It was a brisk evening in April 1974, and Sir Alfred and Lady Clementine Beit had retired to the library of the Russborough House, their historic estate in Leinster, Ireland. They were sitting by the fire, listening to music on their gramophone, when three masked men waving pistols burst through the door. One struck Sir Alfred with a gun and called him a “capitalist pig”; another threatened Lady Clementine with a knife. Soon, the intruders had rounded up the staff in the servants’ quarters, bounding and gagging them with nylon stockings.
Amid the chaos, a dark-haired woman wearing a smart tweed skirt suit and heels emerged. She briskly walked through the rooms and began pointing out specific paintings for her henchmen to steal. She had a discerning eye, selecting Johannes Vermeer’s “Woman Writing a Letter With Her Maid,” worth more than a million dollars, as well as masterworks by Francisco Goya, Diego Velázquez and Peter Paul Rubens.
In about 10 minutes, she and her accomplices had swiped 19 paintings worth a combined $10 million (more than $100 million in today’s money). It was, at the time, the biggest art heist ever. And, even more remarkably, a woman masterminded the whole thing.
That woman was Rose Dugdale, a former debutante with a Ph.D. in economics whose radical politics led her to a life of crime: running guns, carjacking, throwing bombs and stealing paintings, all — ostensibly — to help liberate Northern Ireland from British rule. (The ransom for the 19 artworks stolen from the Russborough House was the release of four members of the Irish Republican Army, or IRA, from British prisons to Northern Ireland, plus a paltry 500,000 pounds.)
“It’s usually men who steal art,” said securities expert Anthony Amore, author of “The Woman Who Stole Vermeer,” a new book about Dugdale, out now. “But there’s always an outlier,” Amore told The Post, “and Rose was an outlier in just about every way.”
Not only was Rose a woman, she was rich, educated and didn’t steal for money but for political purposes. Plus, the Russborough heist wasn’t her only one.
“As a museum security person, I hate what she did,” said Amore. “But I have grudging admiration for her.”
Bridget “Rose” Dugdale was born on March 25, 1941, in East Devon, England. Her father, Colonel Eric Dugdale, worked in insurance; her mother, Caroline, was a rich heiress who had once worked in an art gallery. In addition to the 600-acre estate in East Devon, the family also owned a house in London and a mansion in Scotland. Young Rose rode horses, attended finishing school abroad and was even presented to the queen, but she always had a rebellious streak. Instead of marrying, she went to Oxford — to her parents’ dismay — and eventually got a Ph.D. in economics.
By her early 30s, Dugdale — inspired by student protests, the Cuban Revolution and the Black Panthers — began to move away from academia and into activist politics. First she focused on tenants’ rights, but gradually her interest shifted to the troubles in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republican Army, who were fighting against British rule. She wasn’t above accepting an allowance from her parents, however, which she used mainly to help bail out protesters and IRA supporters facing time in prison, though she did have a weakness for fast cars and live opera.
“She was so free with her money — it probably seemed limitless to her at some point,” said Amore. “But ultimately she ran out, and she needed to get her hands on more.”
That’s when she planned her first heist: wrangling her married socialist boyfriend, Wally Heaton, to help her lift a trove of antiques and artworks worth $85,000 from her parents’ estate. The pair were caught, and their 1973 trial caused a sensation: the poor little rich girl who robbed her family in the throes of an affair with a dangerous rebel. Dugdale used the stand to speak out against capitalism and her parents’ politics: “I love you,” she said at one point, addressing her father, but “at the same time I hate everything you stand for!”
Wally got six years in prison for his role in the heist, but Dugdale received a two-year suspension and a paltry $5,000 fine. That only made Dugdale angrier: “Class injustice if I may say so,” she said.
“The media, her parents, seemed at the time to think she was going through some phase,” said Amore, about the lenient sentence. “The judge concluded that she was unlikely to offend again … But this was her warm-up act.”
