast, near Cork. The police took extreme precaution; Dugdale's heavily armed compatriots could be nearby, ready to defend her at the first sign of trouble. But Dugdale was alone with the Russborough artwork and she was arrested on May 5, 1974 without incident. At her arraignment, Dugdale declared herself "proudly and incorruptibly guilty" and was sentenced to nine years in prison (Hart, 2004, p.24-25). All 19 paintings were safely returned to Russborough.
The Dugdale/IRA theft was "perhaps the best documented case of stealing property and valuables to finance terrorism," said Dick Ellis, former head of Scotland Yard's Art Squad (Leyden, 2005). Dugdale and her IRA compatriots targeted Russborough at a time when the value of art was skyrocketing. Since the 1960s, individual paintings have increasingly fetched prices at auction upwards into the millions and even hundreds of millions of dollars. In 1961, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art paid $2.3 million for a Rembrandt—the highest price ever paid for a painting (Dolnick, 2005). By 1990, the new auction house record was $82.5 million, paid by a Japanese collector for van Gogh's Portrait of Dr. Gachet (Dolnick, 2005; Kleiner, 2000). The current record is held by Gustav Klimt's Adele Bloch-Bauer I, bought by cosmetics magnate Ronald Lauder for $135 million (Benfey, 2006). And consider the dramatic increase in the value of the Beits' collection between the first and second heists: when Dugdale stole 19 of their most valuable paintings in 1974, the loot was worth £8 million; Martin Cahill broke into Russborough and got away with the same paintings in 1986, but by then they were worth £30 million (rte.ie, 2001). Like the legitimate art market, organized criminal groups sought to capitalize on the astronomical value that paintings have been fetching at auction.
Aside from its value, artwork presents an alluring target for thieves because it is easier to steal than, say, money. Museums and manor houses are more vulnerable than banks; they are built to display their treasures, not lock them in a vault. And unlike other black-market commodities such as heroin or assault rifles, art is legal to possess and transport across international borders. Furthermore, when a high-stakes theft does occur, newspapers pick up the story and splash the price of the stolen painting on the front page, thereby confirming for the thieves as well as potential recipients of the stolen property how much their newly-acquired possession is worth. "The provenance is provided by the newspaper report that says this painting is worth so many millions of dollars," said Detective Sergeant Vernon Rapley in 2003, former head of Scotland Yard’s Art Squad (Hart, 2004, p. 146).
Over the years, though, career criminals and inexperienced amateurs alike have learned that stolen art, while easy to acquire, is hard to sell. Because of the efforts by insurance companies, art professionals, and police departments to develop databases such as the Art Loss Register (6) that record and track stolen artworks, all but the most obscure paintings are difficult to introduce back into the legitimate market. This is why the most famous stolen paintings are the easiest to recover. The thieves who broke into Oslo, Norway's National Gallery in 1994 and grabbed Edvard Munch's The Scream—perhaps the most famous object in Norway—were tracked down and arrested in a matter of months (Dolnick, 2005; Hart, 2004). When the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre in 1911, it went missing for two years, but it was recovered the moment its hapless thief Vincenzo Perugia resurfaced in Florence, Italy, and approached the Uffizi Gallery with a proposition for a sale (Scotti, 2009). And the forty ancient artifacts looted from Iraq's Baghdad Museum in 2003 during the chaos of the American invasion were all recovered from looters and black-market antiquities dealers (Bogdanos, 2005). The successful thefts, from the perspective of the criminals at least, are those in which lesser-known works are targeted, thereby making them easier for the thieves to sell.
The fact that The Scream and the Mona Lisa thefts were committed by amateurs is another reason the cases were relatively easy to solve. The Scream thieves were a gang of small-time crooks led by Pål Enger, a former soccer player whose petty thefts and pranks kept his name in Norway's newspapers. Perugia, the Mona Lisa thief, had never stolen anything else. The thieves in both cases did not devise a plan for what they would do with the pictures once they grabbed them (Dolnick, 2005).
