THE RESCUE ARTIST
A True Story of Art, Thieves, and
the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece
By Edward Dolnick
HarperCollins; 270pp; $25.95
The Good An engaging tour of the mysterious world of art theft.
The Bad Organization is not the author's strong suit.
The Bottom Line Nicely drawn characters and insider info make this one a keeper.
Art theft generates between $4 billion and $6 billion a year in revenues, according to Interpol. That makes it No. 3 in illicit commerce, behind drugs and illegal arms. An engaging tour of this little-known world is found in Edward Dolnick's The Rescue Artist: A True Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece.
The jumping-off point is the 1994 heist of Edvard Munch's The Scream. While Norway was absorbed in the Lillehammer Winter Olympics, thieves broke a window in Oslo's National Gallery and grabbed the painting in less than a minute. The guard thought the alarm had gone off by mistake.
As it mines the annals of art crime, The Rescue Artist meanders a bit. Like strangers swapping stories in a hotel bar, Dolnick starts a tale only to drop it when something more exciting comes along. Yet he brings characters to life. There's the hapless couple whose mansion is a mecca for art thieves ranging from Martin Cahill, the Irish gangster known as "the General," to disturbed young heiress Rose Dugdale.
Then there's the rescuer referred to in the book's title -- Scotland Yard agent Charley Hill. Murphy's Law is much in evidence during Hill's quest to recover The Scream. Posing as an acquisitions specialist from Los Angeles' Getty Museum, he arranges a meeting to swap cash for the art. The hitch: The rendezvous hotel is hosting a convention of narcotics agents. Since the paths of drugs and stolen art often intersect, there's a risk that some narc will blow Hill's cover.
Dolnick shows that the risk-to-reward ratio is in the thieves' favor. After coughing up millions to buy masterpieces, museums and collectors spend little to protect them. Any hood with the guts to snatch a Gauguin can gain entrée to the glamorous art market. While some paintings may be restored to their owners, others are damaged or never found. Jail time for the perpetrators is rare, as police and prosecutors focus on more dangerous criminals.
As the author illustrates, the cops and robbers have lots in common. Both their livelihoods depend on the ability to bluff and sniff out fraud. Picassos, Vermeers, and Goyas are merely multimillion-dollar chips in a global casino. Dolnick gives the reader a seat at the table.
By Monica Gagnier