The Rescue Artist


Edward Dolnick




Date Reviewed:

September 29, 2022

dward Dolnick is one of the excellent non-fiction authors; he thoroughly researches a topic, and then presents the information to his readers in interesting, understandable writing, along with plenty of the surprising details and anecdotes that make history such a fun subject. I especially like the two previous books of his that I read, The Writing of the Gods and Seeds of Life.

The Rescue Artist is centered upon the theft and recovery of the famous painting The Scream by Edvard Munch. In 1994, two men drove up to the National Gallery of Norway in Oslo. They placed a ladder again the wall of the museum scrambled up, smashed a second-floor window, and entered the museum. The Scream was hanging right next to the broken window. The thieves lifted the painting off of the wall, skedaddled down the ladder and sped away. The entire larcenous enterprise took only a couple of minutes. It was the day of the opening of the Winter Olympics, which Norway was hosting. The theft of Norway's most iconic national cultural treasure seemed like a stunt designed to embarrass the host nation (which it certainly did).

The star of The Rescue Artist is Scotland Yard detective Charley Hill. His career is spent in recovering stolen art. Indeed, much of this book is spent describing the thriving art-theft underworld. Dolnick describes the most notorious thefts, and the motives of the thieves (the ones that are caught, anyway). Dolnick also gives the readers details of some of the earlier cases that Hill worked on, often successfully. Hill specializes in working undercover - he often poses as a buyer for a rich American or Canadian collector who isn't too concerned if the art in question is "hot". For the operation to recover The Scream, Hill assumed the identity of Chris Roberts, a buyer for the wealthy Getty Art Museum in California.

The Rescue Artist was published in 2005. In his afterward, Dolnick describes how The Scream was stolen again by armed thieves in a bold daylight raid in 2005. Dolnick writes that after he sent the manuscript for The Rescue Artist to the publisher, news came out that the painting had been stolen again. The Norwegians seem like inept amateurs throughout this book - their security for priceless paintings is laughable (for the second theft, the gun-brandishing crooks merely had to break a wire that held the painting. This triggered an alarm at a nearby police station, but by the time the cops responded, the thieves and the painting had vanished. During Hill's recovery attempts, the Norwegian police are constantly interfering, upsetting plans. Their undercover men are easily spotted by the thieves that Hill is trying to establish a rapport with.

Perhaps a third of this book deals directly with the theft and recovery of The Scream. The rest of the material is about art theft in general. Reading about all the works that are purloined, and how simple and brazen most of the thefts are, I am amazed at how poorly the world protects its art treasures. Unfortunately, many of these masterpieces are never seen again. It is hoped that lie these treasures are hidden in some collector's private gallery, but some are definitely destroyed. A thief named Breitwieser made off with an estimated billion dollars worth of artwork. When the police closed in, his mother tried to destroy evidence of his crimes by snipping up 60 paintings into tiny squares and threw them out with the coffee grounds and eggshells, including Sybille of Cleves, by Cranach the Elder, a painting worth $8 million dollars. Given the poor security and the greed of the thieves, it seems that the half life of paintings can only be measured in decades. Even the Mona Lisa was stolen once.

I will have to look up another of Dolnick's books, I like what I have read so far. I see that The Clockwork Universe is available at my library...