Unlike Perugia or Enger's gang, large criminal cartels have the means to bypass the art market, thereby reducing the chances that the stolen art would be recognized. Groups such as the IRA have no need for the legitimate market; the stolen art is instead traded for its value in illicit drugs or weapons and ammunition. When thieves steal a painting, "they can go to their fellow criminals and use it as collateral, as a down payment on drugs and firearms," said Det. Sgt. Rapley (Hart, 2004, p.146). This black-market bartering was only speculated by art crime detectives until 1993, when Scotland Yard, in a joint operation with the Irish and Belgian police, set up an undercover sting and caught Irish criminals using stolen art as collateral for a loan to buy drugs in Antwerp, Belgium (Hart, 2004). By the end of the investigation, police had mapped out the complicated routes that stolen art, money and drugs trace across Europe during the course of these underworld transactions. Their investigation was also the successful end to a six-year-long search for the wayward Beit pictures after they were stolen again in 1986.
Below: The complex black market trade route Scotland Yard detectives uncovered in 1993 while searching for the stolen Beit pictures. You can see that the stolen art was shipped through the same channels as illicit drugs, but going in the opposite direction.
The conspirator this time was Martin Cahill, the de facto leader of Dublin's criminal underworld. Known in the press as "The General," (7) Cahill was at the height of his power in the late 1980s when he decided to go after the Beit collection, the ultimate prize in the eyes of Dublin’s criminal underworld. At the time, Dublin was suffering from a relentless crime wave, of which Cahill played a major part. The Irish police were so desperate to end Cahill’s stranglehold on the city that they established a task force whose sole duty was to follow Cahill everywhere he went. Despite being under constant surveillance, Cahill still managed to elude his police chaperones long enough to commit some high-profile crimes: one night, his gang robbed a rich widow of her art and silver collections, and another night they kidnapped a man, strapped a bomb to his chest, and forced him to rob a post office (Hart, 2004). Committing such audacious crimes under police surveillance surely must have emboldened Cahill. On the night of May 21, 1986, Cahill gathered sixteen members of his gang and made his move on Russborough.
Cahill’s gang convened in the woods behind Russborough House around 2 am. They did not plan to ambush the house as Dugdale and her IRA compatriots had done; they would instead break in quietly, cutting a pane of glass out of one of the French doors that opened to the back of the property. When Cahill stepped inside, he set of an infrared alarm, which rang at the police station in Baltinglass, a town about twenty miles from Russborough. Incredibly, at that moment, two policemen were driving past the house when the alert came over the radio. They pulled up in front of the house and woke up the staff (the Beits were in London at the time) who did a quick search of the first floor. They evidently saw nothing out of the ordinary and, assuming it to have been a false alarm, dismissed the two officers. Once the house was quiet again, Cahill and his men re-entered, lifted eighteen paintings, and slipped back out. They were gone in six minutes (Hart, 2004).
Once again, thieves had gotten a hold of the most valuable paintings in the Beits' collection, including the Gainsborough, the Goya, two Rubens paintings, two Metsus, two Guardis—which as of this writing are still missing—and the Vermeer, "the most valuable picture on any wall in Ireland" (Hart, 2004, p.55). For reasons unknown to authorities, Cahill discarded seven of the paintings in the countryside near Blessington Lake soon after fleeing Russborough (Hart, 2004). Cahill's gang hid the remaining eleven pictures in a bunker Cahill had dug in preparation of the robbery and then drove back to Dublin. Police immediately suspected Cahill's involvement in the theft, but as evidence of Cahill's power in the Dublin underworld at the time, not a single police informant or snitch came forward, for fear of retaliation (Hart, 2004).
Years passed, and eventually the police's underworld informants began to talk. After one failed attempt to recover the Beit paintings from Cahill in 1987, word got back to the police that Tommy Coyle, Cahill's associate charged with selling the Beit pictures, tried to broker a deal with the IRA, but it fell through because of the mutual animosity between the IRA and Cahill (Hart, 2004). So Coyle turned to the Ulster Volunteer Force, a paramilitary group in Northern Ireland and the Loyalist opposition to the IRA. The police learned that Coyle had sold a painting to the UVF, although they did not know which one (Hart, 2004). Afterward, they watched the movements of the UVF closely. "We got intelligence from certain sources that the painting had moved to Turkey [and] that certain Northern Ireland loyalist paramilitary people had been in and out of Turkey," said Detective Superintendent Noel Conroy of the Irish police (Hart, 2004, p.95). In February 1990, Conroy learned that a sale was scheduled to take place in an Istanbul hotel room, so he notified the Turkish authorities. The police burst into the room just as the UVF agent was handing the painting—Metsu's A Woman Reading a Letter—to Turkish dealers (Hart, 2004).
