The Godfather, the Lady and Sir's Old Dutch

Alan Murdoch views the masterpiece thieves just couldn't leave alone

The criminal world's favourite Dutch interior has gone on public display after two distinctly unauthorised loans in 12 years, firstly to an IRA gang led by a titled aristocrat, and then to Dublin's late criminal godfather, Martin Cahill, aka "The General".

Vermeer's Lady Writing A Letter, now on show at the National Gallery in Dublin, was among 19 paintings purloined by thieves including Lady Rose Dugdale in April 1974 from Russborough House, County Wicklow.

The elderly owner, Sir Alfred Beit, a former Conservative MP and an heir to the De Beers diamond fortune, and his wife were bound and gagged during the raid.

The pictures were found a month later in County Cork and Dugdale, the then lover of IRA kidnapper Eddie Gallagher, received a nine-year prison term. She was released in 1980.

Why criminals rate Dutch interiors so highly is unclear, but when a gang of Dublin thieves overcame the newly installed alarms at Russborough in May 1986 the same Vermeer and two Metsus with similar subjects were among 24 works taken.

Though UVF paramilitary links were alleged, the 1986 raid was actually masterminded by Cahill, who became the last person assassinated by the IRA, days before its ceasefire last August.

Cahill's 13 strong-gang, having judiciously selected their pick of the Beit masterpieces, then apparently had artistic differences over the choice.

Six works including a Velazquez, evidently too grandiose for their prospective new homes in most inner-city terraces, were found the next day, dumped in a ditch, by boys out fishing near Wicklow's Blessington lakes.

The missing Beit paintings, exported after four years lying in a Dublin attic, prompted an international search by Irish, UK, and European detectives.

In due course a Goya was found in Istanbul in 1991, a Gainsborough in London in 1992, then 12 months later a Rubens in Hertfordshire.

The Music Party by Palmadez turned up in a locker at Euston station. The Vermeer, along with a Goya and a Metsu, was recovered in 1993 in Belgium, where detectives believe Irish criminals had provided them as security in a heroin deal.

Their return to Ireland, securely guarded by garda Det Sgt Liam Hogan, had a fitting family twist. His father, a superintendent in Cork, was instrumental in the recovery of the same paintings after their first theft.

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