A Carte de Visite announcing a reward for the stolen painting

The case of the legless duchess

A tale that proves the media and the public still thrill to an art theft

On Art

This article is taken from the August/September 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The modern obsessions with the intertwined themes of art value and art theft can be traced back to 1876. Then, Thomas Agnew & Sons in London put on display Gainsborough’s bravura portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. The portrait was not just a spectacular work of art — as vivacious as its subject — but had just become the most expensive painting ever sold at auction.

The picture had not been seen for 50 years and had belonged to a Mrs Maginnis, who had thought nothing of chopping off the Duchess’s legs so that the picture would fit above her mantelpiece. The lopped aristocrat was discovered there by a London art dealer named John Bentley who bought it for £56 and it then entered the collection of an art aficionado named Wynn Ellis.

Worth was passing himself off as a gentleman of means and leisure in London society

On his death, Agnew’s bought it for 10,000 guineas before selling it to Junius Morgan for a record $50,000. Morgan père wanted the portrait as a present for his son, John Pierpont — J.P. Morgan — and agreed that the dealers could show the picture for a few weeks in their showroom before he took possession of it.

The discovery and sale of the picture made a splash in the press and the Duchess became a celebrity all over again. However, the much trumpeted price also alerted an American thief, Adam Worth, then living in London under a false name, Henry J. Raymond — a moniker pinched with some humour from the founder editor of the New York Times. Worth, who took pride in never using violence in his exploits, was passing himself off as a gentleman of means and leisure in London society.

The detail provided by the newspapers convinced Worth to steal the Gainsborough and ransom it back to Agnew’s in return for them paying the bail needed to free his brother John from prison. So at midnight on 27 May, with a top hat on his head and two accomplices by his side, he headed for Bond Street, climbed 15 feet to a first floor window, muscled it open with a crowbar, cut the painting from its frame, rolled it up and hid it under his coat, climbed down again and disappeared into the night while the gallery custodian slept on. The crime was a sensation and a reward of $25,000 was offered for the painting’s return.

He travelled with the Duchess secreted in a hidden compartment at the bottom of his trunk

The second part of Worth’s plan did not go so smoothly. His brother’s lawyer managed to get John out of jail so the ransom was not needed. Instead, Adam Worth kept the unsaleable painting and seems to have formed some sort of bond with it.

For the next 25 years, as his career as a criminal continued in Britain, America, Europe and South Africa — involving diamond robberies and four years in prison — he travelled with the Duchess secreted in a hidden compartment at the bottom of his trunk. He would take her out at night, put her between two boards, slip her under his mattress and sleep on top of her.

The painting finally made its way home courtesy of another larger-than-life character, a gambler and sometime art dealer named Patrick Francis Sheedy. The pair had met in a gambling house in Chicago. “I had dropped $11,000 and was flat broke,” Sheedy recalled. “Although he was an utter stranger to me, he pushed $2,000 across the table to me, disappearing. I told the story afterward to William Pinkerton [of the Pinkerton Detective Agency].”

Sometime later, Sheedy was running a gambling operation in Constantinople when Worth got in touch, needing the money back to get out of jail. That achieved, “We went to Smyrna together in the same stateroom” and Worth confessed to having stolen and kept the Gainsborough.

Sheedy then acted as his intermediary for its return and the fee he demanded from Agnew’s was “the privilege of making steel engravings from it”. The painting was retrieved from a “storage warehouse in Boston” and was bought by J.P. Morgan, the original intended owner, for a supposed $150,000.

Sheedy in fact did better from the arrangement than he expected. Worth had promised him a painting by Murillo stolen from a monastery in Mexico but he thought nothing of it. On Worth’s death, however, “a stranger came to me at the Sturtevant House, where I was living, and handed me a bulky package” and it was indeed the promised picture.

The exact details of Sheedy’s and Worth’s roles were not originally disclosed. In 1903 an American reporter interested in the case asked Sir Edward Bradford, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, whether the police ever employed former thieves.

Bradford had been attacked by a tiger in India and, having read that a man’s only chance of surviving such an encounter was to stay perfectly still and quiet, lay unflinching as the beast ate his left arm, until rescuers arrived and scared it away. All the stoic commissioner would admit was that his force would occasionally “make use of certain persons whom it is not necessary to name”.

A name, however, is exactly what Worth did acquire. He became known as “the Napoleon of Crime” and Arthur Conan Doyle used him as the model for Professor Moriarty in his Sherlock Holmes stories. For her part, the Duchess stayed with the Morgans until 1994 when the 11th Duke of Devonshire bought the painting at auction and she finally returned home to Chatsworth. Meanwhile, the media and the public still thrill to an art theft.

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