The extent of Sir Alfred Beit's art collection—described by a London dealer as "one of the top dozen in the world"—was known to only a few. The paintings were hidden behind the thick walls of Russborough House, Sir Alfred's 100-room home on 550 acres near Dublin.

Now Sir Alfred's collection, or what is left of it, is world renowned. Late last month a gang of five thieves—one of them a mysterious woman with a French accent—stormed into Russborough House and made off with 19 masterpieces worth about $20 million. The gang was skillful and fast. Within six minutes, they had coshed Sir Alfred, 71, with a pistol butt to keep him quiet, expertly removed the paintings from their frames and fled. "They have the cream," Sir Alfred lamented, noting that 70 or 80 paintings of lesser value had been ignored.

Because the paintings—a Vermeer, a Goya—are so well known as to be virtually unsalable, there was speculation they would be used to ransom political prisoners in Northern Ireland. In any case, Sir Alfred says his loss was only 10% covered by insurance.

If anyone can afford such a loss, he can. As the scion of one of the Empire's great South African gold and diamond families, Sir Alfred can trace his wealth back to an uncle, a German Jewish diamond buyer who formed an alliance with Cecil Rhodes. When Uncle Alfred died in 1906, he left a $150 million estate, including much of the art collection. The current Sir Alfred is noted not so much for being a collector as for maintaining the treasures.

Irish police were making house to house checks in the rolling, green hills surrounding Russborough House. Meanwhile, a London insurance company offered a reward of $250,000 for information leading to the recovery of the paintings and arrest of the gang.

"Money is the one thing in this particular case which doesn't affect me," Sir Alfred said. "I am purely interested in getting the pictures back." Having emerged from his anonymity so spectacularly, Sir Alfred retreated to his estate where, upset or not by the biggest art heist in history, he squeezed in a bit of shooting the next day.