Rogues' Gallery

So many stolen masterpieces go unfound it could make one scream. But Maryland author Edward Dolnick uncovered one success story.

September 17, 2005|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

So many beautiful things, gone forever.

We know what happened to some of them after they were stolen. Sybille of Cleves, the painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder valued at $8 million, was chopped into little pieces, dumped into the trash and buried under coffee grounds and eggshells in 2003, when it appeared that the police were drawing near.

But the fate of other masterworks is shrouded in mystery. Da Vinci's Madonna of the Yarnwinder, valued at more than $50 million? Vanished without a trace in August 2003. Vermeer's The Concert, one of only 36 jewel-like paintings by the Dutch master? It was last seen March 18, 1990, hanging in its spot in Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Experts agree that art theft is more prevalent - and more lucrative - than most people suspect.

"On the roster of international illicit trade, art theft is No. 3, trailing only drugs and illegal arms," writes Chevy Chase author Edward Dolnick in his book, The Rescue Artist, which he will discuss tomorrow afternoon at the Walters Art Museum. Interpol, the international police agency, estimates that the amount of money changing hands each year from stolen art is between $4 billion and $6 billion.

In The Rescue Artist, Dolnick fancifully describes what he terms "The Museum of the Missing."

It would "fill endless galleries" and "rival any of the world's great treasure houses of art," he writes. "The collection of paintings and drawings would include 551 Picassos, 43 Van Goghs, 174 Rembrandts, and 209 Renoirs. Vermeer would be there and Caravaggio and van Eyck and Cezanne and Titian and El Greco."

Talk about stealing beauty.

While there are some high-profile recoveries - Caravaggio's The Taking of Christ, found after 200 years, or Manet's Bouquet of Peonies, which was stolen from a Long Island museum in 1988 and turned up days later behind a basement washing machine in Queens - the recovery rate is dispiriting. Just one in 10 stolen artworks is recovered, Dolnick says.

The Rescue Artist focuses on one case, in particular: the successful recovery of Edvard Munch's The Scream, after it was lifted from the National Gallery of Norway in February 1994. The book follows Charley Hill, a half-American, half-English detective as he identifies the thieves and slowly wins their trust by posing, improbably, as a representative for the Getty Museum in Los Angeles interested in buying the stolen loot.

(There are four original versions of Munch's most famous work. A second version, painted on fragile cardboard, was taken from the Munch Museum in Oslo in September 2004. It still is missing, and Hill is looking for it.)

A former science reporter for the Boston Globe, Dolnick is the author of two previous books, Madness on the Couch, about psychoanalysis, and Down the Great Unknown, about the exploration of the Grand Canyon. Each of the three books, he says, is a scientific inquiry into the life of the mind. In The Rescue Artist, the mind under the microscope is that of the creative, iconoclastic Hill.

"The great fun of writing The Rescue Artist is that it sticks together so many worlds and people, dangerous thugs and effete artists, that normally don't have anything to do with one another," Dolnick says.

The book explodes the myth that an art thief is a suave, sophisticated mastermind, reminiscent of the character portrayed on film first by Steve McQueen and later by Pierce Brosnan in The Thomas Crown Affair. That perception is completely false, the experts say.

Instead, most thieves are opportunists, often poorly educated and with little appreciation or understanding of the works they snatch. They view a masterpiece as "a multimillion-dollar bill framed and mounted on a poorly guarded wall," Dolnick writes.

Los Angeles Police Detective Donald Hrycyk says that it's easier to steal a painting from a museum than it is to rob a bank. Hrycyk is the only police officer for a municipal department in the United States who is assigned full time to investigate art theft, and in the past 11 years, he has recovered artwork valued at more than $64 million.

"Museums can't lock their paintings in a vault," he says. "They're supposed to hang where the public can see them. There's always a tension between security versus public access."

The highest-profile unsolved crime, the holy grail for art detectives like Hrycyk or Hill is the Gardner Museum theft in 1990. Of the dozen paintings valued at about $300 million taken on that day, none has been recovered.

Hill (who attended high school in the District of Columbia in the 1960s) thinks the paintings are unharmed, he thinks he knows who took them, and he thinks he will find them one day. A clue, he says, is that one of the two thieves was heard using the word "mate" - which indicates a background in Britain, Australia or Ireland.

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