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.
Hm. That’s it? Did I miss yours?