What happened to the fabulous treasure trove that passed to a reclusive heiress in Kildare?
When she died in a nursing home in Shankill, Co Dublin, 15 years ago next week, Anne Bullitt was virtually a recluse — remembered only by a small circle of horse-racing folk as the “elegant lady” who appeared at unglamorous race-meetings, beautifully turned out in Chanel and other outfits from the couture houses of Paris.
But the heiress to a fortune of over $20m has left behind one of the enduring mysteries of modern Irish crime: what happened to a pair of 18th century pocket pistols, given by George Washington to the Marquis of Lafayette after the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, for his services in defeating the British?
Valued at more than €2m, they ended up as part of the “treasure trove” she kept in Palmerstown House, Co Kildare, where she spent her twilight years.
The story of the four-times married Anne Bullitt and her treasures has never been fully solved, despite the efforts of various interested parties, including American ambassadors to Ireland, high-priced lawyers, and high-priced garda ‘touts’.
Known to the American press when she was a child as ‘Little Annie Bullitt’, she was the daughter of the politically powerful William C Bullitt. Her father had been a friend and confidant of several presidents — and among other things, he served as US ambassador to France, and also as the first American ambassador to the Soviet Union.
To say she was ‘uncooperative’ would be an understatement
Raised with a silver spoon, but without a father or mother in attendance, she came to live in Ireland when she married the aristocratic Roderic More O’Ferrall of Kildangan Stud in Co Kildare.
Like her two previous marriages, it wasn’t a harmonious union — and after an acrimonious break-up in 1956, she acquired Palmerstown House and its 800-acre estate near Naas. The former home of the Earls of Mayo became the centre of her horse-breeding and training operation, and in 1958 she became the first woman in Ireland to take out a training licence with the Irish Turf Club.
Although highly successful, with more than 30 winners sired at her own stud farm, she handed the licence back in 1965, to concentrate on the breeding end of the business.
When in 1967 her father died, she was left a vast fortune — including an estate in west Massachusetts called Ashfield House, where Eleanor Roosevelt and other dignitaries had come to dine and dance — and also inherited a treasure trove of more than 400 boxes of papers and documents accumulated by her mother and father during a lifetime of hobnobbing with a vast array of influential political, literary and academic figures.
The boxes, which were discovered in the basement of Palmerstown House after her death, included voluminous correspondence with Sigmund Freud, founder of psychiatry, with whom her father had written a book; the manuscript of a play by her mother’s friend, Eugene O’Neill; John F Kennedy’s thesis; and other documents and papers that would keep scholars busy for decades.
That was only what was in storage ‘below stairs’. The house itself was decorated with Picasso paintings and drawings (one of which the artist had personally given to her father), and works by Degas and Raoul Dufy.
There were Ming vases, valuable Chinese screens, the pistols (which she had been given in 1962), and a 100-carat diamond necklace — which she bought as a present for herself in Paris, before she married More O’Farrell, and which would sell after her death for over £600,000.
But for all her wealth, the poetry-loving heiress lived a sad and lonely life — particularly after the failure of her fourth marriage to Daniel Brewster, a US senator.
“On one of her trips to New York, Anne told me that, except for her Dublin counsel [solicitor] she had no friends in Ireland or here,” said her American lawyer, Robert M Pennoyer, in his memoir, As It Was. But that wasn’t quite the full story, either.
As the years went by and her sight deteriorated into blindness, Anne Bullitt retreated gradually to her bedroom in the vast Palmerstown House, cutting off contact with the outside world.
The only people she would see were her housemaid and Jimmy Mansfield — the son of James Mansfield, the one-time scrap dealer turned billionaire owner of Citywest, Weston Aerodrome, and an array of property along the road between Dublin and Naas. She and the younger Mansfield had formed an unlikely friendship through horse racing, and it was one of her few friendships that endured.
