Elaine and The Duchess: stolen sisters

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Feb 5, 2013

The 1870s saw a curious pair of art thefts, which eventually played into the story of two of the great detectives chronicled in Brilliant Deduction. In 1875, Toby Rosenthal’s portrait of Elaine vanished from a show in San Francisco.

Elaine, by Rosenthal. 1874.

Since moved to Chicago

Just one year later, Thomas Gainsborough’s Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire disappeared from a London gallery.

By Thomas Gainsborough, 1787

That is a serious hat, madam.

The intersection of the two paintings’ histories is otherwise very slight. The works both feature a grand woman depicted in a traditional western style, but the Duchess is an 18th century portrait while the Elaine is a mythological tableaux from the late 19th century. Both were the focus of considerable excitement following their theft within about a year of one another, but their fates varied promptly thereafter.

The story of the Elaine was a more minor, localized phenomenon, confined mostly to San Francisco, where its creator was born and from where it was stolen. Its theft was also a more brief chapter in that story, as prompt action by Isaiah Lees recovered the painting within days. That was probably the extent of the excitement in the Elaine‘s history, to date. Artistic tastes and values are always subject to change, but I believe it’s safe to say that thus far the art establishment has yet to place Rosenthal and the Elaine in quite the same category as Gainsborough and his Duchess. Meanwhile, the two paintings’ thefts have diverged even further in terms of fame. This account of Elaine‘s 1875 display in San Francisco describes various forms of local hoopla—”over 8000 people paid 25 cents each to see it. Before the enthusiasm died down, a number of Elaine clubs had been formed, an Elaine waltz had been written, and someone had even thought of selling ‘Elaine cigars'”—and yet no mention of its dramatic excursion is made whatsoever.

By contrast, articles on the Duchess are both plentiful and nearly uniform in their making mention of its own adventure. The reasons aren’t complicated; as the old saying declares, “people may not know art but they know what they like,” and they certainly like a good crime story however else tastes may vary. And as a true-crime story, the theft of the Duchess was far and away the winner, from the very start. In the 1870s, San Francisco was a bustling city but rather “off the beaten track” compared with today, whereas London was probably as prominent as it has ever been in its 2,000-year history. The Duchess was an older, better known and more valuable painting. Most important of all, though, its disappearance could hardly have been more different from the relatively amateur and quickly-solved theft of the Elaine.

The Duchess vanished, and stayed vanished, for 25 years. The theft’s identity was guessed at the time and eventually confirmed, upon the painting’s return… but any deficiency in mystery is more than compensated for by the fact that Adam Worth was and remains considered one of the master criminals of all time. (My book is probably one of the few accounts of Worth of any length which does not claim that he was Doyle’s model for Professor Moriarty.) The combination of the Duchess, Worth and the Pinkertons has achieved considerably greater and more lasting fame than the minor story of Lees and the Elaine.

Though, in fairness, as feats of detection go the latter is definitely the winner, even if it was a lesser mystery. Compare and judge for yourself, though.

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