“The big-picture thefts are all motivated by bragging and stupidity. The crooks just move the things around until some sap gets landed with them, like the last guy with a chain letter. The paintings will always have great intrinsic value, so the saps will always dream on.”
In the early morning of February 12, 1994, while an excited Norway prepared for the opening of the Lillehammer Winter Olympics, two burglars climbed a ladder to the second floor of the Munch Museum in Oslo, broke a window, crawled in and took Edvard Munch’s The Scream, one of most iconic paintings in the world, out into the night (falling off the ladder twice in the process). The window was not alarmed, and though the thieves were caught on a security camera, the sole guard on duty was engrossed in paperwork and didn’t notice.
It was a moment of national embarrassment. The Norwegian police searched for clues, but there was little they could do except wait for a ransom demand. Weeks passed and none came.
All this caught the attention of Charlie Hill, star detective on Scotland Yard’s art theft squad. Unfortunately the case was not in their jurisdiction. But Charlie Hill was not a man to be put off by technicalities like that. Half American, half English, a former seminarian and sniper in Vietnam, he’d been a loose cannon in the police service until he found his niche – doing undercover work for the art squad. A natural actor and thrill-seeker, he lived for challenges like this.
So he found a pretext, and the Norwegians requested help, and he plunged in, traveling to Oslo to pose as an American representative of the Getty Museum of Modern Art. What followed was, apparently, more Keystone Kops than Thomas Crown Affair. The great danger in retrieving stolen art, we learn, is not from sophisticated criminal masterminds, but from stupid thugs who are easily spooked and might break something. Abetted, sometimes, by equally stupid policemen.
That’s what The Rescue Artist by Edward Dolnick is about. I have to admit I enjoyed it less than I hoped. It’s true crime, after all, and that’s always less entertaining than the fictional variety. And I’m afraid that (although there are hints that he might be some kind of Christian) I got kind of tired of Charlie Hill. Hyperactive and mercurial, a man who favors instinct over logic, he’s not my kind of detective.
But it’s an educational book for anyone interested in the (apparently) booming industry of art theft. And it has an ironic coda.
Moderately recommended for those inclined. Cautions for language.