In 1876, a British dandy whose real name was Adam Worth stole Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, from Junius Morgan, who planned to give her to his son.
Junius Morgan was a wealthy Hartford banker living in London, father of the famous robber baron J.P. Morgan.
Adam Worth claimed to be a rich sporting gentleman named Henry J. Raymond. He made his living robbing people too, only in ways that broke the law.
Georgiana was a beautiful and wanton duchess who fascinated the English Victorians, as would her great-great-great-grandniece, Princess Diana, a century later. Thomas Gainsborough had painted her in one of his most admired portraits, Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire. Junius had started to collect European paintings, and he had his heart set on buying Georgiana. Only Adam Worth eloped with her first.
Adam Worth, born a German Jew in 1844, emigrated to Cambridge, Mass., in the wave that brought Forty Eighters to America. The Forty-Eighters came to escape the fighting in Europe over German unification.
Worth ran away from home to Boston at the age of 10, and then to New York City. He began his criminal career as a soldier in the Union Army during the Civil War. Wounded in battle, he learned the army listed him as killed in action. So he became a bounty jumper, enlisting for the money and then deserting.
After the war his petty crimes of pickpocketing escalated into major heists. He broke a safecracker named Charley Bullard out of jail and together they robbed the Boylston National Bank in Boston of $1 million. When they realized Pinkerton detectives had discovered their trail, they moved to London.
Adam Worth began organizing heists while living in a fashionable neighborhood as Henry J. Raymond. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle later said he modeled Sherlock Holmes’ arch-enemy, the criminal mastermind Moriarty, after Adam Worth.
By 1876, the Gainsborough painting of Georgiana had been reproduced many times in prints, on biscuit tins and on chinaware. An art dealer named William Agnew bought her for a little over 10,000 pounds, the highest price ever paid for a painting. So when he put Georgiana on display at his Bond Street gallery in London, crowds gathered to look at it.
Junius Morgan, who already owned several Gainsboroughs, read about Georgiana in The Times. Years earlier he had hired a genealogist and discovered he was related through his mother, Sally Spencer, to the duchess’s family. Though an extremely distant relationship, Junius took pride in it. And he decided to buy Georgiana as a princely gift to his son, the robber baron.
He dropped into the gallery and bought the painting on the spot for an undisclosed sum, probably around 15,000 pounds. But Agnew insisted that Junius allow him to display the painting for some weeks longer.
That gave Adam Worth time to plan his heist.
Worth claimed he stole the painting because he needed bail to spring his brother John from prison. He thought he could hold the painting hostage, asking the gallery owner to post bond for John in exchange for Georgiana.
Around midnight on May 27, 1876, Adam Worth put on his most fashionable clothes and a top hat for his date with the duchess. He brought along two accomplices to keep watch and to help him break into the gallery.
Once inside the Bond Street gallery, he cut the painting from its frame and rolled it up, paint side facing outward. He took the painting home, and it remained in his possession for the next 25 years.
John Worth got out of prison on a technicality, so Adam Worth didn’t need to sell the painting. He couldn’t have, anyway. The theft received as much publicity as the heist from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum did decades later. Georgiana’s image was everywhere, and she had become too recognizable to sell without being caught. For years, though, people claimed they saw the painting much as they thought they saw Elvis after he died.
Adam Worth continued his life of crime, stealing property but never physically hurting anyone. After his theft of Georgiana he went to South Africa, where he stole $500,000 in uncut diamonds. Then he sold them through a diamond company he set up in London. He married, had two children and moved to the United States, where he smuggled the painting in a trunk with a false bottom.
In 1892, Adam Worth got caught robbing a money delivery cart in Belgium. He received a seven-year prison sentence, but won his release in five years for good behavior.
Upon his release he stole $4,000 worth of diamonds in London for his living expenses. Then he returned to the United States to visit his wife and children. While there he met with William Pinkerton and confessed everything about his life of crime. Pinkerton wrote it all down and published a book about him. He nicknamed Worth 'the Napoleon of Crime.' Called Adam Worth, Alias 'Little Adam' by the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, you can read it here.
Through William Pinkerton, Adam Worth arranged for the return of Georgiana in exchange for $25,000. The painting and the money were exchanged in Chicago on March 28, 1901. Then Adam Worth went straight and became a Pinkerton detective. He died in London on Jan. 8, 1902.
J.P. Morgan had already amassed a huge and priceless collection of art when he heard that Georgiana had resurfaced. The painting fascinated him, probably because of its huge cost and because his late father wanted it for him. And, possibly, because he had a string of fashionable mistresses not unlike Georgiana.
He contacted William Agnew, the dealer who repossessed the painting, and asked him to restore the painting and charge him whatever he thought a fair price for it. He had never laid eyes on it. Newspapers tried but couldn’t learn the price he paid. Morgan himself said, “If the truth came out, I might be considered a candidate for the lunatic asylum.”
He actually paid $150,000 for Georgiana.
The Morgan heirs kept Georgiana in the family for many years, once putting it on display briefly at the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford.
In 1994, they sold the painting to the Chatsworth House Trust for 265,000 pounds. Georgiana now hangs at Chatsworth, seat of the Duke of Devonshire and her original home.
This story was updated in 2019.