Dugdale emerged from the trial galvanized, moved to Ireland, and hooked up with Republican Eddie Gallagher, who was involved with some fringe, extremist break-offs of the IRA. The couple hijacked a helicopter and dropped bombs on a police station, ran guns to Irish rebels and essentially lived life on the lam. (The IRA denounced her and Gallagher’s activities.) She was particularly concerned with getting a group of IRA prisoners in Britain transferred to Northern Ireland, and she thought back to the heist at her parents’ house — perhaps she could use art as ransom. And why not raid one of the most well-appointed private collections in Ireland?
At 9:30 p.m. on April 26, Dugdale, Gallagher and two other men drove a silver Ford station wagon to the Russborough House and went over their plan. The three men gathered their tools — knives, screwdrivers, tape, stockings, rubber gloves, pistols — and put on their masks, while Dugdale donned a black wig, heavy makeup and a ladylike costume. She walked up to a side entrance of the house and knocked on the door, speaking French when two servants answered, assuming she had car trouble. But before they could help, Gallagher and his cronies rushed the doors, threatening to shoot if the servicemen didn’t bring them to the owners of the house.
Art thieves know Rembrandts, and they know Picasso. But they don’t know van de Velde. She did.
– Anthony Amore, author of ‘The Woman Who Stole Vermeer’
After Dugdale finished her sweep of the home, the thieves removed the larger works from their frames and then bundled all the paintings together. They then separated the house members into different rooms. Sir Alfred was bleeding from being hit with a gun. One thug pushed Lady Beit down toward the basement. “I was convinced that, like the unfortunate Romanovs, I was to be shot in the cellar,” she later said.
The bandits piled all 19 paintings in the back of the station wagon and made their getaway, depositing the vehicle 70 miles away before stealing two more. Dugdale and Gallagher ended up in a farmhouse more than 130 miles away, which they rented from a farmer under aliases.
This unlikely quartet had just pulled off the biggest property theft of its day. “She stole … all the most important and the most valuable” paintings, Lord Alfred would later say. It was the kind of heist that only a true art connoisseur could manage.
“Art thieves know Rembrandts, and they know Picasso,” said Amore. “But art thieves don’t know Rubens. They don’t know [Henry] van de Velde. She did.”
The police quickly linked Dugdale to the heist: The abandoned getaway car had a driver’s license with one of her aliases. Eight days later, they found her in the farmer’s cottage, alone, along with all the stolen paintings.
“A lot of art thefts … don’t look past the actual crime,” said Amore. And while he acknowledged that Rose did have a good plan to use the paintings as ransom, she couldn’t have anticipated that the very rebels she wanted to help would advocate for the return of the artwork stolen on their behalf. This included another Vermeer, “the Guitar Player,” lifted from a London art gallery just two weeks earlier, which Amore also suspects was done by Dugdale. (Two IRA bombers denounced the thefts and released public statements asking for the paintings to be returned.)
By the time the cops showed up at Dugdale’s door, added Amore, “she seemed resigned to the fact that she’d be caught.”
Dugdale went on trial for the heist in June 1974. She pleaded “proudly and incorruptibly guilty,” and got a nine-year sentence. Yet she never stopped raising hell. She surprised her jailers when all of a sudden, she started experiencing contractions: No one had noticed she had arrived at the prison four months pregnant. Then Gallagher had a nail file smuggled into her jail cell so she could try to saw her way out. (It didn’t work, and Gallagher was arrested.) The two had a much-publicized wedding in the slammer; even their baby, by then living with another family, attended.
Dugdale left jail in 1980, after six years, and resumed her revolutionary activities, though this time without breaking the law. (Her marriage with Gallagher, who was released a decade later, didn’t last, though she did tell a reporter that they remained “friends.”) Now 79, she’s become somewhat of a beloved local hero in her home of Dublin. But she has lost none of her rebel spirit.
“There’s this great photo of her signing the sympathy book at the Cuban embassy in Ireland when [Fidel] Castro died,” said Amore. “She gave up a life of luxury and enormous wealth to do what she did. Right or wrong, no one can argue that she wasn’t a true believer.”