As I look back on the first great art heist at Russborough House in Blessington, Co. Wicklow, and the theft of its priceless paintings, I think of a secret treasure that lay there at the time – a treasure that the scrutinizing eyes of the world’s media were unexpected . A treasure even Sir Alfred and Lady Beit were unaware of.
When I go on vacation I see things that remind me of this mystery, most notably the nude statue of David in the main square in Florence and the paintings in the Uffizi Gallery. Because they, in turn, remind me of the bonfire of vanity, where an overzealous priest burned many of Italy’s treasures because they were considered sinful.
This was in the 15th century and the priest was the Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola. He preached hellfire and damnation and warned people that if certain works were not destroyed, they would suffer the wrath of God. So his followers collected thousands of items, including books and paintings, even mirrors and cosmetics, and burned them in Florence and elsewhere in Italy. Objectionable sculptures were also destroyed.
You could say that such a thing couldn’t happen here, but it did at Russborough House. As if history were to repeat itself – albeit on a much smaller scale – statues of gods and a goddess were desecrated when a priest deemed them sinful for revealing too much of their genitals.
What happened to the statues remained a closely guarded secret for more than 50 years. Even in 1974, when the estate was turned upside down after paintings by Rose Dugdale and other members of the IRA were stolen, their fate remained a secret.
But in 1985, just before Martin Cahill’s gang carried out the second painting theft, an associate heard the story about the statues and decided to investigate.
It concerned Captain Denis Daly of Loughrea in Co Galway, who bought Russborough in 1931. According to the story, a priest at Ballymore Eustace denounced the naked statues in the mansion as the work of the devil and warned that if they were not removed from Russborough would suffer the wrath of God and burst into flames.
A staunch Catholic, Capt Daly took the priest’s words to heart. He had several ancient Roman statues loaded onto a horse-drawn cart and driven to the lake on the front lawn, where they were smashed and buried in swampy ground.
Daly sold the house and estate to Sir Alfred and Lady Beit in 1952, but apparently did not tell them about the statues. As a result, Sir Alfred said he was pleasantly surprised when Russborough’s administrator, retired Army officer Lt. Col. Michael O’Shea, in October 1985, showed fragments of the statues.
After hearing how the statues had been disposed of, O’Shea located the place where they were buried and had them dug up. They were dirty and broken, Sir Alfred recalled, and it was agreed between him, his wife and O’Shea that they should be cleaned and valued. However, the art heist by the Cahill gang in May 1986 delayed all action against them.
Lady Beit said that in October 1986, while discussing plans with O’Shea at Russborough House for the 1987 season, she suggested that the statues be displayed.
He was “visibly shaken” and “pretty white”. He said he threw them in Lake Poulaphouca because they got in the way and “I blew my top”.
Sir Alfred said when O’Shea told him what he had done with the statues: “I was taken aback – it’s the only word I can use” and the meeting ended “very abruptly”.
However, Gardaí discovered that O’Shea had in fact sold the statues at an auction in London. As a result, he was accused of stealing “£90,000 worth of Roman marble statues”. The discussions the Beits had with him about the statues were heard at his 1989 trial at the Circuit Criminal Court in Dublin.
Prosecutors told the jury the law affirms that anything found on property belongs to the owner, regardless of whether the owner knows it is there.
O’Shea, 73, from Shanacashel Cross, Glencar, Co Kerry, admitted he, with the help of another employee, used a JCB to dig up the statues from “a disused, filled-in pond” and had them sold in London and shared the £90,000 between them.
However, he argued that after the High Court’s decision in favor of the Derrynaflan Hoard, he honestly believed whatever was found belonged to both of them.
This was a reference to a hoard of liturgical vessels, including the famous Derrynaflan Chalice, found in Co Tipperary by two people using a metal detector. The High Court ruled in 1986 that the finders should return the treasure or its value, which is estimated at IR £5.5 million. However, in 1987 the Supreme Court ruled that the treasure belonged to the state, not the finders, and they received a reward of IR£50,000.
At least the jury at O’Shea’s did The trial couldn’t agree on a verdict, and that was it. But not quite. I’m told half the proceeds were reclaimed because the person who helped O’Shea dig paid back his cut.
However, it does not appear that any of the statues were returned to Russborough. The most valuable, the Venus Genetrix, is now in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
According to the museum’s website, it came into the possession of a couple in New York who donated it to the museum in 1996.
Photos of the statue show that it was indeed damaged, as it is missing its head, right arm and part of its left arm. Despite this, the goddess of love is still a very imposing figure. As the website says, she stands “clad in a sheer, form-fitting garment that exposes one breast and emphasizes her body underneath, particularly her genitals.” In other words, they revealed the features that had so offended the priest at Ballymore Eustace all those years ago.
Tom McCaughren was formerly a security correspondent for RTÉ
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/crime/bonfire-of-the-vanities-the-secret-treasures-buried-at-russborough-41466556.html Bonfire of the Vanities – the secret treasures buried in Russborough