In 1876, Junius Morgan, a wealthy Hartford banker living in London, had started at age 63 to collect European paintings. He had his heart set on buying one of Thomas Gainsborough’s most admired portraits, Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire.
But Adam Worth got to it first.
For 25 years, people thought they saw Georgiana in much the same way they saw Elvis after he died. And for 25 years, Adam Worth committed so many nonviolent felonies he was called 'the Napoleon of Crime.'
Adam Worth was a German Jew who emigrated to Cambridge, Mass., at the age of 5. His father worked as a tailor. He 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 he’d been listed 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 escalating into 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. Worth continued his criminal career, robbing pawnshops and then setting up an illegal gambling den in Paris.
With the Pinkertons again on his trail, Adam Worth moved back to London and began organizing a series of heists. The 35-year-old criminal mastermind was living in a fashionable section of London as a rich sporting gentleman named Henry J. Raymond.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle admitted he modeled Sherlock Holmes’ arch-enemy, the criminal mastermind Moriarty, after Adam Worth.
A dealer named William Agnew had bought Georgiana for a little over 10,000 pounds, the highest price ever paid for a painting.
The beautiful and wanton Georgiana fascinated the English Victorians as would her great-great-great-grandniece, Princess Diana a century later. The Gainsborough painting of her had been reproduced many times in prints, on biscuit tins and on chinaware.
So when William Agnew 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 J.P. Morgan.
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 elopement 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 possessionth him 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.
Adam Worth continued his life of crime, stealing property but never physically hurting anyone. After stealing 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.
He immediately stole $4,000 worth of diamonds in London for his living expenses, then returned to the United States to visit his wife and children. While there he met with William Pinkerton and told him all about his life of crime. Pinkerton wrote it all down.
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.