The Metsu was the first painting stolen by Cahill in 1986 to be recovered. The story made the front pages of Ireland’s newspapers. The Irish population was angered by the news that Cahill had done business with the Protestant Loyalist UVF militia—whose profits from the sale would have funded violence against Irish Catholics (Hart, 2004). Because of this, Cahill's reputation among the general public as an Irish Robin Hood and patriot deteriorated (Hart, 2004). The Metsu deal marked the beginning of Cahill's decline in influence and power as the country's top gangster.
Cahill was becoming increasingly more desperate to sell off the ten remaining Beit pictures. The paintings had become something of a white elephant for Cahill; they were too well known to sell on the open market, but they were also considered too risky of an investment among underworld factions. Criminals began to believe that they were cursed (Hart, 2004). But Cahill kept looking for a buyer, and finally in 1993, with the assistance of another of his criminal associates, Niall Mulvihill, he found an interested party in Antwerp, Belgium (Hart, 2004). The police’s informants gave the word that the Beit pictures were on the move.
The Irish police, assisted by Scotland Yard, followed Mulvihill and the stolen Beit paintings—hidden under the false bottom of a truck—across the Irish Sea to England. The truck landed in Wales and headed to London. In London, Scotland Yard made their move, raiding a number of criminal targets, some of which were not involved with the stolen Beit paintings so as not to appear that their informants inside Cahill's gang tipped them off. Ellis and the Art Squad detectives recovered all but four of the paintings Cahill had shipped to London (Hart, 2004). The four that escaped the Squad's grasp—including the Vermeer—were on the move again, once more in the false bottom of a truck. From London the truck drove to Dover and caught the ferry to Belgium. In Antwerp, Mulvihill traded the paintings to a crooked diamond dealer—who had been buying stolen diamonds from Cahill for years—for a million dollars paid in advance of a future drug-trade transaction (Dolnick, 2005; Hart, 2004).
The Antwerp deal between Mulvihill and the diamond dealer was the first time investigators witnessed a transaction of this nature. Before 1993, police believed the motives for art theft fell into a narrow field of options: thieves either taking advantage of a vulnerable target, being hired by a third party who had already set up a buyer for the stolen goods, or being hired by a rich collector to take what he wanted but could not legally acquire (Hart, 2004). But this discovery of the art-for-drugs trade in Antwerp forced investigators to reassess what they believed about the motives of criminals who deal in stolen art.
Art had become a commodity in the illicit market, and its collateral value, even at a drastic reduction, was being used as currency. "If a Vermeer was worth three hundred million," writes Hart, "the rule-of-thumb criminal valuation of 7 percent yielded a handsome twenty-one-million-dollar black-market value" (2004, p.135-6). From a criminal’s perspective, selling a painting worth $300 million for $21 million is not a loss in their investment since it cost them nothing to acquire the piece.
In Antwerp, the diamond dealer secured the four Beit pictures he received from Mulvihill in a Luxembourg bank vault. Scotland Yard decided to make their move; they enlisted agent Charley Hill to go undercover as an unscrupulous American businessman interested in buying the paintings on behalf of a rich Middle Eastern client (Dolnick, 2005; Hart, 2004). Hill and fellow agent Sid Walker, posing as Hill’s bodyguard, flew to Antwerp to initiate the transaction. They met Mulvihill and his associates in a hotel in Antwerp’s diamond district to discuss the details of the transaction and to decide when the trade-off would take place. On September 2, 1993, Mulvihill’s men and the two undercover Art Squad agents reconvened in the parking lot at the Antwerp airport. Mulvihill opened his car trunk and showed Hill the paintings: Goya's Doña Antonia Zárate, Metsu's Man Writing a Letter, Vestier's Portrait of the Princesse de Lamballe, and the Irish Vermeer (Hart, 2004). Hill gave the signal, and the Belgian police swarmed the men, pushing them to the ground and handcuffing them. Finally, after seven years, the wayward Beit pictures were recovered and on their way back to Ireland.
