Excerpt from The Rescue Artist by Edward Dolnick, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Rescue Artist

A True Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece

by Edward Dolnick

The Rescue Artist
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2005, 270 pages
    Jul 2006, 320 pages

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Print Excerpt

The thief turned to The Scream—it hung only a yard from the window— and snipped the wire that held it to the wall. The Scream, at roughly two feet by three feet, was big and bulky. With an ornate frame and sheets of protective glass both front and back, it was heavy, too—a difficult load to carry out a window and down a slippery metal ladder. The thief leaned out the window as far as he could and placed the painting on the ladder. "Catch!" he whispered, and then, like a parent sending his toddler down a steep hill on a sled, he let go.

His companion on the ground, straining upward, caught the sliding painting. The two men ran to their car, tucked their precious cargo into the back seat, and roared off. Elapsed time inside the museum: fifty seconds.

In less than a minute the thieves had gained possession of a painting valued at $72 million.
It had been absurdly easy. "Organized crime, Norwegian style," a Scotland Yard detective would later marvel. "Two men and a ladder!"

At 6:37 a.m. a gust of wind whipped into the dark museum and set the curtains at the broken window dancing. A motion detector triggered a second alarm. This time the guard, 24-year-old old Geir Berntsen, decided that something was wrong. Panicky and befuddled, he thrashed about trying to sort out what to do. Check things out himself? Call the police?

Berntsen still had not noticed the crucial television monitor, which now displayed a ladder standing unattended against the museum's front wall.

Nor had he realized that the alarm had come from room 10, where The Scream hung.

Berntsen phoned his supervisor, who was at home in bed and halfasleep, and blurted out his incoherent story. In midtale, yet another alarm sounded. It was 6:46 a.m. Fully awake now, Berntsen's supervisor hollered at him to call the police and check the monitors. At almost precisely the same moment, a police car making a routine patrol through Oslo's empty streets happened to draw near the National Gallery. A glance told the tale: a dark night, a ladder, a shattered window.

The police car skidded to a stop. One cop radioed in the break-in, and two others ran toward the museum. The first man to the ladder scrambled his way to the top, and then, like his thief counterpart a few minutes before, slipped and fell off.

Back to the radio. The police needed another patrol car, to bring their colleague to the emergency room. Then they ran into the museum, this time by way of the stairs.

The policemen hurried to the room with the ladder on the sill. A frigid breeze flowed in through the broken window. The walls of the dark room were lined with paintings, but there was a blank spot next to the high window on University Street. The police ducked the billowing curtains and stepped over the broken glass. A pair of wire cutters lay on the floor. Someone had left a postcard.

The day of the crime was no ordinary winter Saturday. February 12 marked the first day of the 1994 Olympic Winter Games, held in the Norwegian city of Lillehammer. For Norway in general, and for its leading political and cultural figures in particular, this was a rare chance to bask in the world's admiring notice.

The opening ceremonies, a happy and controversy-free spectacle, were expected to draw 240 million television viewers. To most of that multitude, the word "Norway" called up only the vaguest associations. Snow. Fjords. Pine trees. Reindeer, maybe. Blondes, perhaps, or was that just Sweden?

Asked to name a famous Norwegian, most people would draw a blank.

In the minds of the Norwegian establishment, the Olympics were a chance to begin to dispel that ignorance. When viewers around the world turned on their TV sets, they would see a national coming-out party. They would see Norway at its best.

From The Rescue Artist. Copyright © 2005 by Edward Dolnick. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022.

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