The painting Lady Writing a Letter With Her Maid has had an eventful career. A prime example of painter Johann Vermeer's subtle and dignified genre paintings, it has seen its value soar and has been stolen twice, its criminal misadventures helping to illuminate the murky connections between stolen art and the drug trade.
The Lady Writing a Letter With Her Maid was painted around 1670. It shows a woman intently writing a letter, while her maid calmly looks on. Both figures are side lit, the light from the window highlighting the maid's serenity and the lady's intensity.
Renewed appreciation of the work of Vermeer saw the Lady Writing a Letter With Her Maid emerge from obscurity in Vienna in 1881, ending up in Paris where it was bought by Alfred Beit around the turn of the twentieth century and taken to London. It was in his collection when he died in 1906, passing to his younger brother Sir Otto Beit. On Otto's death in 1930, it passed to his son, Sir Alfred.
In 1952 Sir Alfred and Lady Beit purchased Russborough House in Ireland, where they installed their art collection, one of the finest in the country. It was at Russborough on the night 26 April 1974 that the Lady Writing a Letter With Her Maid ceased to be just a masterpiece and became loot. Three men and one woman drove out to Russborough, tied up the house's occupants, and stole 19 pictures, among them the Vermeer.
Stolen paintings usually disappear for a long time, but in this case they were retrieved within a few weeks. The recovered pictures were sent to the National Gallery of Ireland, where they could be inspected and any damage repaired. In his book The Irish Game, author Matthew Hart reports that conservator Andrew O'Connor had to remove the Vermeer's entire varnish layer in order to repair the deeper damage. In so doing he removed a section of more recent paint to reveal a red wax seal on the room's floor tiles, a discovery which gave the picture an added emotional dimension.
The paintings returned to Russborough, where they became the main draw when the Beits opened the house to the public. As one of the finest, and most valuable, art collections in Ireland, the paintings certainly attracted attention, including that of Martin Cahill, a notorious gangster known as The General. And so it was that the Lady Writing a Letter With Her Maid was stolen once again, in May 1986.
This time it took rather longer for the paintings to be recovered. There were whispers about loot being hidden somewhere in the Wicklow Mountains, but few solid leads. However a rising art market meant Cahill's haul was worth somewhere in the region of one hundred million dollars. His attempts to unload his haul brought him up against a special unit of the Garda, as well as Scotland Yard, and would ultimately prove his downfall.
It was in September 1993 that the Garda and Scotland Yard's sting bore fruit. Belgian police swooped on a car parked at Antwerp airport, retrieving the Vermeer, and at the same time illuminating the shadowy world of stolen art. As the police later understood the deal, a diamond dealer advanced one million dollars to Cahill, taking the Vermeer as surety. Cahill was to buy drugs with the advance, and repay the diamond dealer with interest. The Vermeer was rescued in the nick of time, before it disappeared into this murky underworld for good.
Today the Lady Writing a Letter With Her Maid can be seen at the National Gallery of Ireland, amid much improved security.
Vermeer, The Complete Works, by Arthur K Wheeler, Jr (Harry N Abrams Inc. Publishers, 1997)
The Irish Game, by Matthew Hart (Vintage, 2004)