Athief and her three accomplices forced their way into the library of a country house, where a rich, elderly couple were listening to music on the gramophone. Waving their assault rifles, they screamed at Sir Alfred and Lady Clementine Beit to lie face down on the floor. The leader, who spoke with a strong French accent, instructed her accomplices to start with the Goya above the mantelpiece, a portrait of a beautiful young actress looking out from beneath slightly worried brows. Then Frans Hals’s The Lute Player was lifted off the wall, and on through the house, the woman with the conspicuous French accent pointing out the paintings she wanted: zis one and zat one and zis one.
Lady Beit tried to draw attention away from the most valuable painting in the house, Vermeer’s Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid, by screaming ‘They are taking the Vermeer’ as the gang stopped briefly in front of a picture by Paulus Morelse. The trick didn’t work: the leader knew what she was looking for. The gang moved quickly, pausing only to shout what Lady Beit later described as ‘communistic insults’ at the couple, calling them capitalist pigs, exploiters of the workers of the world, and generally leaving Lady Beit with the impression that she would shortly be taken to the cellar and shot ‘like the unfortunate Romanovs’. They took nineteen works in total, including two Gainsboroughs, three Rubenses, four Guardis and Velázquez’s earliest known work, Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus. The whole thing was over in less than fifteen minutes. As was widely reported at the time, the group’s leader struck both of the Beits as enormously composed and in control, with an unfaltering eye for the most valuable paintings.
Art heists make good copy, and the 1974 robbery at Russborough House in Co. Wicklow was an all-timer. The Goya, the Velázquez, the Hals, the Vermeer: the jewels of one of the greatest private collections in the world, and certainly the greatest in Ireland, torn out of their frames and piled up in the boot of a dilapidated getaway car. As always happens, the press competed to make spectacular, largely hypothetical claims about the market value of stolen masterpieces that could never be sold on the open market. Eight million pounds, fifteen million. As also always happens, these figures were accompanied by a reminder that the paintings were, of course, priceless. At the time, the Russborough art heist was generally believed to be the largest on record.
A week after the theft, the director of the National Gallery of Ireland, where the Beit collection usually spent part of the year on display, received a letter demanding that four IRA bombers be moved from Brixton Prison, where they were on hunger strike, to an Irish prison. Once that was done, five of the paintings would be returned. A ransom of £500,000 would secure the return of the remaining fourteen. They had ten days to send the money, otherwise the paintings would be burned. Just as the press coverage was becoming hysterical, the gang leader was captured: she had been hiding out in a cottage in West Cork. The paintings were found unharmed in the boot of her car.
Rose Dugdale wasn’t what anybody was expecting. For one thing, she was an English heiress, the daughter of a member of Lloyd’s of London who owned an estate in Devon. Born in 1941, she had lived a life of privilege: educated at Miss Ironside’s School for Girls in Kensington, followed by finishing school in France, followed by St Anne’s College, Oxford. But at some point in her early thirties she had put all this behind her to dedicate herself to the cause of a united Ireland. At the time of her arrest, she was wanted along with her boyfriend, an IRA-affiliated ‘hellraiser’ called Eddie Gallagher, for hijacking a helicopter and attempting to drop milk churns full of explosives over an RUC station in Strabane. A couple of years before the Russborough theft, she had been given a two-year suspended sentence for stealing art and silver worth £82,000 from her parents’ house, intending to use the proceeds to fund the IRA. She’d been tried along with her boyfriend at the time, who was sentenced to five years, apparently because the judge believed the whole thing had been his idea – yet another well-meaning young rich girl led astray.
With few exceptions, the press agreed with the judge at the earlier trial, framing Dugdale as a reluctant debutante whose radicalism was intended to annoy her long-suffering parents. During the Russborough trial her background received far more attention than her stated motive. There were just too many irresistible photographs of her at her coming out ball, or skiing, or standing around with horses. The trial was brief. Dugdale was given nine years for the robbery, a sentence which ran concurrently with the one for the attempted bombing in Strabane. A few weeks later, she had a baby – somehow, nobody had noticed that she was pregnant with Gallagher’s child. She served six and a half years, moving to Dublin after her release and working for An Phoblacht, Sinn Féin’s weekly newspaper. Afterwards, she more or less disappeared from view, apart from giving the occasional interview that made it clear her political convictions hadn’t changed.
Dugdale’s relative obscurity today seems like an oversight, not least because we enjoy the idea of the brilliant, charismatic art thief, even if it’s usually the product of wishful thinking. We want art thieves to be special because we want art to be special, belonging to some higher category of possession. The person who steals a Vermeer should be doing it for a better reason than to sell it on the black market, or use it as collateral in a drug deal, or ransom it back to its owners. Usually, however, that’s exactly what happens. The people behind spectacular art thefts turn out to be run of the mill criminals stealing for run of the mill reasons.