The Beit pictures were fortunate to have been reclaimed from the criminal underworld's grasp. Other valuable collections have not been so lucky. On March 17, 1990, a month after the Beit Metsu was recovered in Istanbul, two thieves dressed as police officers broke into Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and got away with thirteen works of art. Among the paintings in their stash was another Vermeer: The Concert. Now there were two missing Vermeers, all the more remarkable because there are only about three-dozen known Vermeers in the world. The Gardner heist, still unsolved, is the greatest robbery in history, and today the missing paintings are valued at $500 million (Boser, 2009). Despite a $5 million reward for information leading to the recovery of the Gardner art, the FBI still has no solid leads. But there are some tantalizing coincidences between the Gardner heist and the Russborough robberies that lead some investigators to speculate on whether or not there is a connection.
At the time of the Gardner heist in 1990, James "Whitey" Bulger (8), Boston’s premier mobster, was at the top of his game. Like his Dublin counterpart Martin Cahill, Bulger enjoyed considerable influence in Boston’s criminal underworld. Born and raised in a working-class, predominantly Irish neighborhood on Boston’s south side, Bulger and his mob expressed sympathies for the Irish nationalist cause. "Bulger saw himself as a chest-thumping Irish patriot, and when he heard TV news reports about IRA bombs murdering civilians, he would cheer and give hefty applause," wrote Ulrich Boser in The Gardner Heist (2009). In 1984, Bulger and his associates in Boston commandeered a fishing boat in order to deliver a 7-ton shipment of weapons and ammunition to the IRA (Boser, 2009). The fishing vessel, the Valhalla, rendezvoused with an IRA boat, the Marita Ann, off the coast of Ireland, transferred the cargo, and returned to the United States. The Marita Ann never reached its destination, though; Irish police apprehended the vessel and the arsenal was seized.
Could Bulger have orchestrated the robbery of the Gardner Museum and shipped the stolen paintings to the IRA? If he was not involved in the robbery himself, he may have bought or stolen the paintings from those who had carried out the robbery. "Bulger was not the type of gangster to have organized the Gardner heist," wrote Boser. "Instead, Bulger would have made it his business to find out who committed the theft and gotten his cut" (2009). Former Art Squad detectives Charley Hill and Dick Ellis believe Bulger was involved in the Gardner heist. "My personal view is that [the Gardner robbery] was done for money and a favor, and in retirement of a debt," said Hill (Hart, 2004, p.121). But Bulger cannot be questioned; he fled after he was indicted in 1994 for eighteen counts of murder, conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to commit extortion, narcotics distribution and money laundering (Boser, 2009; Hart, 2004). He has not been seen since. Bulger is currently on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list (9). Rumors circulated after his disappearance that he went into hiding in Ireland (10). Some investigators, including Dick Ellis, speculate that the missing Gardner art may be hidden somewhere in Ireland as well (Boser, 2009).
The investigation into the Gardner heist has languished for twenty years. Still, the Gardner/IRA connection, if purely speculative, is compelling, considering the well-documented involvement of the IRA in the Russborough robberies. The IRA certainly had the means to commit the heist, and the Valhalla case showed that there was an established trade route between the IRA and its American sympathizers. It is also possible that the IRA, knowing Cahill had possession of the valuable Beit collection, either perpetrated the Gardner heist or purchased the stolen art after the fact in order to gain some financial leverage against their rival.
The Cahill heist in 1984 was not the last time the Beit collection was targeted by thieves. Russborough was back in the crosshairs on June 26, 2001, when three men drove down from Dublin in two stolen cars: a Mitsubishi 4x4 and a Volkswagen, each bearing false plates (Hart, 2004). The men in the 4x4 drove it up the front steps and through the front door. No alarm sounded—it is turned off when the house is open for tours—so the men simply walked in and took what they came for: Gainsborough's Portrait of Madame Baccelli and a landscape, Scene of Florence by Italian painter Bernardo Bellotto (Carey, 2002; Hart, 2004; Telegraph, 2001). They passed a number of other paintings on their way to the music room where the Gainsborough and Bellotto were hung, so investigators believe that the thieves decided beforehand what they would take. Investigators also believe that Martin "The Viper" Foley is the man behind the 2001 robbery (Carey, 2002). Foley, once one of Cahill’s lieutenants, was never charged with the theft, but the police caught up with the paintings in September 2002 in Dublin. Just two days after the paintings from the 2001 robbery were recovered, Russborough was struck a fourth time. This time thieves rammed a ground-floor window with their car, got in and stole five paintings (Hart, 2004). One painting, a Rubens, had been stolen twice before. These were recovered as well, and joined the other Beit paintings already at the National Gallery in Dublin.
