Wednesday, September 14, 2022

The Three Thefts of Russborough House

Thieves often demand ransom for a stolen painting. But the ransom demand for today’s featured painting, Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid, is unique.

When it was stolen in 1974, the thieves not only asked for money. They also demanded that two political prisoners be transferred from a prison in Great Britain to one in Northern Ireland.

The painting, an oil on canvas (28” x 23.8”) painted by Johannes Vermeer circa 1670-71, was stolen along with 19 other paintings from Russborough House, a classical Palladian villa built between 1741 and 1755 in County Wicklow, Ireland.

Lady Writing a Letter With Her Maid

At the time, the Washington Post called it “the most valuable art theft in history” (Coppola).

Rose Dugdale, a wealthy British heiress, and three other members of the IRA cut the paintings from the frames with screwdrivers. Fortunately, Dugdale and the paintings were found in a country cottage only eight days later.

The New York Post reported that Dugdale “pleaded ‘proudly and incorruptibly guilty’” at her June 1974 trial (Coppola).

Twelve years later, in May 1986, Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid was stolen from Russborough House again—this time by Irish mobster Martin “The General” Cahill. He and his gang got away with eighteen paintings altogether which they tried, unsuccessfully, to ransom for 20 million Irish pounds.

Russborough House

The famous Vermeer remained missing until Scotland Yard detective Charles Hill recovered it in 1993. In an article posted on the Country Life website, Hill is quoted as saying that his greatest thrill was finding the painting.

"I put on a mid-Atlantic accent and posed as an art dealer who had Arab buyers lined up for the Vermeer. At the time, I was working in Scotland Yard’s Art Squad. I was taken to a multi-storey car park in Antwerp by a gangster and had to mask my emotions as I unwrapped the painting. It’s the greatest masterpiece I’ve had the pleasure to hold."

Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid now hangs in the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin.

For that reason, it wasn’t stolen when armed and masked thieves broke into Russborough House a third time twenty years ago this month.

However, this made the third time that a different painting—one stolen along with the Vermeer in 1974 and 1986—was stolen from the villa.

The Cornfield

Art curator Anne Stewart described The Cornfield as an “absolute masterpiece” and its Dutch Golden Age artist, Jacob van Ruisdael as "the finest of all the Dutch landscape painters of the 17th century” (Coppola).

Police recovered the painting a few months later. It’s now displayed—under strict surveillance—in the Ulster Museum.

Johnnie imagines inspiring stories in multiple genres. A fan of classic movies, stacks of books, and road trips, she shares a life of quiet adventure with Griff, her happy-go-lucky collie, and Rugby, her raccoon-treeing papillon. Visit her at

Photo Credits ~

Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid ~ Public Domain
The Cornfield ~ Public Domain
Russborough House ~ Dorian IG via Creative Commons

Sources ~

Coppola, Francesca. “Famous Artworks That Have Been Stolen More Than Once.” Grunge. (Posted February 16, 2021; retrieved September 7, 2022.)

“Art Detective Charles Hill.” Country Life. (Posted March 16, 2009; retrieved September 7, 2022).

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting today and for contributing monthly to the blog. This was a very interesting post, but it leaves a lingering question..........why on earth can't they make that building safe from robberies or why do they continue to hold valuable paintings there???!!! LOL