Sixteen of the 18 paintings stolen by the General in 1986 have now been recovered, but a pair of Venetian scenes by Guardi remain missing. The secret of their whereabouts died with Cahill, says Jimmy Guerin
THE recovery of a stolen Rubens masterpiece may be the last chapter in the story of the General, Martin Cahill's, 1986 art heist, but for investigating gardai it falls far short of a satisfactory conclusion. Somewhere in the wilds of the Dublin mountains, detectives believe, two priceless art treasures still lie buried. Gangster Martin Cahill, the only man who knew where they are, is dead.
Last week the owner of the Rubens, Lady Clementine Beit, was delighted to learn of the return of the master's Head of a Man. The painting, stolen by Cahill and his gang from Russborough House in Co Wicklow 16 years ago, has travelled a tortuous path since the theft.
The Sunday Independent has learned the Provisional IRA bought the painting for a nominal sum when the General's men failed to sell it to clandestine collectors. Since then, the Provos have tried several times to offload the masterpiece. Each attempt to fence the Rubens failed, because the painting was too well known. Since the Peace Process began, gardai from the Art and Antiques Unit have believed it would only be a matter of time before its return.
Sixteen of the 18 paintings stolen by Cahill have now been recovered, but there appears to be little hope of finding the remaining two, a pair of Venetian scenes by the 18th-century Italian painter Guardi. Sources close to the gang say the two paintings may never be found. It is believed they were buried by Cahill himself, in one of many hiding places he used in the Dublin mountains. Only Cahill knew the exact location, and the secret died with him when he was assassinated in 1994.
The 18 masterpieces were stolen in May 1986 when a gang of 10 men, led by Cahill, broke into Russborough House. It was the second time most of the works had been the target of raiders. In 1974 an IRA gang, which included the British heiress Dr Rose Dugdale, broke into the house, terrorised Sir Alfred and Lady Beit and stole 19 paintings. Eleven days later, all 19 paintings were recovered in Glendore, Co Cork. Dugdale was sentenced to nine years for her part in the robbery and was released in 1980.
The raid in 1986, however, has proved a more enduring problem for gardai. Lengthy investigations followed Cahill's frantic efforts to sell paintings in an underground market which places little value on prominent works of art. Far from pulling off the perfect heist, the General found he was the victim of his own ambition; the Beit paintings were simply too famous to attract a buyer.
Of the 18 paintings stolen in the raid, Cahill and his gang abandoned seven on the roadside during the night of the robbery. The remaining works included the undoubted jewel in the collection, Jan Vermeer's The Letter Writer, which now hangs in the National Gallery and is regarded as one of its most prized possessions. When Cahill stole the painting, it was one of only two Vermeers privately owned the other was in the collection of Queen Elizabeth of Britain.
The General had done his research and knew the value of the paintings, which included a Goya, two Rubens, two Metsus and a Gainsborough. They rapidly became an embarrassment, however, and as each of the works was recovered in the following years, Cahill is said to have become paranoid about the Beit haul.
In 1987, after a long surveillance operation, the gardai mounted a sting to try and catch the gang. With the assistance of Dutch police, they recruited a Dutch criminal who posed as a buyer for the paintings. A meeting was staged with Cahill's gang, and the fake buyer was shown several of the Beit paintings. Gardai observed the meeting.
Then the sting collapsed in a welter of mistakes. A buy was arranged at Kilakee woods, but the gang was frightened off when low-flying aircraft caused them to panic. Then gardai communications gear failed, and the gang disappeared, taking the paintings with them. Slowly, though, the Beit haul has been returned to its owners. In April 1990 a Metsu was recovered in Turkey; it is believed loyalists were involved in trying to sell the painting. The attempted vendors were arrested and granted bail, and absconded to Istanbul.
In 1992 a Gainsborough was recovered in London and the following year two paintings, including a Rubens, were also found in London.
There was a major breakthrough in September 1993 when three men were arrested at Antwerp airport and charged with receiving eight stolen works of art. Four of the pieces were from the Beit collection, including the prized Vermeer, a Metsu, a Goya and a Vestier. In a widely publicised court case, three Irishmen were remanded for 28 days and subsequently released on bail. The men were freed after an in-camera hearing, at which judges ruled they could not be charged under Belgian law because the alleged offences had not taken place in that jurisdiction.
Had the trial gone ahead, however, the prosecution would have found still more obstacles ahead of them. Many modern art collections have trouble tracing the provenance of works through the turbulent times of the 19th and 20th centuries. A lawyer involved in the hearings told the Sunday Independent that if the trial had taken place, the defence planned to insist on seeing documents tracking the provenance of each of the paintings found in a car boot at Antwerp airport. The lawyer said he was convinced it would prove impossible.
As an example, he explained the history of the Vermeer. The painting's ownership has been well documented for much of its existence since the artist's death in 1676 when his wife gave it to a bank as security on his debts. Its history can be clearly followed until 1889, and then a gap appears. It re-emerged after being sold by an art dealer in Paris, Kleimberger, to the Beit collection in London.
As the case never came to the courts, it was never necessary to furnish the provenance on this and other pieces.
A degree of mystery still surrounds the return of the Rubens. In a statement last week, the Garda press office confirmed the painting had been recovered from a location somewhere on the northside of Dublin, after intelligence gathered by gardai involved in the search for the Beit haul. Asked if a search warrant was used, if anyone was questioned or whether gardai had been contacted by the Provisional IRA, the press office refused to comment.
Raymond Keavney, director of the National Gallery, who authenticated the painting, was delighted the painting had turned up. It was a joy denied to Sir Alfred Beit, who died without knowing whether Head of a Man, one of his favourite masterpieces, ould ever be recovered.