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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
    Paperback:
    Jul 2006, 320 pages

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Instead, they saw a celebration marred by shock and outrage. "In this beautiful scenery," lamented the minister of culture, "it is hard to imagine that such evil things could take place."

The thieves had no such somber thoughts. When they snatched The Scream, they had left a postcard for the authorities to find. It showed a painting by the popular Norwegian artist Marit Walle, who specializes in cheerful, cartoon-like scenes of everyday life. Walle's Raging Hormones, for instance, depicts two gray-haired matrons at the beach, binoculars to their eyes, ogling young hunks. The thieves had made their choice as carefully as shoppers in search of the perfect birthday card. They had settled on a Walle painting called A Good Story. It shows three men laughing uproariously, red-faced, pounding the table, gasping for breath. On the back of the card one of the thieves had scribbled, "Thanks for the poor security."


The security was worse than poor. "All the windows were locked," the National Gallery's director, Knut Berg, told reporters. "We didn't figure that thieves would climb through broken glass. There was a lot ot of glass. I wouldn't have dared to go through all that glass."

National Gallery officials, it soon became clear, had made a string of bad decisions. The Scream had been moved from its customary setting on the National Gallery's third floor to the second floor. That was more convenient for visitors, since it was closer to the street, but more tempting to thieves as well, for the same reason. Knut Berg had been museum director for twenty years, and for twenty years he had done battle with the politicians who controlled his budget. Now, on the brink of retirement, he had orchestrated a can't-miss crowd-pleaser. As he watched his installers put the show together, Berg had bustled about happily, beaming with anticipation.

His security chief was more wary. "From January through May 1994," he had instructed the museum guards in a memo, "Edvard Munch paintings will be exhibited on the first floor [the second floor, in American usage] in rooms 9, 10, and 12. Cameras . . . should be monitored throughout the night. The night guard should vary his routine and should keep a special eye on the outside walls of the exhibition area. This is a unique exhibition, on the first floor, and we expect it to draw extra attention."

Bringing The Scream nearer to ground level was a blunder, and installing the painting next to a window that opened on the street compounded it.

Making matters worse still, the windows of the old brick museum had no protective bars and were made of ordinary, rather than reinforced, glass. The Scream was not bolted to the wall but hung from a wire, just like an ordinary painting in an ordinary home, without any connection to the alarm system.

The thieves had prepared carefully. Some of their scouting was surreptitious.

They had found, for example, that the night guard finished his rounds at about six in the morning and then retreated to his desk. But they carried out much of their research at leisure and in the open, joining the stream of visitors enjoying the "Festival of Norwegian Culture." The museum's cameras were out-of-date, they saw, and left some vital areas uncovered. In room 10, there were no cameras at all.

Like most good planners, the thieves kept things simple. They focused exclusively on The Scream, resisting the temptation to pick up other baubles along the way. Nor did they bother with cutting phone lines or disarming burglar alarms or any such electronic skullduggery. Speed was the key; if the thieves could get in and out quickly enough, the best alarms would provide little more than background noise.

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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