On May 6, 1876, Thomas Gainsborough’s painting, Duchess of Devonshire, causes a stir when it goes up for auction at Christie's in London. It sells to a London art dealer, William Agnew, for $51,540, the highest price ever paid for a painting at auction.
Three weeks later, Agnew displays the painting at his gallery—and it is stolen by Adam Worth.
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 where 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.