Princesse de Lamballe, who was Marie Antoinette‘s friend and her Superintendent of the Household, married the heir of the richest man in France. Because the princesse was royalty and because she was rich, many people were intrigued by her and many portraits were painted of her. One well-known painting that is currently displayed at Versailles was done by Antoine-François Callet in 1776. Another painting was painted by Louis-Édouard Rioult between 1780 and 1785 and appeared on a supplementary issue of Le Petit Journal in 1892. Another person who painted the princesse de Lamballe was one of Marie Antoinette’s favorite painters, Madame Le Brun. Yet, perhaps of all the paintings of the princesse, one particular painting bears mention because it was stolen in an art heist in the 1980s.
The painting that was stolen was the “Portrait of the Princesse de Lamballe” painted by Antoine Vestier. He was born in Burgundy and was a French miniaturist and painter of portraits. He trained under Jean-Baptiste Pierre before being admitted to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in 1785. Besides painting the Princesse de Lamballe, Vestier also painted such people as Jean Henri Riesener (the royal cabinet-maker), Jean Thurel (a fusilier in the French Army whose career spanned over 90 years), and Madame de Montesson (mistress to Louis Philippe d’Orléans, Duke of Orléans, who ultimately became his wife).
Around the time Princesse de Lamballe became Superintendent of the Household for Marie Antoinette, Vestier painted her picture. Exactly where the portrait hung afterwards is unclear. However, in the early 1900s, Vestier’s painting of the princesse de Lamballe captured the attention of Sir Otto John Beit, a German-born British financier, philanthropist, and art connoisseur. He like it so much he purchased it. He then displayed it at his London residence located at 49 Belgrave Square. Otto Beit died in 1930, and his son, Alfred, had the princesse’s portrait taken to his mansion in Kensington Palace Gardens in 1938.
In 1952, Alfred purchased the stately Russborough house to display his impressively large art collection. Vestier’s painting of the princesse, which was in an oval frame at the time, was hung in the music room over the fireplace’s mantle. Besides Vestier’s painting of the princesse de Lamballe, Beit also possessed paintings by Goya, Thomas Gainsborough, and Vermeer. The Beits lived happily among these painting until 5 May 1974 when nineteen paintings were stolen. Fortunately, the princesse de Lamballe’s portrait was not among those stolen and all the nineteen paintings were soon recovered.
In the 1980s, a notorious Dublin criminal named Martin Cahill, better known as “The General,” was under surveillance by the Irish police. The police had nothing to charge him with other than their suspicions and the fact they thought Cahill was a one-man crime wave. While under police surveillance, Cahill made several visits to Russborough House and the police never suspected that he had devised a highly sophisticated and organized plan to steal certain paintings from the Beit collection.
Cahill’s plan went into effect on the evening of 21 May 1986. At that time, Cahill and his gang of sixteen men met in the woods and then hid on the grounds of Russborough. Then Cahill entered the house by cutting through a pane of glass, which he replaced. When the alarm went off Cahill disabled the security system so that when the system reset, it would not go off again. In the meantime, the alarm alerted police and as they were nearby, they quickly arrived.
The Beit’s were away and so the police woke up the staff at the Russborough House. The staff checked the first floor and found nothing wrong. Everyone assumed it was a false alarm and the police left. The gang waited patiently and when everything was quiet again, they made their move. Within six minutes they had eighteen valuable paintings in their possession. Among the paintings stolen this time was Vermeer’s “Lady Writing a Letter,” which was conservatively estimated to be worth £20 million, and also Vestier’s painting of the princesse de Lamballe.
The thieves used two jeeps to transport the paintings. For some unknown reason seven of the paintings were abandoned shortly thereafter by a nearby lake, but Vestier’s painting of the princesse de Lamballe was not among the seven abandoned. Most of the remaining eleven paintings were stashed in a pre-built bunker in the Dublin Mountains and the gang went on their way.
