Review: The Rescue Artist, Edward Dolnick

Y’all may recall the time that Edvard Munch’s The Scream got stolen. Remember that? Nope, not the 2004 time (the one I actually do remember). The 1994 time, the 1994 version of the painting. It was eventually recovered through a sting operation executed by the Norwegian and British police, and aided by the Getty Museum. If I were the Getty Museum, I would be telling other museums about this constantly in mock-casual tones: “Tchyeah, the time that we recovered The Scream for the National Gallery in Norway, that was good times….what’s that, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum? Your paintings are still missing? Gosh, if only you’d asked for help at the time, master schemers that we are, we might have been able to help. Too late now, I guess. What can you do?”

As Dolnick’s The Rescue Artist: A True Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece recounts, The Scream was stolen from the National Gallery in Oslo by the simple expedient of leaning a ladder against the wall, breaking the glass in the second-floor window, and removing the painting from the wall. Because apparently that’s how you steal a masterpiece of expressionist art. Don’t ask me. I’m not in charge of museum security.

The Rescue Artist explores the rather dashing recovery of the painting, through the person of one Charles Hill, a former Fulbright Scholar and (at the time) undercover art recovery expert for Scotland Yard; it also talks a little bit about the history of art theft, recommending book after book along the way (my TBR list can’t take it!), and the difficulties of protecting art in the first place, and of tracking and recovering it when it does get stolen. I felt quite sorry for small museums, whose budgets simply won’t stretch to the kind of state-of-the-art security that, for example, the Getty Museum can organize for its masterpieces. There is very little romanticizing of art thiefs, and indeed the in-depth profiles of career art thieves tend to expose, more than anything, the fundamental shabbiness of their operations and plans for the paintings after they are successfully stolen.

Did I slightly want to read about Dr. No types stealing masterpieces for their own personal enjoyment? A bit. Did I slightly enjoy hearing about the crafty ways art thieves have circumvented security systems in order to steal paintings? A bit. I felt embarrassed when the author and Charles Hill made fun of people like me for romanticizing art theft. But I writhed when I read about masterpieces being destroyed by thieves trying to avoid detection. Art thief Stephane Breitwieser used to store the paintings he stole at his mother’s place, and when the police started looking for him, his mother cut them up and threw them out. I mean Breughel. And did you know that The Scream is painted on cardboard? The least little thing could damage the crap out of it. Eek!

Less shamefully, I also loved hearing the details of the plans the cops used to recover stolen artwork. Dolnick portrays Hill as an unflappable, adaptable cop with a particular knack for playing obnoxiously rich Americans looking to make a deal with art thieves. There are definitely moments when I felt like the author had a man-crush on Charley Hill and it was affecting his objectivity. That said, I can never confirm nor deny how much I wanted to read an Elizabeth Peters book in which an undercover cop based on Charley Hill squares off against John Tregarth. I…that would be amazing. Or against the Master Criminal! I am not picky. Either one would do fine for me. I would love to see Amelia assisting or fending off the Charley Hill character, and I would double love to see John Tregarth outwitting him. Dear universe, Can this please happen for real? Love, Jenny

As a caveat, I know less than nothing about art and art theft, and thus I cannot say with any degree of certainty whether Dolnick’s version of events is the true one. This is always the problem with reading nonfiction on a topic that is unfamiliar to me: I have to trust that the author is telling me the truth, unless I (a) do a bunch of primary-source research myself (unlikely) or (b) use the internetz to find articles by other experts in the field critiquing my author’s conclusions. I am addicted to doing (b), but there again, I have to decide who I’m going to trust to tell me the truth. I took The Rescue Artist with a grain of salt, I would say, because of how much in love with Charles Hill Dolnick seemed to be.

I came away from this book quite keen to read more about art scams and thefts. Like all the rest of the world, mightily despised of Charles Hill, I am enthralled by criminals’ crafty schemes even if of course I hate for them to succeed in stealing art. I’d much much rather the museums had them. Only if the pieces are going to be stolen, and it looks like they are, I’d rather they be stolen in clever ways. Before being recovered. I’ve got a nice little list of art-scam-theft books to read, but if you have any additional recommendations, I’d love to hear them.

Other reviews:

A Striped Armchair

Hm. That’s it? Did I miss yours?

  • Shady awful thing, that they would deliberately destroy the paintings! And I can’t believe it’s so easy to break into a museum! Or that The Scream was painted on cardboard. Really? But for all that, the book doesn’t sound like one that would appeal to me…

    • I know! On cardboard. Who knew? The thing is that it’s so expensive to protect the pictures with really good security, and museums tend to spend the money on other stuff, like how they’re presenting the pictures and things so people can see them.

  • Hmm.. I wonder if I would like to read about scams and stealing. I don’t know. I’m the kind of person who would get scared by knowing how crafty people like that are nowadays/or have always been. But I don’t think it is anything to be ashamed of, to enjoy that kind of information, even if Charles Hill tells you it is.

    • There are a few people who are super crafty, but mostly it’s people with a very small amount of craftiness, matched up with crappy museum services. Nothing to be scared of.