When the Mona Lisa was stolen in 1911, it was widely supposed that the theft could only have been pulled off by devilishly clever operatives, working on behalf of an evil millionaire. In fact, it was stolen by a handyman who had once been employed by the Louvre and who kept the painting under his bed for two years before being caught trying to sell it. In 1985, a masked gang held security guards and forty members of the public at gunpoint in the Musée Marmottan Monet. They stole nine Impressionist paintings, including Monet’s Impression, Sunrise. When the works were recovered five years later in a warehouse in Corsica, it was assumed that the theft was tied to the Corsican nationalist movement. But detectives quickly clarified that the thieves were just thieves, with no motive other than profit. The men who stole The Scream from the Munch Museum in Oslo in 2004 had to have the painting pointed out to them: they knew nothing about it other than that it was valuable.
Received wisdom holds that it’s pointless to steal famous (and famously expensive) artworks because there is no way to sell them on. As a look at some of the 52,000 items on Interpol’s Stolen Works of Art database will attest, however, masterpieces keep getting stolen all the same. There are four Matisses out there, if they haven’t been destroyed: Reading Girl in White and Yellow, stolen from the Kunsthal in Rotterdam in 2012; Pastorale, from the City Museum of Modern Art in Paris, 2010; Le Jardin du Luxembourg, from the Museu da Chácara do Céu in Rio, 2006; and, still unrecovered after half a century, Vue de Saint-Tropez, which was taken in 1972 from the Musée Albert-André, Bagnols-sur-Cèze. Sometimes the thefts are mystifying: in 2016, seven of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup prints were lifted from a museum in Springfield, Missouri: the thieves took beef, vegetable, tomato, onion, green pea, chicken noodle and black bean – but left behind pepper pot, cream of mushroom and consommé (beef). Interpol has a smartphone app called Id-Art: if you see anything that looks like one of the treasures on the list, upload a picture and you could be in for a reward.
Dugdale’s story seems to belong to a different world. An art thief who was in it for more than personal gain, who shouted ‘capitalist pig’ at representatives of the ruling class. A millionaire’s daughter who directed all of her considerable personal and financial resources towards the anti-colonial, anti-capitalist struggle. A pioneer in a field that usually confines women to driving the getaway car or holding the ladder steady while the chaps climb out of the window. An exact contemporary of Ulrike Meinhof and Patty Hearst, still alive, and resolutely unapologetic for her actions. A hero.
Two books about Dugdale’s life have been published in the past eighteen months, both generous and well-researched, seeking to revise the lurid portrait the press gave in the 1970s of the dotty rich girl who woke up one day and said to herself that it might be terrific fun to give the Troubles a spin. Sean O’Driscoll’s Heiress, Rebel, Vigilante, Bomber, based largely on interviews with Dugdale and the people close to her, contains new material on her activities after her release and her role in developing weapons for the IRA in the 1980s. Anthony Amore’s The Woman Who Stole Vermeer, written without her participation, focuses mainly on the Russborough heist and the period leading up to it. Both books are responses to the feeling I imagine a lot of people must have when encountering Dugdale’s story for the first time: surely this woman deserves to be taken far more seriously than she has been.
O’Driscoll, an investigative journalist, explains that he was ‘drawn to the story of Rose Dugdale for many reasons: a fascination with 1960s radicalism and 1970s urban guerrilla groups, and interest in the story of Northern Ireland, and, most of all, a wish to break through the silence that surrounds the Provisional IRA more than twenty years after it ended its armed campaign’. Amore, who is in charge of security at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, has good reason to be more interested in the theft itself. In 1990, his museum was the target of a famous heist, when the two perpetrators disguised themselves as police officers before handcuffing the guards to pipes in the basement and carrying off Vermeer’s Concert, probably the most valuable unrecovered painting in the world, along with works by Rembrandt, Degas, Manet and Govert Flinck. (The FBI has valued the stolen pictures at $500 million, which isn’t bad going, given that the thieves left behind paintings by Raphael, Titian, Botticelli and Michelangelo.) Amore describes Dugdale as ‘a groundbreaker in … her genres of criminality. Her involvement in an aerial assault on a police station marked the first attack of its kind.’ More than that, she is ‘the great outlier – history’s first and only female mastermind and thief of high-value, highly recognisable masterpieces’. Both writers take it for granted that hers is a story worth telling.
And of course it is. The vision of her bursting into the library at Russborough has stayed clear in my mind. But, to my disappointment, this isn’t that sort of movie. To begin with, anyone attempting to retell Dugdale’s story must contend with the unmistakeable air of fiasco that hovers over everything she did. Stalking into the Beits’ library holding a gun, heading unerringly for the most important paintings in the collection, advancing ideas about capitalism and exploitation that any sane person would agree with. This, it’s true, is Hollywood material, but things kept not quite going according to plan. Dugdale threatened to burn the stolen paintings unless Dolours and Marian Price were transferred to an Irish prison – but then their father begged the thieves to return the paintings to the National Gallery to give the public a chance to enjoy them. Dugdale and her accomplices zipped through the Irish countryside in their silver getaway car, but it broke down, so Dugdale had to take it to a mechanic, who was struck by the fact that this agitated woman was speaking in an obviously fake French accent.
