By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — A Rubens portrait, part of a haul of 18 paintings stolen in one of the country’s biggest art heists 16 years ago, has been recovered in a house on Dublin’s northside by a specialist Garda unit.
The Rubens was taken from the Russborough, Co. Wicklow, stately home of the late South African diamond millionaire Sir Alfred Beit in a 1986 raid that is accepted as being the work of a gang led by the notorious Dublin gangster Martin “The General” Cahill.
The art collection of Beit, a former British MP and parliamentary private secretary at the Colonial Office, has been hit three times by thieves.
The first robbery, in 1975, involved a republican gang. All 19 paintings taken were later recovered in County Cork.
The 1986 robbery is attributed to Cahill, who was one of the country’s most notorious criminals.
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However, he was never charged in connection with it before he was shot dead near his Ranelagh home in Dublin in 1994 by a gunman who is believed to have been a member of the IRA.
At the time, it was estimated that the value of the paintings he took was between euro 40 and 60 million. Because they were so well-known, it was almost impossible to sell them and it is reported that Cahill regretted ever taking them.
After the robbery, his gang abandoned a number of the paintings close to Russborough House.
The hunt for the other paintings has had a checkered history. They have turned up in Britain, Belgium and Turkey.
It has been a saga worthy of a bestselling thriller. It involved a series of raids, an elaborate garda sting that went wrong, drug dealers using them as collateral and loyalist paramilitaries trying to fence them.
Last year, Russborough House was targeted for the third time. A gang ram-raided the doors and made off with two paintings that are still missing. One of them is a work by Gainsborough that had been stolen in 1986 and subsequently recovered.
Garda would only say the recovery of the Rubens had “resulted from intelligence gathered by the Arts and Antiquities Unit attached to the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation.” No one was arrested.
William Finlay, chairman of the Alfred Beit Foundation, which now owns the Beit art collection on behalf of the nation, said the Rubens had been restored to the foundation “in very good condition.”
The painting, “Head of a Man,” dates from 1615. It is a bust portrait measuring about 50-by-40 centimeters. A second Rubens, “Portrait of a Monk,” was also taken in the 1986 raid but was recovered by gardai in 1993.
Raymond Keaveney, director of the National Gallery, who authenticated the recovered painting, said it had been one of Sir Alfred’s personal favorites. He was “delighted” the painting had been recovered. It will undergo a conservation examination in the Gallery before any decision is made about its future.
Gardai said the search for the other missing paintings remains “ongoing.”