The General's favourite swag goes on sale

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SOME ART collections come recommended by erudite critics in bow ties. This one carries the personal seal of approval of Ireland's most eccentric and notorious armed robber.

Martin "the General" Cahill's criminal career was abruptly halted by an IRA bullet in 1994, when he was 45, but not before he had established himself as a connoisseur of old masters. His professional interest in the Murnaghan collection, on pre-auction public view from today, began on the night of 7 December 1988, when he scaled the back wall of an imposing Georgian town house in central Dublin, smashed a window in the basement and skilfully by-passed the burglar alarm.

In a scene straight from The Lavender Hill Mob, he then imprisoned the 92-year-old owner, the wealthy widow Alice Murnaghan, and her housekeeper in an upstairs bedroom, serving them numerous cups of tea and biscuits.

Meanwhile accomplices picked out 60 paintings, along with jewellery, cutlery and candelabras, worth IRpounds 500,000 (pounds 400,000) in all. What made it all irresistible to Cahill was that he was stealing from a judge. Alice Murnaghan, who died earlier this year, aged 103, was born into Dublin's wealthiest stockbroking family, the Davys, and married the Irish Supreme Court judge James Murnaghan, who died in 1973.

As the robber's biographer would later note, detectives quickly deduced his identity from a tell-tale Cahill trade mark known from various "tie- up" burglaries in the 1980s: along with the valuables, food was scavenged from the victim's fridge.

Forty of the stolen works, including a stunning Mother and Child by Carucci, were recovered in three lots - in London, Scotland and Cork - with varying degrees of damage.

Cahill's art-collecting started in May 1986, when he raided the priceless Beit collection at Russborough House, County Wicklow, which included a Vermeer, a Goya, two Rubens, a Gainsborough and two Metsus.

Cahill's criminal exploits over four decades included a pounds 2m raid on a jewellery factory in 1983, planting a bomb that disabled the state's top forensic scientist in 1982, bank and supermarket hold-ups, various big wage thefts and raids on large houses. His total takings exceeded pounds 40m in value.

To see what the law had on him, in August 1987 he burgled the Dublin offices of the Director of Public Prosecutions, taking about 300 files. On other occasions, he lampooned legal proceedings by stripping to his Mickey Mouse underpants outside courtrooms.

Apart from a brief spell making boxes and sacks, Cahill never had a job, but he was a workaholic thief, holding weekly planning meetings with his gang. His unorthodox domestic arrangements involved simultaneous relationships with his wife and her sister; he fathered nine children between two households.

He also organised a "Concerned Criminals Against Drugs" demonstration by masked thieves in central Dublin. His cat-and-mouse game with embarrassed detectives, who had long been trying to jail him for a major crime, led to 24-hour surveillance on him by a 60-strong squad of gardai.

After that was lifted he was shot dead, allegedly for helping loyalists to organise an abortive bomb attack on a republican function. Last year his life was the subject of two separate films, John Boorman's The General and the BBC's Vicious Circle.

Peter Flory, an art expert at Christie's, said: "The Murnaghan collection covers a big range, from early Italian to Flemish and Dutch, with a smattering of English 17th-century works, and a strong emphasis on portraits."

Included are major paintings by Michele di Ridolfo Tosino, one from Botticelli's workshop, and later Dutch pieces by Rootious and the circle of Nicolaes Maes. Marble busts of Jonathan Swift and Marie Antoinette are also on offer.

The art auction, by Mealy's of Dublin and Christie's on 14 October, is expected to make around IRpounds 1.5m (pounds 1.2m). The Murnaghan house at Fitzwilliam Street, likely to fetch a similar sum, will be sold by the Dublin auctioneers McNally Handy on 6 October.