Home Art & Culture How Rose Dugdale Went From British Debutante to I.R.A. ‘Freedom Fighter’

How Rose Dugdale Went From British Debutante to I.R.A. ‘Freedom Fighter’

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The road to Russborough was paved with misadventure. Amore’s winning detachment is unchanged as Rose evolves from debutante to desperado. She tried to enlist Wally’s cousin-in-law, an associate of East London’s infamous Kray brothers, to orchestrate criminal activities in aid of the I.R.A., but he balked at the prospect of committing treason and turned police informant. In June 1973, Rose and Wally burglarized her family’s estate while they were out at the Epsom Derby, depositing the valuables at the flat of a former tutor. At the open-and-shut trial, she made feeble denials while proclaiming herself “a freedom fighter”; frequently kissed Wally in the dock; and disparaged her put-upon parents as “gangsters, thieves and oppressors of the poor.” Wally was sentenced to six years in prison, while Rose’s two-year suspended sentence was delivered with sexist condescension and what Amore calls “a legendary display of poor character evaluation.” The judge was, to be sure, wildly off the mark: “I think the risk that you will ever again commit burglary or any dishonesty is extremely remote.”

Within the year, Dugdale was dropping bombs on the police station at the Irish town of Strabane. In keeping with the element of farce, the explosives failed to detonate, but still she declared the fiasco “operationally very important and exciting.” A local official enjoyed witnessing his “enemy making a fool of himself.” Undaunted, Dugdale shifted her sights to Russborough House and its famous — and poorly guarded — collection of pictures assembled by the South African diamond magnate Sir Alfred Beit and his brother, Otto.

Alfred’s nephew (and namesake) and his wife were at home on the night of April 26, 1974. Dugdale, her new boyfriend and two accomplices bound, gagged and insulted the Beits (“capitalist pig” was the disappointing extent of it) and swiped 19 important paintings by Gainsborough, Goya, Rubens, Velázquez, Vermeer — to whom fewer than 40 works are fully attributed today — and others from their frames. The estimated £8 million haul was recovered upon Rose’s capture 10 days later.

For her first three days in captivity, Rose refused to confirm her identity or remove her brunette wig. The I.R.A. disavowed the robbery. The ensuing trial concluded with Rose’s solemn, semi-coherent peroration and the jury’s near-immediate verdict. This time, she got nine years in prison.

Amore’s publisher has falsely advertised his droll, engaging book as an “unbelievable” heist story. “Ocean’s 8” (or 11, 12, 13) it’s not, Dugdale is more Fawlty than Ocean. Yet this in no way diminishes the pleasures of “The Woman Who Stole Vermeer.” Rose is terrific company: clever, forthright and flamboyant. (During her incarceration, she wed, gave birth and petitioned for the construction of squash facilities.) She is still alive today — though she did not grant Amore an interview — and is now praised by the former Irish republicans. Her Facebook profile photo is the Russborough Vermeer.

And Rose’s legacy? The historian David Farber has suggested that “the ’60s generation of activists saw themselves as acting in history. ‘The Whole World Is Watching’ — they were literally chanting it in the streets. And that’s the irony that’s heated up this debate so much. Because in the end, well, maybe they weren’t the historical agents of change quite as much as they hoped.” One imagines Rose’s unprintable reply.

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