According to her lawyer, Anne developed dementia, and the trustees of her fortune decided to sell Palmerstown House to a developer for IR£8.2m in 1997. But while they were doing the deal, Anne went behind their backs and sold it to Jim Mansfield for IR£10m.
The deal led to a decade of litigation. The developer who had been gazumped sued, and the Bullitt estate wrangled legally with Mansfield Snr.
In July 1998, arrangements were made by her trustees for Mrs Bullitt to be seen by a psychiatrist at Palmerstown House.
“To say she was uncooperative was an understatement,” her lawyers reported. “The psychiatrist’s interview was terminated in a very peremptory manner.”
In 2000 her trustees began an action in the High Court in Dublin that would see Bullitt declared a ward of court, unfit to run her own business — and consigned for the rest of her life to the home in Shankill, where 15 years ago this week she died, on August 18, 2007.
But worse was to come.
Jim Mansfield believed that not only had he bought Palmerstown House and estate, but also the contents of the house — including the valuables scattered throughout the mansion. Possession being nine-tenths of the law, he refused to let representatives of the grandly titled William C Bullitt Foundation inspect the mansion.
“For reasons beyond our control, it took years to gain possession of Anne’s property in Ireland, and to transfer the value of those assets to the Foundation, which had been established as part of her will,” revealed Robert Pennoyer in his memoir. By then it had already received $20m from her fortune.
After a series of raids, works by Picasso and Degas were recovered by gardaí
In 2009, after litigation between her estate and James Mansfield, Pennoyer and Bullitt’s Irish lawyer, Gordon Lewis, gained access to Palmerstown House, spending 11 hours going through her possessions, which included whole collections of haute couture from Paris, as well as her art.
Among the items they couldn’t locate were Head of a Young Man (the drawing Picasso had given to William C Bullitt), a valuable pastel by the same artist called White Clown, another drawing by Degas — and the Lafayette pistols.
In an interview in 1941 her father had told Life Magazine that he had been given them a few days before the German occupation of Paris in June, 1940 by a Charles Baron, vice-president of the French Chamber of Deputies, whose wife had inherited them.
“M Baron, who seemed about 65 years of age, burst into tears, drew the pistols from his pockets, and I accepted them with genuine gratitude. They are now on the mantel over the fireplace in my bedroom at my daughter’s stud in Palmerstown, Co Kildare, Ireland.”
In 2014 an informant contacted the gardaí and told them he knew where the missing pistols and Picassos could be found. He wanted to be paid €5,000 for the information. The gardaí told Bullitt’s Irish lawyer that he was a ‘reliable’ informant and he got the money.
The tout said they were now held by an ‘Irish businessman’, who had tried to sell Picasso’s White Clown in Manchester — but when the auction house looked into its provenance, they refused to include it in their sale.
But nothing further happened.
Then in 2015, after a series of garda raids in Dublin, the Picasso drawing of a boy’s head, and valuable drawings by Degas and Dufy that had belonged to Anne Bullitt were recovered by gardaí, along with other stolen goods.
But the pistols and White Clown are still missing. A small advertisement in 2015 by the solicitor’s firm of Orpen Franks promised a reward for “information” regarding their whereabouts, but to little effect. A representative of the Mansfields once told me that the family did not have any information about the pistols or their whereabouts.
Jim Mansfield Snr, the patriarch of the family, died in January 2014 after seeing much of his empire wiped out in the property crash.
In February 2022 his son, Jimmy Mansfield Jr, was sentenced to two years in jail by the Special Criminal Court in connection with the abduction of an employee and the destruction of CCTV footage.
In her will, Anne Bullitt specified that after a service in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia, she be buried in a plot next to her father in Woodland Cemetery. Despite her wealth and standing, only six people showed up to the funeral. Of those six, only two — her Irish and American lawyers, Gordon Lewis and Robert Pennoyer — had ever met her.
As for the pistols, some day they will probably turn up — and the legal wrangles that followed Anne Bullitt from beyond the grave will resume.