Beit robbery was biggest art theft in State's history

The biggest art robbery in the history of the State, and one of the biggest in recent times in Europe, was the theft in May 1986…

The biggest art robbery in the history of the State, and one of the biggest in recent times in Europe, was the theft in May 1986 of some of the most valuable works from Sir Alfred Beit's collection at Russborough House in Co Wicklow.

Eighteen paintings, including a Vermeer and a Goya, were stolen by a gang of Dublin criminals led by Martin Cahill, then the State's leading gangster.

Cahill had trouble selling such famous paintings. They passed through the hands of various criminals and were eventually tracked down and recovered in police "stings" in Belgium, Turkey and England. Even loyalist paramilitaries, members of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) from Co Armagh, bought some of the paintings from Cahill. These were recovered in the Turkish capital, Ankara.

In September 1993 Vermeer's Lady Writing a Letter, Goya's Portrait of Dona Antonia Zarate and a work by the Dutch miniaturist Metzu were recovered in Antwerp by Dutch police acting on the advice of Garda detectives.


The paintings were eventually all returned to the collection, which was subsequently donated to the State and housed in the National Gallery. Cahill is thought to have made somewhere between £600,000 and £800,000 for paintings which could have fetched, on the legitimate market, anywhere between £20 million and £50 million.

No full value has been placed on the works stolen from the collection of Islamic antiquities in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin over a number of years up to 1991.

In September 1991 an employee at the library, Dr David James, was charged with the theft of copies of Korans, paintings, rugs, book bindings and other artefacts. He was jailed in 1993 for five years. Only a limited number of the items stolen from the library were recovered.

Works were eventually traced to auctions in London and New York and in the hands of dealers in the Gulf, Syria and Jordan.

A major collector of Islamic art, Dr Nasser David Khalili, on finding that he had acquired a number of works from the collection, contacted the library in 1993 and returned artefacts valued at £450,000.

The first to be recovered were found in Bishopsgate, London, in April 1993. Two men were arrested. In July 1996 two men were charged in London after police recovered the Suwar al-Aqalim world atlas, a book valued at around £250,000.