The alleged theft of La belle Hollandaise

Bizarrely, Picasso’s Weeping Woman was not the first of his paintings to have been allegedly stolen from an Australian state art gallery to make a point. In 1967 Picasso’s La belle Hollandaise (The beautiful Dutch woman) was stolen from the Queensland Art Gallery. At the time the painting was valued at $200,000 (the equivalent of $2,367,132 today).

Picasso had painted it in 1905 on cardboard mounted on wood, 77.1 × 65.8 centimetres, in gouache, a water-based poster-paint. La belle Hollandaise depicts a young woman wearing nothing but a traditional Dutch lacy-cloth cap. It was painted when Picasso was between his early ‘Blue period’, when he painted sad, downbeat subjects, and his ‘Rose period,’ when he focused on pleasant scenes in a primarily pinky hue.

The eccentric multi-millionaire grazier Major Harold De Vahl Rubin had purchased La belle Hollandaise for £6,000 in 1940 (about $477,882 today). In 1959 he wanted to know its current value, so he put it up for auction and bought it again, setting a record for the highest price paid for a living artist. Satisfied that he knew its value, he then donated his entire collection of modern European art to the Queensland Art Gallery: a Degas, a Renoir, a Toulouse-Lautrec, a Vlaminck, and three works by Picasso, including La belle Hollandaise.

In the middle of the night, on Monday 5 June, Robert Ferguson climbed up some scaffolding on the outside of the gothic brick building on Gregory Terrace in Bowen Hills, Brisbane. The building is now known as the Old Museum Building, but back in 1967 it was the Queensland Art Gallery. Ferguson forced open a top floor window with a screwdriver and entered the Gallery. Fortunately for Ferguson, there was no burglar alarm in that part of the Gallery. Little is known about the 22-year-old New Zealander who had been working as a labourer, but his father confirmed to reporters that his son did have a passion for art and was a frequent visitor to art galleries. Ferguson later claimed to have been motivated by a strange idealism. He was aware that the Gallery was considering the sale of La belle Hollandaise to raise money for a new building to be built on the southern bank of the Brisbane River. So he decided to steal the painting, later telling the police, “I was satisfied the public did not appreciate the painting, so I decided to steal it.”

Once he had the painting, Ferguson’s main problem was where to keep it. He claims that for five days he hid it wrapped in blankets in the bush on the slopes of Mt Coot-tha. How the painting survived two rainy days and nights in such conditions is one of the many mysteries surrounding this theft.

Ferguson then decided to return the painting to Mrs Julie Rubin, the widow of the original Australian owner, Major Harold Rubin. Mrs Rubin was frightened by the sudden appearance of this strange young man at her mansion, ‘Toorak House’, in the inner-northern suburb of Hamilton, Brisbane on Sunday 11 June. However, as he was carrying a familiar Picasso, she let him in. Ferguson wanted her to reconsider her late husband’s gift and begged her to keep the painting for a month before reporting it to the police. Mrs Rubin agreed to this and the young man left.

The very next day the police arrived with a search warrant and found La belle Hollandaise in a spare bedroom. It was very embarrassing for Mrs Rubins, who then refused to give the police any information about the young man, except to say that she didn’t know him. This is odd because, who other than Mrs Rubin and Ferguson could have informed the police about the location of the painting?

Ferguson was not arrested until Saturday 24 June. Somehow the police were able to track him down. When they did they found a loaded pistol in his possession. He confessed to the theft, pleaded guilty to the firearms charges and was jailed for a month for possession of the loaded pistol.

La belle Hollandaise still hangs in the Queensland Art Gallery.

About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

23 responses to “The alleged theft of La belle Hollandaise

  • Jamit

    Thanks Mark! Fascinating story!

  • cthulu

    Cher Docteur Enn,

    did you know about this?

    Monsieur Beh

    Bernard Caleo Cardigan Comics 61 3 9497 8098 site draw


  • cthulu

    Ack! Sorry, Mark: I was meaning to forward it on to an art mate in the US of A….

    I’ll try that again…



    PS If you’d like a peek at my recent trip to Japan, look here:

    Bernard Caleo Cardigan Comics 61 3 9497 8098 site draw


  • Jateousa

    My friends father is Robert Ferguson lol

  • Julie

    My father is robert ferguson

  • Julie

    And i read the story its not exactly true but theres more to it and i know every about it.

  • Julie

    My friend did comment on the 4th july and he is from NZ and he did work in Brisbane he even told me about it and the gallery knows my father as well

  • Julie

    My father is still alive as well he’s 73

  • Richard de Vahl Rubin

    Wow. It was sold and bought again in 1959 for A£250,000 in Europe and Australian customs said the duty was 2m. My grandfather just said well you can bloody well have it then, and LOANED IT IN PERPETUITY to the Queensland National Gallery. Not a gift. He was declared barking mad shortly after giving away everything and it’s one of Australia’s longest running cases to declare that the actions of someone to be declared insane are already insane. So we want the painting back.

    As for the thief, as is in the Courier Mail, saying he wasn’t paid by my step grandmother… pull the other one!

    • Mark Holsworth

      Thank you so much for this information; I am currently writing a book about art crimes. I will have to do some corrections to this blog post (and the chapter in my book) and more research about the court case over your grandfather’s sanity. The issue over Australian customs might involve the extra customs duty that Menzies had for importing modern art. I would be keen to hear more details that you or your family can remember about the Picasso, your grandfather and your step-grandmother.

  • BOB Ferguson

    A few years ago I thought the Queensland Art gallery would like to get on record the reason I borrowed LaBelle you that were so disgusting to myself which that in itself didn’t concern me but having my two younger daughter so with me that missed out what was mainly Hussey up was the gallery wanted to sell it I was asked to change there minds Could have been I can’t see what I’m writing even with a 55″ monitor looking at to many lady painting I guess the other have passed away so if the interest is there might write some take care everyone. PS how’s the book going thing of one myself

  • Richard de Vahl Rubin

    All good but actually bought in 1956 or so for A£250,000 and when bringing it back to Australia the customs demanded A£2m in duty so he told them they could xxxx well have it then. It was actually loaned in perpetuity which is under dispute but no comment from here on.

  • Mark Holsworth

    Thanks, Richard. Australia had insane import duties on modern art to keep it out of the country because conservative idiots wanted to protect Australia. The alleged theft was never taken to court because of the loan aspect. I hope my more complete telling of this story will be published soon in my book on Australian art crimes.

  • Bob Ferguson

    You know a lot of rubbish has been written, about la belle over the years I went t to Queensland art gallery few years back, thay were so, bad mannered they missed out in the truth, why, I Remove the, paint ing,,should, have asked Peggy? BOB, Ferguson

    • Mark Holsworth

      Thanks Bob, art galleries never like to mention gaps in their security, the reasons things go missing. I will be publishing my book early next year with a more complete version.

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