Russborough Art Robberies - A Major Collection

Search Ireland Fun Facts:

Over $70 million in art has been "borrowed" over the years

By Bob Sullivan

Russborough House belongs to a select club. Along with the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum in Boston, The Munch Museum in Oslo and a few others, it’s a place where truly great artworks have been stolen. But for both quality and quantity of art taken, the Russborough stands above the rest.

Heritage of Larceny?
This 1741 Palladian “palace” in Blessington, by the Wicklow Mountains, has been called “the most beautiful home in Ireland.” Art thieves seem particularly drawn in by its charms. It’s had four muti-million dollar art robberies, two of them topping $30 million, in the past 31 years.

Some might say Russborough House always had a heritage of larceny, since the property was “stolen” from Ireland by the Leeson family around 1700.russborough house They were members of the “Protestant Ascendancy” that ruled Ireland after the defeat of the Catholics in The Battle of the Boyne in 1690. The Ascendancy ended in 1800, but the Leesons owned Russborough right up to 1929 (they tried to give it to the Irish State in 1902, but The State refused). It was purchased in 1929 by Denis Daly, a Galway man. In 1952, Daly sold it to Sir Alfred Beit, the heir to a South African diamond fortune.

Enter the Art
Sir Alfred and his wife brought a truly world-class collection of art to Russborough. It included paintings by heavy-hitters like Goya, Velasquez, Vermeer, and Rubens. Life at the large but isolated house was quiet for 20 years. Then, in 1972, a band of robbers from the Irish Republican Army broke in, tied up the 72-year-old Sir Beit and beat him with a pistol, and cut 19 paintings out of their frames with screwdrivers (the gang included a rich English heiress named Rose Dugdale, who became a minor celebrity in Ireland as a result of the robbery.). The IRA wasn’t in it for the money. They tried to use the paintings as ransom to obtain the release of several jailed companions. But the plan fell apart when Irish police recovered all 19 paintings from a rented cottage just 11 days later.

Then in 1986, a far larger robbery, at least in terms of value, was staged by Irish gangster Martin Cahill. Mr. Cahill was a brutal but “colorful” character (according to several writers) who’s since been portrayed in three movies. He and accomplices cracked open a window at Russborough to set off the alarm. The gang hid in the bushes and watched the police arrive, take a look around and then leave, assuming they’d responded to a false alarm. With the coast clear, the thieves pounced. Cahill and friends made off with 18 paintings valued at more than $30 million. A huge international police operation, however, made it difficult for him to sell the works. Gradually, all but four were recovered from auction houses in Britain and Belgium, and one by a sting operation in Turkey (one painting was recovered as recently as August 2002).

Wishing, perhaps, to bring an end to the shenanigans, Sir Beit donated 12 old master paintings to the Irish state in 1986. He passed away in 1994. Things stayed calm until 2001, when a former protégé of Martin Cahill named Martin Foley broke in and stole two paintings, one by Gainsborough and one by Bellotto. Both were recovered about a year later.

Still an easy mark?
Just days after the Gainsborough and Bellotto paintings were brought back to Russborough in 2002, three men smashed a window of the house with a battering ram, went in and took away five paintings, including two by Rubens. According to Time Magazine Europe, the heist was easy. In spite of all the problems, the collection was still being watched by a single guard, who happened to be in his seventies (Russborough Director Deirdre Rowsome, disagreed with this account, telling Time that the house has a modern security system, but that it’s difficult to make a home in such an isolated place impervious to thieves). Again, all five works were recovered, this time in a matter of months.

The Russborough has an odd knack for recovering its artworks (unlike the Gardner – which hasn’t found one of the Degas, Rembrant or Manet paintings clipped there in 1990). Some see a bit of scullduggery here – claiming that collection managers may be quietly paying ransom to recover stolen goods. Recovery efforts have certainly gone better than security procedures. Over $70 million in art has been returned since the 1974 robbery. It seems it would take a big ransom budget to accomplish that.

You can visit the house, which is located about 30 km from Dublin, from April to October, and enjoy its incredible garden maze and a still-formidable collection of paintings. Fine examples of silver, furniture and porcelain are also on display.

Address: Russborough House, Russborough, Blessington, Co. Wicklow
Phone: 011 353 45 865239
Open: April, October, Sundays and Bank Holidays - 10.30am - 5.30pm
June, July, August: Every day - 10.30am - 5.30pm
May, September: Monday to Saturday - 10.30am - 2.30pm

Photo used by permission of the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage.