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'Copycat' crime gang stole priceless Beit paintings in bid to outclass rivals

GARDAI are satisfied that the priceless Beit paintings recovered at the weekend were stolen by a crime gang who believed they could succeed where their main rivals had failed a year earlier.

The five paintings were taken from the home of Lady Beit, Russborough House, outside Blessington, Co Wicklow, last September - the fourth art theft from the mansion since 1974.

They were stolen within days of the recovery of two other paintings which had been taken from Russborough in June last year.

The latest haul was found in the attic of a house in Clondalkin in west Dublin on Friday evening as a result of intelligence gathering by gardai.

Detectives from the national criminal bureau of investigation had mounted a major search for the art which culminated in Friday's search, led by Assistant Commissioner Joe Egan and Det Chief Supt Sean Camon.

Last night, senior garda officers were confident that the paintings were stolen by a south Dublin crime gang based mainly in the Crumlin area.

The heist was a 'copycat' crime carried out by thieves who believed they could learn from the mistakes made by another Crumlin gang who had stolen the two paintings last year but were unable to dispose of them. The two gangs are linked to a major Dublin drugs baron, known in the criminal underworld as The Viper, a former close associate of murdered gangland boss, Martin Cahill.

The two gangs operate independently but last night detectives were trying to establish if some of those directly involved in September had also been implicated in last year's theft.

The gang involved in the 2001 robbery had also carried out a series of armed raids on banks in the midlands, ending in an abortive robbery at Abbeyleix where a member of the Garda national surveillance unit, Det Sgt John Eiffe, was accidentally shot dead by a colleague.

The Viper was also known to have been involved in the planning of last year's raid but was not thought to be part of the September operation. The paintings recovered at the weekend were 'The Cornfield', 'The Adoration of the Shepherd', 'The Calm Sea' and two works by Rubens, 'Venus Supplicating with Jupiter' and 'Portrait of a Dominican Monk'.

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A senior Garda officer said last night: "They were all in remarkably good condition. One of the them suffered a few minor scratches on the lacquering on the painting but this can be restored."

A husband and wife were arrested after the recovery of the haul and were charged with handling stolen property in Dublin district court on Saturday. They will appear in court again this morning.

A teenage woman was also interviewed by detectives but was not arrested. Gardai said last night that further arrests could be expected in the coming weeks. Earlier this month, a woman was charged with handling the paintings stolen last June. She is currently on remand.

Two of the latest five works had been stolen previously. They were part of the haul taken by the Cahill gang from Russborough in 1984. The theft in 1974 was carried out by a republican gang led by Rose Dugdale.

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