the Rescue Artist – Edward Dolnick

After reading “The Art Forger” by B.A.Shapiro, i realised, i wasn’t done with reading about art and art-crime yet. This book by Edward Dolnick, revolving around a particular theft of “the scream” by Edward Munch in Norway, goes on to discuss and summarise many other art thefts around the world and details about the Art Squad – their success and failures. Its funny at times, sarcastic a lot and really mind-boggling when you read about how art in the recent years has gained importance as an investment and hence, attracted the interest of not only investors but also the criminals.

“If the Russborough House thefts have a moral, it is that the lure of big money is only one of the reasons that thieves steam big-time art. But some of the other reasons – the notoriety, the thrill, the thieves urge to flaunt their contempt for the patrons and collectors of art – would ever come into play if great paintings did not command stunning  prices”

The painters from 1600-1800 era or even later, some of them severely criticised and a lot of them poor and obscure, today command hundreds of millions of dollars for their creation, which at one point was sold in exchange for favours or as little as “sailor’s pay.” What is it that attracts today’s world so pointedly towards these old masters – as the author goes on to describe, its the limited supply, the uniqueness, the pride of owning something no one else can have and much more. As the book describes in an analogy – imagine if there was only one book available for each title – such a world is unimaginable to me, as that would mean owning or even reading a book would become an enterprise only for the mega rich.

The Norwegian theft of “the scream” as described is hilarious to the point of silly. Two thieves placed a ladder from a nearby construction site near the museum, in the later part of the day, to use during the night. Since the Edward Munch collection had been brought from third floor to second floor for an exhibition, made the crime utterly simple. The thief claimed up the ladder, broke the window with a hammer, climbed in and grabbed the painting and were on their way within 50 seconds. While the crime was in progress, the night guard, who could have seen the activity on the monitor, was busy with the paperwork.

The book is truly about Charley Hill – a legend from the London Art Squad, who after a few successes was able to get involved and help the Norwegians in tracking the painting and its return to the museum. Book goes on to describe prior cases resolved by Hill and his approach to the art crime, his role plays and mannerisms, his understanding of the crime world and criminals that led to many a success stories. What baffles is the punishment doled out to these art criminals when they are caught – nowhere in the book i read, anyone getting more than a four year sentence for stealing something which might sell for more than 50 million dollars in the open market.

What is interesting to note is that same paintings were stolen from Rossborough house many times, over and over again. Though the security was beefed up each time a theft took place, the thieves took it as a personal challenge to get to the paintings and do away with them. The intent was never to sell them – since its not very easy to sell stolen art, it was more pride in the fact, that it could be done. “If somebody’s going to show you something and tell you its worth millions, well, then, you’re going to take it.”

Art and art theft in the real world is not as glamorous as projected by Hollywood – there is no James Bond or Dr No. At the end of the book we find Charley Hill set up as a private detective still chasing art and art thieves and we discover that “the scream” had been stolen, yet again in 2004, though was discovered two years later (as per wikipedia).

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