Stolen French painting goes on display in Dublin

Drawing by realist master returned by Criminal Assets Bureau

Art handlers adjust “In the Omnibus” by French artist Honore Daumier at Dublin’s Hugh Lane gallery. The painting was stolen in 1992. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

After an absence of more than 20 years, a drawing in watercolour and gouache by French realist master Honore Daumier, returned late last year by the Criminal Assets Bureau to Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, has gone on display.

The work, In the Omnibus (circa 1864), part of the new transport-themed suite depicting a cross section of Parisian society wearing expressions now familiar to commuters all over the world, was included in the original collection gifted to the gallery by Hugh Lane on its opening in 1908.

When its theft was announced in 1992, the gallery received condolences from art institutions all over the world. It was not just because of its artistic value and its relevance as social history but because it was by a revered artist of empathy whose personal story reflected much of the hardship he chronicled so movingly.

Details of how the painting was recovered cannot be revealed because of unrelated legal proceedings involving the Criminal Assets Bureau.


Compared by Picasso to Michelangelo, Honore Daumier (1808-1879) was born in Marseille to a glazier father who was intent on becoming a published poet. Daumier senior left for Paris in 1814 and was followed to the city two years later by his wife and their young son, the future artist.

Prison sentence

Daumier's father was never supportive of his son's interest in drawing and initially sent him to work as a messenger. The boy was then offered a job by a bookseller. But he attracted the interest of a friend of his father's who was also an artist. Young Daumier became involved in making lithographs. By the age of 23 he had caricatured King Louis-Philippe I in Gargantua (1831). Its popularity earned him a six-month prison sentence.

Daumier was a hard-working artist whose social realist vision echoed that of the writer Émile Zola. The poet Baudelaire described Daumier as one of the most important figures of modern art. Daumier left more than 500 paintings, 1,000 drawings, 1,000 wood cuts, sculptures and 4,000 lithographs.

Caricatures famous

His caricatures were famous in his lifetime and his Les Gens de Justice satirised the legal profession. He went blind and lived his final years in a cottage purchased for him by the artist Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot.

At the time of the theft, in the summer of 1992, Barbara Dawson, director of Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane, recalls: "I was just a year in the job, and was on a family holiday. It was a terrible shock – we registered it to hinder resale to any reputable institution or dealer and the international art police was put on the alert. I often thought about the picture, wondering where it was."

Its loss was particularly poignant during Daumier's 2008 bicentenary celebrations when Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (circa 1855), oil on oak, which the gallery shares under the terms of the Hugh Lane Bequest 1917 with the National Gallery in London, was on display in Dublin.

"Only In the Omnibus was missing, and that was so sad," said Ms Dawson.

Eileen Battersby

Eileen Battersby

The late Eileen Battersby was the former literary correspondent of The Irish Times