THE GREAT AUSTIN CLARKE PORTRAIT CAPER by Karl O’Neill
In May of 2007, on my first ever evening in Paris, I took a lift to the top of the Eiffel Tower. I’d sworn I wouldn’t do such a touristy thing, but it was pouring with rain and few tourists were around so I decided to do it and get it out of the way.
The following morning, at breakfast in the Irish Cultural Centre, I spotted the poet John F Deane sitting near me. I took a deep breath and introduced myself and told him we had met once before – over twenty years before – under very different circumstances. He couldn’t remember, so I related to him the story of The Great Austin Clarke Portrait Caper…
Back in the mid-Eighties, I was working in the bank in Ballsbridge, the bug of acting not having quite bitten me as yet. My father had taken early retirement and spent his time absorbed in varied interests, music and painting, dealing in coins and stamps, attending fairs, and taking a stand every Saturday in a co-operative venture near the Halfpenny Bridge on Ormond Quay.
On one of these Saturdays, someone came in and sold my father a painting with a damaged frame. My father recognised the portrait of a young, as-yet-un-silver-haired, Austin Clarke and he had a new frame made for it and asked me to bring it for valuation to the National Gallery. I did so, and was told the portrait was worth about a thousand pounds. Pleased with this, my father then suggested I see if my employer, the Bank, would be interested in it as he knew they had an extensive collection of Irish art. However, while admiring the portrait, the bank said no.
It was then I had a brainwave. I had read somewhere that the relatively new arts organisation, Poetry Ireland, had acquired Austin Clarke’s library. I rang them and spoke to Rory Brennan, and he and fellow-poet John F Deane came to my flat in Sandymount to see the portrait. They were delighted with it and we immediately agreed a deal – eight hundred pounds – only, they didn’t have the money…But, they would raise the sum, and myself and my father would be cordially invited to the unveiling of portrait and library in the near future.
While it took several months – and my father wasn’t always convinced the money would be forthcoming (more than once he uttered under his breath 'effing poets') – the exchange was made and I was delighted that the portrait had found its rightful home.
Several weeks later, I received a phone-call from Rory Brennan. Could I drop down to see him at lunchtime? I asked what it was about. He said he’d prefer to tell me in person.
At lunchtime I called to his house and John F Deane let me in. Rory was on his way, he said, and we sat in silence at opposite ends of a rather large sitting-room. Finally, the door opened, Rory marched in and promptly served me with a solicitor’s letter and proof that the Austin Clarke portrait had been stolen from Trinity College after a fire. And could they have their eight hundred pounds back, please?
I shakily wrote out a cheque and agreed to get my father, who lived in Dundalk, to come down that evening and make a statement to the Guards. On leaving the house, I phoned my father and, amid many expletives, told him to lodge to my account on his way as I couldn’t cover that cheque.
He met up with me and Rory that evening and we sat in a cold interview room at Irishtown Garda Station as my father tried to recall the young man who had sold him the painting. No further action was taken, and I never found out what my father paid for the portrait or for the new frame.
The rest of our family had quite a giggle over our escapade, and one of my brothers called us The Lavender Hill Mob, after the famous film with Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway. But somehow it seemed fitting that it was in Paris, all these years later, that I was finally able to look John F Deane in the face. After all, The Lavender Hill Mob had attempted to smuggle their bullion in little replica Eiffel Towers…