Thomas Gainsborough’s painting, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire was auctioned in London, England, nearly 100 years after it disappeared into obscurity. The portrait of Georgiana Spencer, an ancestor of Princess Diana, sold for 10,000 guineas, the highest price ever paid for a work of art up until that time.
However, the auction price it fetched is not the portrait’s greatest claim to fame. The portrait was painted circa 1785 as a whole length portrait by Thomas Gainsborough (1728-1788) and titled Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. In the 1830’s, its owner, an elderly schoolmistress named Miss Anne Maginnis, cut it down to fit over her fireplace. In 1841 she sold it to a picture dealer, John Bentley, for 56 pounds, who later gave it to his friend the collector Wynn Ellis. Ellis died in 1875 and part of his collection went for sale at Christie’s. It was bought by William Agnew, the Bond Street dealer, for 10,000 guineas.
On May 26, 1876, the picture was cut from its stretcher during the night and stolen by an international crook, Adam Worth, alias Harry Raymond. Adam Worth, whom Scotland Yard later called the “Napoleon of Crime,” and upon whom Sir Arthur Conan Doyle eventually based Sherlock Holmes’ arch nemesis Dr. Moriarty, stole the artwork in order to come up with the bail to release his brother from jail. However, his brother was freed without his help, so Worth decided to keep the painting, even in the face of serious consequences.
Adam Worth was perhaps the 19th century’s most masterful criminal. Born in Germany but raised in the United States, Worth joined the Union Army in the Civil War. After erroneously being reported killed in the Second Battle of Bull Run, he spent the rest of the war hopping from one regiment to another, collecting money to join and then immediately deserting. After the war, he made his way to New York, where he joined a gang of pickpockets.
A conviction for robbery resulted in a three-year sentence at Sing Sing Prison. However, Worth escaped after only a few weeks and vowed to be more careful in the future. Using the alias Henry Raymond, Worth took up a lucrative career robbing banks before moving his criminal exploits to Europe. With perfectly planned heists and a consistent forgery operation, Worth avoided all violent encounters and established himself in respectable society.
Yet the theft of the Duchess of Devonshire led to his eventual downfall. His co-conspirators, Joe Elliot and Junka Phillips, were angered by the fact that they weren’t financially rewarded for stealing the valuable painting. When Worth refused to divulge its whereabouts, Elliot and Phillips went to the police and Worth was sent to prison, albeit on other charges. Following his release four years later in 1897, Worth returned to America. After a change of heart, he began negotiations with the Pinkerton Detective Agency for the ransom of the painting.
The Duchess of Devonshire was finally returned to England in 1901. J. P. Morgan, Wall Street’s biggest financier, promptly made the journey to obtain the painting for himself. He purportedly paid as much as $150,000 for it. Worth, who had received relatively little for his ransom, died a year later, penniless.
The picture remained in Morgan’s family until on July 13, 1994, when the Chatsworth House Trust in the U.K. bought the portrait at Sotheby’s. By a strange and winding path, the Gainsborough portrait ended up where it had always belonged — at Chatsworth.