Thursday, June 26, 2014

Book Review: The Rescue Artist

Copyright © 2013, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

The subtitle of this nonfiction book (“A true story of art, thieves, and the hunt for a missing masterpiece”) doesn’t do justice to the rollicking, outrageous story that author Edward Dolnick tells inside its covers.

The story begins on the day of the opening of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Norway. Two men prop a ladder up against a first floor window of Norway’s National Gallery, bash in the window, and make off with an iconic painting: The Scream by Edvard Munch. The painting hangs only yards from the window, which contains ordinary glass that is easily shattered. The guard, snug in his basement bunker, assumes he’s hearing a false alarm. The theft is a national embarrassment for Norway, coinciding as it does with the Olympics. The police are stumped.

After that introduction, the book focuses on a man named Charley Hill, who is a detective with New Scotland Yard’s Art Squad. Charley’s specialty is undercover work, where he usually poses as a brash American looking to buy stolen art. He spends much of his time cultivating seedy underworld figures, aiming to gain their trust so they’ll confide in him any knowledge of where such stolen items may be. The author tells several hilarious and amazing stories about Charley’s exploits recovering various other stolen paintings, and the outrageous characters he assumes along the way.

Interspersed with Charley’s story are chapters about art theft in general. Some explain how thieves incorrectly assume there is an easy, ready market for the booty. They dream of finding a greedy, wealthy art lover who keeps a secret gallery hidden in the basement, filled with stolen items which will never again see the light of day. However, such shady buyers are mostly mythical, and thieves often find themselves stuck with a Rembrandt or Vermeer that merely collects dust, or which they trade to some other lowlife for drugs or to pay an old debt. Such was the case when the Mona Lisa was stolen in 1911. An Italian carpenter, who had previously worked at the Louvre, hid in a closet overnight, donned museum work clothes, and walked out with the painting tucked under his work smock.
A couple of years later, he was arrested in Florence when he clumsily tried to sell the painting to an art dealer. Other chapters focus on how little security accompanies priceless paintings where they hang, especially  the vulnerability of old English estates that are miles from any police and are filled with works by the masters.

Little by little, the author reels out how Charley Hill and the Art Squad became interested in the theft of The Scream, how they wriggled into Norway’s investigation, and the scheme they cooked up for Charley’s undercover persona to find and trap the thieves.

The Rescue Artist reads like a comical crime novel when relaying Charley’s exploits or detailing other thefts and their determined or bumbling perpetrators. The factual chapters about the business of art theft are a fascinating glimpse into a world most of us never consider. This book is a quick read that riveted me and provided more than a few laughs along the way.

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