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Friday 19 September 2014

Mystery art thief 'plundered' rare works for years

Scale of All Hallows theft far greater than feared as more valuable books and paintings go missing

Published 08/06/2014 | 02:30

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All Hallows College in Dublin
All Hallows College in Dublin

IT'S a mystery worthy of a Dan Brown cracker: a famous religious college on the brink of closure and a locked archive stripped of valuable treasures it hoped to sell to stave off financial disaster.

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But the trouble at All Hallows College in Dublin is far from fictional.

The cash-strapped college founded by the Vincentians was targeted by a mystery art thief right up until March this year, the Sunday Independent has learnt.

Even the famous letters Jackie Kennedy wrote to the well-connected All Hallows priest, Fr Joe Leonard, were reported missing to gardai on April 3.

The letters reappeared hours later, just as detectives prepared to launch an investigation, according to Owen Felix O'Neill, the rare book expert brought in to value them.

Meanwhile, gardai have asked Interpol for help in identifying the person who tried to sell a rare 15th-century volume that was stolen from the college last year through an auction house abroad.

All Hallows intended to sell Jackie Kennedy's letters at auction this month, hoping to raise €1.5m for the college. But the letters were withdrawn following objections from the Kennedy family, triggering All Hallows' announcement that it is now "winding down" its operations.

All Hallows has said claims of "grand theft" of artefacts worth millions are sensationalist and insists only seven books and 15 prints are missing. But documents seen by the Sunday Independent suggest the scale of theft may have been far greater than it has publicly acknowledged.

According to Owen Felix O'Neill, a rare book expert and collector, All Hallows' archive had been "plundered for years". O'Neill was drawn into the mystery when All Hallows asked him to value the books in its archive collection. The college was in dire financial straits and had been gearing up to sell off artefacts for three years, under the guidance of the college president, Fr Patrick McDevitt.

A week before O'Neill started his work in late February, 12 etchings by the 18th century Italian artist, Giovanni Batista Piranesi, had vanished. All that remained were the broken wooden frames that were fingerprinted without success by gardai, according to O'Neill.

He found nothing of value in the boxes of archives but was given a list compiled by All Hallows staff of more than 70 books that are "missing" from the college archives.

Over the following weeks, the college discovered that a succession of valuable artefacts had disappeared. On March 4, library staff noticed that another rare tome was gone. A "valuable incunabulum" of "international significance" – consisting of two volumes from the 1480s, bound together – was locked into the Vincentian library, within the college. The room was alarmed when not in use. It was last seen by staff in June last year.

That night, Owen Felix O'Neill scoured catalogues of rare books online and within three days believed he had found the missing incunabulum. An apparently identical book – with the same rare binding as the one in All Hallows – featured in the catalogue of an International auction house last year.

The book had been withdrawn from auction, unsold, and returned to the person who had submitted it. The information was passed on to gardai. On March 10, detectives contacted the auction house in London. They were told to make a formal request through Interpol.

As the hunt for the book got under way, All Hallows discovered that a collection of 37 18th-century etchings by the Italian artist, Piranesi, had disappeared – not just the 12 that were taken in February. The collection was last seen intact in 2011, when it was photographed by a visitor to the college. Now it was gone.

"I was told that all 37 have disappeared since 2011," O'Neill told the Sunday Independent.

Another apparent theft from the library surfaced in early April. Someone had removed 22 illustrated plates by the famous Renaissance artist, Raphael, contained in an 18th-Century folio that was kept in the library. According to O'Neill, each one was worth €2,000 or more.

As O'Neill claimed he saw the book with the plates intact during the process of valuing the college archive, the apparent theft had to have happened in March or early April this year.

"Someone had gone in there to that backroom, and removed every single plate, and rolled them up and left the college," he said.

That was not all. The Jackie Kennedy letters were by far the most valuable artefacts held by the college. They were stored in a safe in All Hallows, along other treasures such as a medieval Book of Hours and a volume of Plato.

According to O'Neill, they too had been "missing" for several months. They had been removed from the safe, and O'Neill claimed it was now feared that they had been stolen.

He said on Monday morning, April 3, the college authorities formally notified gardai that the Kennedy letters were stolen. But by lunchtime that day, the letters had mysteriously turned up. The college's finance director sent an email to detectives to say that "they were not, in fact, lost."

It was hoped that Jackie Kennedy's letters to Fr Joe Leonard would stave off the closure of the college. They were to be auctioned this month at Sheppard's Irish Auction House with a price tag of more than €1m, but were controversially withdrawn. All Hallows discovered that Fr Leonard had actually left the letters to his religious order, not the college. And the Kennedys had made their displeasure at the sale known through the Department of Foreign Affairs.

The auction was cancelled and All Hallows subsequently announced that it is winding down. Fr McDevitt, the college president, has said that the money raised from the letters would have given some "wriggle room" to continue operating.

Owen Felix O'Neill, for his part, was accused of leaking copies of the letters to the Boston Globe in the US. Sheppard's went to the High Court here to get an injunction to make him hand over copies he had made of the letters.

Detectives have interviewed senior management, staff and scholars at All Hallows. But for now, the vanishing art works remain a mystery.

"Someone deliberately plundered the college's art and books," O'Neill said this weekend. "Whoever was stealing knew what they were doing, and it didn't bother them that police were in and out taking fingerprints."

All Hallows College has played down the theft. In a statement last month, it said only seven books were missing and 15 framed Piranesi prints.

In response to questions this weekend, All Hallow's said "there was an internal mis-communication when the letters were temporarily moved to an alternative secure location from their original place of safe keeping."

It confirmed that 37 Piranesi prints had been taken. Of the list of 70 missing books, it said that 63 were "subsequently found in a locked environment during the course of the ongoing archival examination. The seven missing were reported to the guards."

Sunday Independent

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