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Check It Out

Courier Article by Andrea Wannemuehler
Sunday, March 6, 2011

Books Delve into Illicit Art Underworld

The theft of art is a flourishing criminal enterprise, despite a global effort to protect and recover it from an illegal market.  As the website of Interpol- the world's largest international police agency- states, "The illicit trade in cultural objects is sustained by the demand from the arts market, the opening of borders, the improvement in transport systems and the political instability of certain countries."  With few exceptions, most art heists are completed not for the aesthetic pleasure, but for political, social, or economic motivations. 

The Rescue Artist by Edward Dolnick chronicles the theft of Edvard Munch's iconic painting The Scream from the National Gallery in Oslo, Norway.  Dolnick delves into the realm of the illicit art underworld, telling the story of undercover police officer Charly Hill, who is called upon by the Norwegian police to investigate.  The book is divided into five parts, following the case of The Scream while intermittently drawing upon other art heists in the late 20th century. I particularly enjoyed Dolnick's approach to writing this nonfiction tale as if it were a novel, with Charly Hill as an unsuspecting hero. Though you might already know the fate of Munch's painting, The Rescue Artist, full of intrigue and adventures, is a compelling read.

In The Gardner Heist, reporter Ulrich Boser weaves together a fascinating narrative, recounting his own experience of investigating one of the biggest-and still unsolved-art crimes in all of history.  In 1990 two men broke into the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts, stealing thirteen paintings and drawings by Johannes Vermeer, Rembrandt van Rijn, and Edgar Degas valued at a total of $500 million.  Boser pursues leads and interviews convicted art thieves, eventually connecting the thread of clues to determine the culprits.

Out of all the books on art crimes I was especially drawn to The Gardner Heist; the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is like no other Museum (and consequently on my "must see" list). The former house turned Museum is filled with 19th century art, arranged not by art movements but by artists the patron favored, or by the color of the wallpaper. Works are unlabeled. Some pieces hang in direct sunlight.  Curiouser still, Isabella stipulated in her will that no piece in the Museum shall ever be moved. The frames of the thirteen stolen paintings remain on their respective walls, waiting to be united with their lost canvas.  As Boser points out, the mystery that surrounds the Gardner Museum will ensure it remains a frequented place.  

Collective accounts of art heists in the last five decades highlight Simon Houpt's Museum of the Missing.  He suggests the use of art as a commodity, and the inflated prices of auction houses, has encouraged thieves to target museums and galleries to make a profit.  When paintings of Pablo Picasso and Gustav Klimt sell at auction for $104 and  $135 million, Houpt's opinion gains validity. Houpt also discusses tales of wartime plundering, particularly that of Napoleon and Hitler, and presents an examination of the criminals' motivations, which will certainly keep you reading.  Beautiful color images of the missing works are interspersed throughout the book, truly creating a "Museum of the Missing".