The Rescue Artist
A True Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for A Missing MasterpieceBook - 2005
In the predawn gloom of a February day in 1994, two thieves entered the National Gallery in Oslo. They snatched one of the world's most famous paintings, Edvard Munch's The Scream, and fled with their $72 million trophy. The thieves made sure the world was watching: the Winter Olympics, in Lillehammer, began that same morning. Baffled and humiliated, the Norwegian police called on the world's greatest art detective, a half-English, half-American undercover cop named Charley Hill.
In this rollicking narrative, Edward Dolnick takes us inside the art underworld. The trail leads high and low, and the cast ranges from titled aristocrats to thick-necked thugs. Lord Bath, resplendent in ponytail and velvet jacket, presides over a 9,000-acre estate. David Duddin, a 300-pound fence who once tried to sell a stolen Rembrandt, spins exuberant tales of his misdeeds. We meet Munch, too, a haunted misfit who spends his evenings drinking in the Black Piglet Café and his nights feverishly trying to capture in paint the visions in his head. The most compelling character of all is Charley Hill, an ex-soldier, a would-be priest, and a complicated mix of brilliance, foolhardiness, and charm. The hunt for The Scream will either cap his career and rescue one of the world's best-known paintings or end in a fiasco that will dog him forever.
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“There should be no more paintings of interiors and people reading and women knitting,” Munch declared. “There should be images of living people who breathe and feel and suffer and love—I shall paint a number of such pictures—people will understand the holiness of it, and they will take off their hats as if they were in a church.”
The novelist and ex-prosecutor Scott Turow could have been thinking of Hill when he called cops “our paid paranoids.” “A copper sees a conspiracy in a cloudy day,” Turow wrote. “He suspects treachery when you say good morning.”
“lies are valuable—you don’t want to go around squandering them. You want to concentrate them, and you have to be effective with them.”
From a criminal’s point of view, a world-renowned painting is a multimillion-dollar bill framed and mounted on a poorly guarded wall.
Italy, for example, if a person buys a painting in good faith from a legitimate dealer, the new owner immediately becomes the rightful owner whether or not the painting was stolen. Japan is nearly as permissive: after two years, all sales are final. Steal a painting, hide it for two years, sell it in Japan, and the buyer can freely hang it for the world to see. In the United States, in contrast, the rule is that “no one can sell what he does not own,” and the corollary is “buyer beware.” If an American buys stolen art, even unknowingly, the original owner is entitled to reclaim it.
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