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Stolen by IRA and infamous Dublin gangster, the painting that the Ulster Museum will be keeping a very close eye on

By Ivan Little

A painting by a Dutch master that was stolen three times in the Republic - including by the IRA and by notorious Dublin gangster 'The General' - has turned up in Belfast, and this time it is all above board.

The 17th century work The Cornfield, by acclaimed landscape artist Jacob van Ruisdael, has gone on display amid tight security at the Ulster Museum, whose officials believe its decidedly colourful history - which also has a UVF link - will make it a huge draw.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Provos' theft was the fact that they even offered to return a number of their snatched artworks in exchange for the transfer of IRA prisoners, including sisters Marian and Dolours Price, from British to Irish jails.

The Cornfield was among 19 paintings stolen in 1974 when an IRA gang that included British heiress Dr Rose Dugdale raided Russborough House in Co Wicklow, the stately home of art collector Sir Alfred Beit, a former British MP.

Sir Alfred (71) and his wife were pistol-whipped before the gang made off with their £8m haul, which included a Vermeer, a Goya, two Gainsboroughs, three Rubens and the van Ruisdael.

Several weeks after the IRA demanded the prisoner transfers - and a ransom of £500,000 - all the paintings were recovered in a raid by Garda officers on a rented cottage in Glandore, Co Cork.

Dr Dugdale, the daughter of a millionaire, was jailed for nine years for the robbery and for other IRA offences.

However, in 1986 many of the Beit paintings, including The Cornfield, were stolen again from Russborough House by a 13-strong gang in what was the Republic's biggest ever art theft.

On that occasion the culprits were Dublin criminals led by the infamous Martin Cahill, portrayed by Brendan Gleeson in 1998 movie The General.

The paintings proved hard for Cahill to sell, although he did find an unlikely potential buyer for some of them - the UVF - through shadowy and indirect conduits.

All of the paintings were eventually recovered during operations by police in Belgium, Turkey and England.

Cahill is thought to have made somewhere between £600,000 and £800,000 for paintings, which could have fetched anywhere between £20m and £50m on the legitmate market.

The Cornfield was stolen for a third time from Russborough House in 2002, before being returned once more to the Beit collection.

It has now been given to National Museums Northern Ireland through what is known as an 'acceptance in lieu' scheme.

The painting was offered by the trustees of the Alfred Beit Foundation in lieu of tax. The deal has settled a tax bill worth £1m.

Chair of the Alfred Beit Foundation Judith Woodworth said: "This is a win-win for everyone.

"It is fantastic that the painting will be displayed in Belfast and spreads the Beits' fabulous legacy across the island of Ireland."

The artwork was also welcomed by chief executive of National Museums NI, Kathryn Thomson.

She said: "We are thrilled to have it.

"The Ulster Museum holds a small but important collection of 17th century Dutch paintings and the undisputed beauty of The Cornfield will significantly enhance this collection and captivate visitors."

The Cornfield will be on display in the Life and Light Dutch and Italian Painting exhibition at the museum.

Admission to the museum is free.

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