A high-level IRA source was quoted as saying that the organisation knew the British government would never trade members of a designated terrorist organisation for paintings, particularly paintings that were not owned by the British state. Another source pointed out that no IRA operation would involve renting a cottage in an isolated location where any stranger would be instantly conspicuous, let alone a stranger who was pretending to be French. Informants were almost uniformly pissed off about the fact that the heist detracted attention from the hunger strike itself. Dugdale later described the Strabane bombing as ‘operationally very important and exciting’, but an explosives expert testified at her trial that the homemade devices were ‘shockingly amateurish’. On and on like this, one unforced error after another.
Both Amore and O’Driscoll tell Dugdale’s story with a straight face, but O’Driscoll introduces the word ‘debacle’ quite early on, and Amore has a gentle way of stressing that for all the seeming romance of her actions, they did have an uncanny habit of going wrong. O’Driscoll in particular has a good line in deflating quotes. He interviewed Eddie Gallagher, Dugdale’s boyfriend and accomplice, and asked how the relationship between the two of them developed. Gallagher: ‘You know the way when you are thrown together and there is a shower of hounds chasing you to try and put you in prison and you end up in the one bed. So what are you going to do, like? You can only talk for so long.’
The element of farce isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker. Dugdale ought still to be a compelling character. She really did steal all those paintings, in addition to making a bombing run over a police station, and according to interviews she gave to O’Driscoll, developing bomb-making techniques that were used in several IRA attacks in the 1980s. The real problem, for anyone who wants to take her seriously, is her own overpowering sense of herself as a heroic and rosy-cheeked footsoldier of the struggle, brave and true, scourge of the running dog and the capitalist pig, friend to the working man, thorn in the side of the establishment. Long before any journalist looked at her life and thought it might make a fantastic book, Dugdale herself was busily writing up the opening paragraphs: a thrillerish, minute-by-minute account of the robbery, so perfectly reimagined for maximum drama that it calls into question the authenticity of the entire scene.
At her trial for the theft from her parents’ house, Dugdale, for some reason, spoke like a person who had learned English from 19th-century rebel songs. She called the judge a ‘yeoman’, and predicted that he would give her the longest sentence he could out of fear of ‘the united strength of people of no property, brave men and true … You are afraid of this because one day – and I believe it will be very shortly – these men will brush you aside and deprive you of the power and privilege you abrogate and abuse.’ This lecture was delivered in a Cockney accent. At her trial for the Russborough theft, Dugdale gave another speech evidently intended for posterity, announcing that the ‘whole people of Ireland’ were ‘solely entitled to the wealth of this land which they laboured to produce. The wealth of this land may not be appropriated from them. It neither belongs to the Englishman nor his Orangeman Carsonite lackey, nor his Green Tory lapdog in Dublin.’ For this occasion, she had adopted a brogue, which she kept up while speaking about her role as an ‘Irish freedom fighter’, a soldier of ‘our army’. Unsurprisingly, the IRA leadership denied any connection to the robbery, the bombing, or indeed to Dugdale herself.
Dugdale’s commitment to the role of the gallant revolutionary has been unwavering, but oddly shallow. Even now, when given the opportunity to explain her actions in a way that might communicate the depth of her ideological and political commitments, Dugdale reaches straight for the script marked ‘Things a Marxist Heroine Might Say’. When asked whether she would really have burned the paintings, O’Driscoll reports, she spoke ‘not of the role they might have played in achieving the IRA’s aims’, but of the ‘beatings in South Africa, men forced out of their villages to go and work for the Beits in the dangerous mines. Is a painting worth their lives?’ When he asks her about the Strabane bombing, which she calls ‘the happiest day of my life’, she thinks of herself: ‘It was the first time I felt like I was really at the centre of things, that I was really doing as I said I would do. It was what you might call an electric feeling.’
Russborough House has been robbed three times since then. In 1986, a gang led by Martin Cahill, a notorious Dublin crime boss, took off with eighteen paintings, including the Vermeer, the Goya and two of the Guardis. Cahill couldn’t find a buyer, so eventually he made a deal with a Belgian diamond dealer, who was to keep the paintings as collateral in return for a loan. Cahill planned to use the loan to buy drugs, sell them, pay the diamond dealer back, reclaim the paintings and start all over again. But he was caught in a sting operation, and most of the paintings were returned. In 2001 and 2002, thieves thought to be affiliated with Cahill drove a Volkswagen through the front door of the house, stealing two paintings the first time and five the second. All except the Guardis were recovered. Everything about these later cases is standard issue. Something squalid to do with drugs and collateral, straightforwardly venal motives, and a series of mugshots of men who are, in the end, just some guy.
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