  • I don’t know if anything can improve on the remake of The Thomas Crowne Affair with Pierce Brosnan in it. It has everything–sex, evening gowns, dogs playing poker, a mystery painting in the fire, and people imitating Magritte. I can’t even go into an art museum anymore without looking at the legs on the benches.

    • I remember exactly one thing from that film, which is that they have sex on the stairs. They have sex on the stairs! That’s not sexy! Ouch to poor Rene Russo!

  • I so enjoy art heist books.

    If I was a master criminal, that’s definately where I would focus my evil efforts. And if I ever got caught, I would not be able to snip up Brughel (or Munch) and toss him on the fire. This sounds like a book I need to go find!

    • Oh my gosh, me too. If I were going to go into master criminality, I would have no interest in pretty diamonds and all interest in art. Except that this book made it sound like a lot of the people in the art underworld are drug-and-weapons gang lords. I wouldn’t want to hang out with them.

  • I, too, am one of those people who enjoy books about stolen art and stolen manuscripts. Sorry, Charlie.

    My favorites involve those novels that emphasize solving the mystery, catching the bad guy, and recovering the art. I’m a bit prudish in that sense; I want justice done and bad guys punished.

    This is just the sort of thing I love reading — real information about the art world: the artists, the museums, efforts to safe-guard, thefts and recoveries!

    • Well, I now have a huge list of this sort of thing, so I am hoping I will have some more excellent art-theft books to recommend soon. đŸ˜€

  • I wasn’t even aware that The Scream had been stolen, but I bet reading a book about it’s loss and recovery would really float my boat. I also tend to romanticize art thieves, and now I feel a little foolish for doing that! I like the sound of this book and might have to check it out. I don’t often read books set in the art world, so this would be a welcome change for me. Can I just say that you are always reading the most interesting stuff? Because you are!

    • It was stolen TWICE. How crazy is that? The author had an afterword to the book saying that it got stolen again when he was just about to turn in the manuscript about the first theft. Loony.

      I am glad you think so! I am sometimes worried as I’m writing reviews that I won’t be able to make them sound as interesting as the books really are.

  • I’m intrigued. Not sure if I’m very intrigued or only mildly. Hmmm.

    I forget subtitles, too.
    I’m with Jeanne that the Thomas Crowne Affair is awesome. I’ve seen it so many many times, never gets old.

    • Have you seen the old one? I heard the old one is better and do not know what the truth is — I do suspect the old one doesn’t have any awkward staircase sex.

  • All I know about art thievery I’ve learned from watching White Collar :-D…never having seen The Thomas Crowne Affair. This does sound interesting, though.

    • I got seriously so, so excited when I read this comment. I had no idea White Collar was about art crime. I’m trying to decide what show to watch next, and I was leaning toward Friday Night Lights, but I feel like that’s just going to make me cry. White Collar sounds perfect.

  • I had no idea that The Scream was painted on cardboard—that’s wild!

    • Right? Right? Cardboard! It makes me wonder if other insane masterpieces are painted on cardboard too!

  • I have always thought it would be interesting to read about art theft, but I’m always afraid the books on the topic will be beyond my knowledge, being rather unfamiliar with both art and thievery. It sounds, though, like this one is interesting and accessible, which is good! I haven’t actually read it myself, but Priceless by Robert K. Wittman is supposed to be good. It’s by the FBI agent who created their Art Crime Team, all about his adventures undercover battling art crimes.

    • I am woefully unfamiliar with art history. I nearly took an art history class in college, but I ended up doing Byzantine and early Christian art and architecture instead. Also interesting, but I feel like my knowledge of art is more gap than knowledge. On the plus side, Dolnick doesn’t assume his readers know anything about art. He explains everything. Priceless sounds cool!

  • One of my friends is an art-history major who’s got a passion for restoration and protection. A sub-heading of that may be that she’s interested in the security measures they take to protect them, too.

    There are some paintings– by the impressionists, for example– which are printed on paper and which might disintegrate if their protective glass is removed. It scares me to think of these getting stolen.

    However, you’re right, we all love to read about clever thieves who do things like un-frame the canvas and tuck it in a cylinder and do daring things with it before it is inevitably recovered by police officers who are more clever than the thieves. It makes for great books/movies.

    It’s too bad that the reality is apparently a bit bland. (Though that Elizabeth Peters book idea sounds interesting…)

    • painted on paper, not printed. Whoops.

    • That is too scary. I hate it that art can be so ephemeral — books can be copied so easily without losing any of their original qualities, whereas art is gone when it’s gone.

      I appreciate your Elizabeth Peters support. Can we write her a letter and get her to do it?

      • That sounds like a most excellent plan. (Along with the plan from before about taking over the world and blackmailing a few important authors for more books.)

  • You know I have a book that’s about the exact same topic, only it’s called Stealing the Scream. It is downstairs and I am upstairs and I cannot stir myself to check the name of the author, but I do suspect they must be one and the same, and that the book came out under a different name in the UK. Anyway, I have it because I adore quirky books about art.

    The other art heist book I really love is a children’s book – Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce. I thought it was completely wonderful.

    • I bet it is the same.

      Framed? I must have it! Is it any relation to the BBC thing with Eve Myles? Because I was nerdily excited when I read about the BBC thing, and I would be even more excited if there were a book of it.