The Woman Who Stole Vermeer: The True Story of Rose Dugdale and the Russborough House Art Heist by Anthony M. Amore

I think the risk that you will ever again commit burglary or any dishonesty is extremely remote.
—Judge Sir Hugh Park,
at the sentencing of Rose Dugdale, in October 1973, following the theft of artworks and silver from her parents’ home

If you were to tell the story of a wealthy young Englishwoman who derided her parents in court for being monsters but freely spent her $200,000 annual trust fund abetting Irish revolutionaries, who brazenly burglarized her family estate, and who less than a year later made a more daring art heist—this one in Ireland, including one of only two Vermeer paintings remaining in private hands—you might be called full of blarney. And yet this tale about Rose Dugdale, though delicious catnip, is all true.

Dugdale was born in 1941 to the British upper class, groomed for a life of privilege and certainty. But given her feisty and naturally contrarian views, money and heritage were a hair shirt she couldn’t shed fast enough, even if she never lost her telltale posh accent. Dissent showed early on. She chafed at a childhood alternating between the family’s 600-acre Devon estate and elite schooling, followed by the requisite cultural tour of Europe.

Most of all, Dugdale hated being a debutante, calling it “torture,” a “marriage market,” even “pornographic.” She especially disdained having to learn the proper curtsy before Queen Elizabeth (“followed by three sidesteps and another curtsey to Prince Philip”). The reluctant deb only agreed to the coming-out season on condition that her parents permit her to attend St. Anne’s College, Oxford. From there she got a Ph.D. in economics at the University of London, decisively swapping marriage for a doctorate. Resistance rather than acquiescence became Dr. Dugdale’s calling card.

To Catch a Thief

Anthony Amore has made a second career of writing true-crime whodunits about art heists. He became director of security and chief investigator at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, in Boston, following the theft of 13 artworks there in 1990, among them Vermeer’s The Concert. (Not one of the artworks has thus far been recovered.) His previous two best-selling books, the first co-authored with reporter Tom Mashberg, fuse a canny blend of high and low, as though taking a page or two from those 60s capers The Thomas Crown Affair and How to Steal a Million.

Dugdale happily left the world of debutantes behind, earning her Ph.D. at Oxford before joining the I.R.A.

In his new book he has a subject worthy of the crime. True, Amore’s prose gets a tad breathless and urgent, and his research nearly topples the plot, but he’s got a hell of a story to tell.

We don’t get to the heist of the title until nearly two-thirds of the way into the story, by which point we’ve learned that Dugdale was an unrepentant revolutionary dedicated to the cause of Irish republicanism. She was enmeshed with the I.R.A., had radicals as lovers, gave birth out of wedlock in an Irish prison, and believed that the end always justified the violence.

Money and heritage were a hair shirt she couldn’t shed fast enough, even if she never lost her telltale posh accent.

In the early 1970s, back-to-back art thefts testified to Dugdale’s daring as well as to her highbrow education. The June 1973 theft from her family included $113,000 worth of antiques, art, and silver. (She was caught, quickly, the goods returned, and Dugdale got off with a stern reprimand, at which point she declared, “I am going back to the poor.”) In January 1974 she led a botched hijacking of a helicopter in a plot to air-drop milk churns loaded with explosives on a police station in Northern Ireland. A month later, Kenwood House, the former London residence of the Earls of Mansfield, was burgled; among the stolen goods was Vermeer’s The Guitar Player. Although Dugdale was the assumed mastermind behind the theft, she was never charged, and in time the Vermeer was located, undamaged.

The scene of the crime: Russborough House following Dugdale and Co.’s art theft.

Dugdale’s Waterloo was Russborough House, a Palladian home owned by Sir Alfred Beit in County Wicklow, Ireland. On April 26, 1974, Dugdale and three accomplices entered the house. Ten minutes later they were gone, as were 19 paintings, among them works by Gainsborough, Velázquez, Goya, Rubens, and, yes, Vermeer—this time, his Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid. The estimated value of the stolen works was $19 million.

Eight days later, the police found Dugdale and the art, all of it intact. Though she’d made a name for herself as an I.R.A. fighter, Rose Dugdale now had a notoriety all her own: she was the first woman to have carried off an art heist, amped up by its inestimable quality. At her trial, a panel of three judges needed less than an hour to sentence Dugdale to nine years in Limerick Prison. Undeterred, she proclaimed herself “proudly and incorruptibly guilty.” Six years later, she was a free woman—true to form, Dugdale the outlaw left prison hidden in the trunk of a car. She is still alive today.

Ruth Peltason is a New York Citybased writer and editor