Obsession: Finding stolen art

July 03, 2005|By Steve Weinberg | Steve Weinberg,Special to the Sun


The Rescue Artist: A true Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece

By Edward Dolnick. HarperCollins, 288 pages.

When a famous painting is stolen from a museum or a private collection, news reports bounce around the globe for a few days via television, radio, newspapers, magazines and Web sites. Then the furor dies down; the theft is largely forgotten by the general public unless and until the painting is recovered. The "unless" is far more common than the "until": about 90 percent of stolen paintings are never reunited with their legal owners. Only narcotics and firearms outpace art in the catalog of illegal international trade, according to Edward Dolnick in his informative book The Rescue Artist.

Lots of stolen art is not famous. After all, a stolen famous painting is hard to sell to honest customers. Potential buyers are less likely to recognize obscure stolen paintings, and thus more likely to make a purchase if the sales pitch is effective. That said, a unified Museum of the Missing, Dolnick notes, could include 551 paintings by Picasso, 209 Renoirs, 174 Rembrandts and 43 van Goghs.

For Charley Hill, a London-based Scotland Yard detective, the furor never dies down. A specialist in recovering stolen paintings, the half-American, half-British Hill obsesses over each of his cases.

Boston journalist Dolnick decided to obsess along with Hill, shadowing him as part of the immersion reporting that often produces superb books. Dolnick's interest in art theft had its genesis while he reported at the Boston Globe. In 1990, two thieves lifted art valued at about $300 million from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Dolnick knew then that someday he would write in-depth about art thieves and the detectives who pursue them. The results were worth the wait.

Immersion journalism usually requires infinitely patient sources devoted to sharing their lives with a mass audience via a persistent reporter. As Dolnick explains, "The cops and robbers who specialize in art crime make up a small and wary fraternity. My guide to their ranks was Charley Hill. In a life marked by unlikely choices, Hill's decision to take an outsider behind the scenes ranks as one of the most surprising. The most important access Hill provided was to his own thoughts. I pestered him with questions in long interviews in London, New York and Washington, D.C.; in short stints on the Staten Island ferry, a double-decker bus in London, and at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington; and in endless e-mails."

The connecting thread is the 1994 theft of Edvard Munch's painting The Scream, valued at about $72 million, from the National Gallery in Oslo, Norway. (Another version of the painting was stolen from the Munch Museum in Oslo on Aug. 22, 2004.) The thieves did not seem highly expert, yet entered the museum undetected, spirited the painting away, then avoided capture month after month. Art thieves do not usually need sophistication in their chosen line of work, because museum security is so easy to crack. Most art thieves are quite unlike the Cary Grant-like characters in Hollywood movies.

In one of many insights dropped into the text like pearls, Dolnick comments, "Thieves are opportunists, always on the lookout for goods lying around unprotected. Museums, churches, art galleries and isolated country houses make tempting targets, and not only because art connoisseurs respond to art crime with the fluttery dismay of a Victorian hostess whose guests have unaccountably spoken of sex. The point of museums, the reason they exist, is to display their treasures to as many people as possible. Banks, which safeguard literal treasure, have it far easier. They can hide their money in underground vaults with foot-thick doors and protect it with armed guards and fortress-like security, and no one will complain. In comparison with even middling banks in mid-sized cities, the world's best museums are as open as street fairs."

Adequate security is expensive, and museums tend to struggle with budget shortages. So advanced technology is often absent. Museum guards are often poorly trained and poorly paid. Dolnick quotes a museum security specialist about how McDonald's pays its employees better. "The people protecting our art are the ones who couldn't get jobs flipping burgers," the specialist tells Dolnick.

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