On April 12th 1956, two Irish students stole one of the 39 contested Hugh Lane paintings from the prestigious Tate Gallery in London.
Dubliner Paul Hogan (25), studying at the Dublin College of Art, and his companion Bill Fogarty, a veterinary student from Galway, took the Jour D’Ete (Summer’s Day) by Berthe Morisot and kept it for four days. The painting was worth £10,000, now about £7 million.
The action was taken to highlight the popular feeling that Lane’s paintings should have been on display in Dublin and not London. Hugh Lane, a successful art dealer, had originally bequeathed his collection of modern paintings to Ireland but he then made a second will and left everything to London’s Tate Gallery. However, Lane, shortly before he died in a shipwreck in 1915, wrote yet another will leaving everything to a gallery in Dublin. Because no one witnessed this will, the English courts refused to recognise it as a legal document. For the following decades, there were various unsuccessful attempts by those in the Arts community and in the government in Ireland to claim the paintings back.
After reading an article about the situation in 1959, Hogan and pal Fogarty started talking:
“I told my friend Bill Fogarty about it and he said why didn’t someone do something about it? By the end of the evening it was, why don’t WE do something? (The) idea was simple – a Dublin man should go and claim it because the collection should have been in Dublin (1)
Hogan recalls the action:
The approach we adopted was the most obvious one, the theory that normal behavior attracts no attention. I was an art student and I had a portfolio and I had established certain rights in the gallery but I had been working there for some days and I was a familiar figure so I was allowed to move through the gallery and extraordinarily out of the gallery with this valuable painting. (2)
While Fogarty pretended to make a copy of the painting on a sketchpad, Hogan lifted it off the wall and put it inside the large portfolio he had brought with him for that purpose. They worked quickly and it only took a moment to hide the painting.
I was to run out the front door with it where a photographer was waiting to take a picture. I thought I would probably then be overpowered. We hoped we would get a modest amount of publicity and force the authorities to do something. We thought we might spend a few days in jail but that would be it.
The statement made via the Irish National Student Council (INSC) was headline news:
The authority for this action is the codicil to the will of Hugh Lane, dated 1915, bequeathing the 39 treasures to the City of Dublin. This action has been taken in the Irish National Interest.
(In October of the previous year, members of the INSC had occupied Nelson’s Pillar. Dropping a banner of Kevin Barry over the edge, they tried to melt Nelson’s statue with homemade “flame throwers”.)
They hid the painting in the flat of an Irish female friend in London and four days days later, a companion of the duo handed the painting in to the Irish embassy. “We didn’t want to keep it. The whole point of the robbery was to get people talking about the situation.” remembers Hogan
By 1959, just three years after the raid, agreement was reached between Ireland and the UK that the paintings would be shared. In 1979, London ceded many more (on long-term loan), and in 1993, the Hugh Lane Director, Barbara Dawson negotiated a ‘rotating arrangement’ for the major Impressionist painting. Jour D’Ete finally returned to Dublin in 1999 along with the 38 other pieces.
Hogan in later life was employed by Ireland’s Export Promotions Board, Coras Trachtala Teo.
Fogarty passed away in 2002. This spurred on Hogan to tell the full story story of their dramatic escapade to RTE Radio. A 26mins documentary, ‘Coup De Tate‘, was made by RTE television in 2003.
He has no regrets:
The whole point of the thing was to kick start negotiations. Because of what we did talks had to start and a settlement resulted. It is the reason that some of the most famous paintings in the world now hang in the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin
(1) The People, 15 December 2002
(2) Paul Hogan, RTE Radio archive, John Bowman show, April, 2008.