How large a role organized crime plays in the theft of paintings is up for debate. McGill University professor R.T. Naylor (2008) argues that art thefts committed by organized crime are relatively rare; that individual thieves unaffiliated with any criminal faction commit the majority of art thefts. But the think tank ARCA (11) (the Association for Research into Crimes against Art) believes that "most art crime since the 1960s is perpetrated by, or on behalf of, international organized crime syndicates." They cite the U.S. Department of Justice as one source of this claim.
What is indisputable, though, is that all the major criminal cartels of the 20th century stole art for profit. The Nazis perpetrated perhaps the most destructive case of art theft in the years leading up to World War II. Hitler confiscated whole collections from museums and private residences in Germany and sold many of the seized artworks at auction in order to raise money for the Nazi party (Leyden, 2005; Nicholas, 1994). In 1969, a Mafia informant confessed to stealing Caravaggio's Nativity with Saints Francis and Lawrence, worth about £20 million, from the San Lorenzo Oratory in Palermo, Sicily (McMahon, 2005). Later, warring Muslim and Christian factions in the Middle East would rob museums of valuable artifacts they could sell. The Taliban in Afghanistan stole from the Kabul museum and sold their loot via Swiss art dealers (Leyden, 2005). And in Ireland, the IRA as well as other criminal organizations turned art theft into an underground industry, exporting stolen paintings for money, weapons, ammunition, and drugs.
Our knowledge of organized crime's involvement in art theft is owed largely to Scotland Yard and the Irish police while they were investigating the Russborough cases. The Cahill investigation in particular created a unique opportunity for investigators to see how business was conducted in the underworld. What investigators saw led them to reassess what they thought they knew about art crime. Whether it is taken by connected mobsters or free-agent criminals, stolen art plays a crucial role in how business is conducted on the black market.
 This painting has a remarkable past. Originally on display in a Frankfurt museum, Gachet was confiscated by Hitler in 1937 during his "degenerate" art purges and sold for $53,000. After the famous 1990 Christie's auction, its new owner, Japanese tycoon Ryoei Saito, hid it in a vault. Saito died in 1996, and the painting’s current whereabouts are unknown (Kleiner, 2000).
 It is the tens of thousands of smaller objects taken from the museum's storage areas that are still missing. Colonel Bogdanos (2005), who was first on the scene after the museum was looted, believes the objects from the storage areas were taken by museum staff members and delivered to a buyer, thus making it a case of art theft-by-order, not opportunistic looting.
 The Beits were popular targets for Irish criminals because they were English aristocrats (Hart, 2004).
 The house obscured their view of the back of the property where Cahill's small army of men and vehicles were gathered.
 They did not go back to Russborough, though. In the months before the Cahill heist, the Beits had decided to donate the most valuable paintings in their collection to the National Gallery in Dublin. So, as the stolen paintings were recovered one at a time from Cahill, they were delivered to the National Gallery (Hart, 2004).
 It is likely that they visited Russborough sometime before the robbery to tour the house; Cahill and is associates did so in preparation for their 1986 heist (Hart, 2004).
 These groups were in the business of art theft in order to make a profit, but some were also endeavoring to rid their countries of objects they viewed as a threat to their political ideology. Many of the paintings Hitler sold he labeled as "degenerate" and therefore unfit to be displayed in German museums. He preferred traditional artistic styles and paintings that propagandized Aryan superiority (Nicholas, 1994). And in the 1980s, the Islamic Taliban instigated a campaign to destroy Buddhist monuments in Afghanistan (Leyden, 2005).
 Switzerland hosted the Nazis' 1939 degenerate art auction in Lucerne (Nicholas, 1994). The country also plays a role in the illicit antiquities trade; in 1995, a joint Swiss/Italian police task force raided art dealer Giacomo Medici’s warehouse in the Geneva Freeport and seized his stash of looted artifacts, smuggled into the country from archaeological sites in Italy (Watson & Todeschini, 2006).
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