Rose Dugdale and the stolen Vermeer

April 20, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, history, journalism.

Rose Dugdale’s life, in the 1950s and 1960s, seemed to be on a straight path of privilege, success, and accomplishment.

Dugdale had been born in 1941 to an upper-class family in Great Britain. She spent her early years on vast ancestral estates and grew up to be a beautiful and pleasant young lady. When she was of the proper age, she was presented as a debutante to the Queen of England. Those who remember her from these early years describe her in glowing terms.

In 1959, she began her studies in politics, economics, and philosophy at St. Anne’s College in Oxford. It was there that Dugdale began to realize how privileged her life had been and the best differences good life had offered to most other people. She also realized how differently women were treated in her emerging adult world.

Women, for instance, we’re not able to participate in the famous Oxford Union debating society. She and another student crash the union meeting to protest their exclusion. When she had finished at Oxford, she traveled to the United States to continue her studies. She completed her master’s degree at Mount Holyoke College and then returned to London where she obtained a doctorate in economics.

Dugdale’s radicalization continued through the 1960s as she observed student movements and various protests against established authority. She quit her job as an economics teacher, cashed out her inheritance, sold her house in Chelsea, and moved in with an ex-Army vet in north London. There, she distributed her money to poor people in the area.

With the beginning of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, she took an increasing interest in the civil rights demonstrations taking place, and she visited Northern Ireland several times. In 1973, she and her boyfriend, Walter Heaton, were arrested and charged with stealing more than 80,000 pounds worth of goods from her family’s home. Both were convicted, and he was given a jail sentence while Dugdale received only a suspended sentence.

After the trial, Dugdale declared herself to be an active member of the Irish Republican Army. In January the next year, she and an IRA man stole a helicopter and attempted to drop homemade bombs in milk cans onto a Northern Ireland police station. A warrant was issued for her arrest, and she went underground. In April 1974, she into IRA members forced their way into the Russborough House, a large estate in the Republic of Ireland, beat up the owners, and stole several million dollars worth of paintings. One of those paintings was a Vermeer: Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid,

The plan was to hold the paintings hostage and to demand money and the release of certain jailed IRA members. A nationwide search by the police ensued, and within about two weeks the paintings and their captors were found. Dugdale was charged with multiple crimes. She used the trial as a forum to declare her commitment to freeing Ireland completely from British rule. She was convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison.

All of her activities during these times made her a darling of the international press. She was the Debutante-turned-Radical, and there were countless accounts of her appearance and clothing. Outside of her political world, Dugdale made history in another realm. She was the first woman to mastermind an art theft.

That’s the part of her story that interests author Anthony Amore, who has written a recently-published book, The True Story of Rose Dugdale, The Woman Who Stole Vermeer, claiming that she is responsible not only for the crime for which she was convicted but also for another major art theft:

The first Russborough House heist (as of 2020, there have now been, incredibly, four) established Rose Dugdale as the great outlier—history’s first and only female mastermind and thief of high-value, highly recognizable masterpieces. It must be emphasized that she wasn’t just a hired gun or a lookout—she was the force behind the planning and execution of the crime, the leader of, and key to, the whole sordid and fantastic affair. The men who accompanied her were merely muscle.

None of them had the knowledge of Russborough House’s holdings to target it and wouldn’t have known what to select from the walls even if they had. But Rose knew, and she chose very well. In fact, even if she had left behind the Vermeer during the Russborough House job (an oversight she would never have made), most of the other eighteen works would still qualify her take as among the greatest in art theft history. Yet more incredibly, this was likely not Dugdale’s only foray into stealing masterpieces. Source: The True Story of Rose Dugdale, The Woman Who Stole Vermeer ‹ CrimeReads

Dugdale was released from prison after serving for more than five years. She now lives in Dublin, Ireland, and has never spoken or written extensively about her activities with the Irish Republican Army.


The New York Review of Books has this review of Amore’s book: A Vermeer for the IRA | by Ruth Bernard Yeazell | The New York Review of Books



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