To Catch a Thief

This post was written by Armin Kunz, from C.G. Boerner.

To read other articles by Armin Kunz,
click HERE to get to C.G. Boerner's site.

Unlike the trope of the cultured villain who surrounds himself with priceless artworks—which, as we have seen, belongs squarely in the realm of fiction—the one about the art lover who feels the unstoppable desire to possess what he admires is not so easy to dismiss as a fictitious fabrication. After all, there is an element of this in every collector. Art theft as a crime of passion is, therefore, what a certain Robert Dighton brought forward as his defense when he was arraigned. 

Dighton (1751–1814) was the son of a London print seller and, after studying at the newly founded Royal Academy Schools, became a prolific and controversial caricaturist. He was also an actor of some renown, appearing at the Haymarket, Covent Garden, and Sadler’s Wells theaters. Although married, he had an affair with a fellow actress that resulted in a second family. Perhaps not surprising for an actor, he was what Simon Houfe, in a biographical note, describes as “a master of self- publicity and flamboyance”; Houfe then goes on to describe Dighton’s self-portrait that appeared as frontispiece of his 1795 Book of Heads as “a studied self-important person with just a hint of shiftiness.” But then, aren’t we art historians prone to only see what we already know?
As a collector of prints, Dighton was a marchand-amateur and often acted as a so- called runner between collectors and the more established dealers. Any interested collector and good print dealer will always consult other collections to compare impressions. Dighton was hence a regular visitor to the British Museum and gained the trust of the librarian William Beloe, who was in charge of the Committee Room in the Department of Printed Books. Dighton even offered, in his own words, “to take the portraits of some of the family, and Mr. Beloe and his daughter were both drawn by me, which having received so much civility I did gratis.” The exceptionally fine collection of Rembrandt prints, which Clayton Mordaunt Cracherode had put together during the last decades of the eighteenth century, was kept in said Committee Room. According to Antony Griffiths, who was the first to present the tragic tale in some detail, Dighton “was able to extract any print he wanted from Cracherode’s portfolios and take them with him out of the Museum. He seems to have done this with impunity for two years, before finally being caught when he tried to sell one of the prints that he had stolen.” The print he offered—Philip Koninck’s Landscape with a Coach, then believed to be by Rembrandt and one of the most admired prints at the time—was so very rare that the dealer he had approached wanted to compare it with one of the very few known impressions, in the British Museum, to make sure that what he had been shown was not a fake, only to then discover that the museum’s impression was no longer in its place.
Philips Koninck, Landscape with a Coach, 1650–60, etching with additions of black wash and touches of brown. (British Museum, London)

The scandal broke in 1806, and the press had a field day. As a result of the investigation that ensued from the affair, Beloe, the poor librarian, lost his job, but not before stating for the record: “The particulars which dissatisfied me in [Dighton’s] conduct were that I thought he did not examine the prints as a gentleman or connoisseur, but huddled them backwards and forwards.” The lack of a complete inventory or catalogue of Cracherode’s prints, as well as the fact that the museum had not marked them with a British Museum stamp, made it impossible to determine exactly what had been stolen. “So, at the end of the day, the Trustees had to strike a deal with [Dighton] by which, in return for his co-operation, he was left alone” (Griffiths). The museum kept what they found in Dighton’s possession and bought back the prints he had sold to dealers. Having been caught red-handed, Dighton had little choice but to cooperate, but not before stating for the record that he had “a particular desire to possess Rembrandts.” The one good thing, however, that came out of this affair was the somewhat overdue establishment of a separate Department of Prints and Drawings at the museum in 1808.
Having learned a little about Mr. Dighton’s personality, perhaps we are not surprised to find that he had not only fashioned for himself a collectors’ stamp that can hardly be described as discrete but also chose to apply it obtrusively on the front of the prints in “his” collection.
He was not the only one to do so. George Hibbert (1757–1837) and Sir Edward Astley (1729–1802) also put stamps on the recto of their prints, but both are usually more easily forgiven since they had such a discerning eye for quality that their marks are essentially seals of approval when it comes to Rembrandt prints. (That anyone willing to google the Wikipedia entry on Hibbert can quickly find out that the English merchant was a slave-owner and outspoken anti-abolitionist, should give us pause for a very different reason when seeing his mark!)
Nowadays, one does not need to worry when encountering Dighton’s palette outside of the British Museum’s collection: as the choice of his loot shows, his quality standards were pretty high; and since a final settlement between the British Museum and Dighton was reached on December 13, 1806, whoever sells, buys, or owns one of his prints now has full title to do so.
Rembrandt, The Pancake Woman, 1635, etching

Furthermore, the majority of prints bearing his mark were actually acquired by honest means. The fine impression of Rembrandt’s Pancake Woman offered here, for example, has a well-preserved verso that does not show any evidence of being tampered with.
This is worth mentioning since An Van Camp recently showed in an elucidating article that Dighton, when encountering older collectors’ marks on the prints he had absconded with, was highly creative in his manipulation of those marks to obscure any signs of previous ownership. He sometimes even added specific details referring to auction sales in which his father, John, was supposed to have acquired certain prints. Checking those details, however, Van Camp discovered that “Dighton was sophisticated enough to have selected ones in which the descriptions are so generalized that no print can be individually identified with any certainty,” and that some of the sales are “untraceable” and therefore most likely pure invention.
The British Museum’s rare Landscape with a Coach is a good example. The verso shows two invented marks —“JM: 1761:” at lower left and “JV: 1760:” at top right— that cover up the erased pen-and-ink initials with which both Cracherode and John Barnard used to annotate their prints.
Rembrandt, Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple, 1635, etching and engraving. (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

In light of all the above, the ultimate irony is perhaps what my friend Tom Rassieur pointed out to me when he learned that I am writing this missive: on an impression of Rembrandt’s Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Robert Dighton, the thief, had the initial “D” stolen from his palette.

To read other articles by Armin Kunz,
click HERE to get to C.G. Boerner's site.

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