Making the theft more interesting was that about an hour after the robbery police stopped Cahill in Terenure. When news of the heist broke, as Terenure was a considerable distance from the Russborough House, police believed it highly unlikely Cahill or his gang committed the crime. Thus, police began to search for other thieves related to the Beit theft.
At the time, the Beit theft was considered the biggest art robbery in the world. Because of this it generated a lot of news coverage and was highly publicized. Cahill originally believed he would make a fortune from the stolen paintings. However, he soon found it impossible to sell them on the open market or to underworld crime figures because of the publicity surrounding the heist. This made it extremely difficult for Cahill to dispose of the artworks, and, in the meantime, everyone connected with the theft remained quiet.
Eventually, in 1990, word leaked out that one of Cahill’s associate, Tommy Coyle, had failed in an attempt to broker a deal with the IRA for one of the stolen paintings from the Beit collection. Coyle had instead sold a painting to a paramilitary group in Northern Ireland called the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). Police were unsure which painting the UVF possessed, but they began to watch them. Soon police learned the UVF was planning to sell the painting to some Turkish dealers. As the sale was underway, the police burst in and recovered Metsu’s “A Woman Reading a Letter,” which was the first painting from the Beit robbery of 1986 to be recovered.
In the meantime, Cahill was becoming more desperate. He wanted to sell the remaining paintings. Just when it seemed as if Cahill might never get rid of the paintings, he found interest in Antwerp, Belgium, thanks to a criminal associate named Niall Mulvihill. Rumors on the street claimed that seven of the stolen paintings were about to be sold. So, Irish police, in conjunction with Scotland Yard, followed the stolen Beit paintings across the Irish Sea to Wales. From Wales the paintings headed to London where a raid was conducted and all but four of the paintings were recovered.
The four paintings not recovered, which included Vestier’s portrait of the princesse de Lamballe, had been hidden in the bottom of a truck and all four paintings were on their way to Belgium. When the paintings appeared in Belgium, Mulvihill traded them to a crooked diamond dealer for a million dollars. He also used the paintings as an advance on a future drug deal for Cahill. The diamond dealer placed the paintings in a Belgium bank vault for safe keeping about the same time that Scotland Yard investigators decided to go undercover: One Scotland Yard agent named Charley Hill pretended to be a corrupt American businessman looking for paintings for a rich Middle Eastern client, and a deal was struck.
Hill and his bodyguard — a fellow agent — met Mulvihill and the diamond dealer in the Antwerp airport parking lot on 2 September 1993. Hill and the agents couldn’t have been more anxious as Mulvihill opened the trunk of his car. There for the first time in seven years they laid eyes on Goya’s “Doña Antonia Zárate,” Metsu’s “Man Writing a Letter,” Vermeer’s “Lady Writing a Letter with Her Maid,” and Vestier’s “Portrait of the Princesse de Lamballe.” A signal was given and Mulvihill and the diamond dealer were thrown to the ground, handcuffed, and arrested.
Unfortunately, despite the recovery in Belgium, three paintings remained missing. These were Ruben’s oil, “Head of a Man,” and two small 18th-century Venetian landscapes by Francesco Guardi. Fortunately, in 2002, Ruben’s painting was recovered, but both the Venetian landscapes remain missing. Most people believe the paintings are lost forever because Cahill is said to have buried them somewhere in the Dublin mountains in a spot that he only knew. Unfortunately, he was assassinated in 1994, which means there is faint hope they will ever be found.
Even though it took years to recover sixteen of the eighteen paintings stolen in the Beit’s robbery of 1986, it is lucky sixteen were found (some damaged). Other art robberies, such as the Boston’s Isabella Steward Gardner Museum theft that occurred in the early morning hours of 18 March 1990, have not resulted in a similar recovery. As for Vestier’s portrait of the princesse de Lamballe that was missing for seven years, it was returned to Russborough House shortly after its discovery. Today, Russborough visitors can see it hanging in its original spot in the music room over the fireplace.