The mismatched pictures stare down from the wall of the tiny
Vermeer, Goya, Titian, Munch, Rembrandt. Ordinary reproductions worth only a few dollars, they are unframed and of different sizes.
Several dangle slightly askew from tacks jammed in the wall. The originals hung in gilt frames in the grandest museums in the world, and tourists made pilgrimages to see them. Each was worth millions, or tens of millions.
And, at some point in the last several years, each was stolen. Some were recoveredthe tall man who arranged this small display is the one who found themand some are still missing. The "curator" of this odd collection dislikes anything that smacks of statistics, but he is haunted by a melancholy fact: nine out of ten stolen paintings disappear forever.
In the world of art crime, one detective has an unmatched résumé. His name is Charley Hill. The aim of this book is to explore the art underworld; Hill will serve as our guide. It is odd and unfamiliar territory, dangerous one moment, ludicrous the next, and sometimes both at once.
We will look at many tales of stolen paintings along the way in order to learn something of the territory in general, but the story of one world famous workThe Scream, by Edvard Munchwill serve as the thread we follow through the labyrinth. A decade ago, Hill had no more connection with that painting than did any of the millions who recognized it instantly from reproductions and cartoons.
On the morning of February 14, 1994, a phone call changed all that.
February 12, 1994
In the predawn gloom of a Norwegian winter morning, two men in a stolen car pulled to a halt in front of the National Gallery, Norway's preeminent art museum. They left the engine running and raced across the snow. Behind the bushes along the museum's front wall they found the ladder they had stashed away earlier that night. Silently, they leaned the ladder against the wall.
A guard inside the museum, his rounds finished, basked in the warmth of the basement security room. He had paperwork to take care of, which was a bore, but at least he was done patrolling the museum, inside and out, on a night when the temperature had fallen to fifteen degrees. He had taken the job only seven weeks before.
The guard took up his stack of memos grudgingly, like a student turning to his homework. In front of his desk stood a bank of eighteen closed circuit television monitors. One screen suddenly flickered with life. The black-and-white picture was shadowythe sun would not rise for another ninety minutesbut the essentials were clear enough. A man bundled in a parka stood at the foot of a ladder, holding it steady in his gloved hands.
His companion had already begun to climb. The guard struggled through his paperwork, oblivious to the television monitors. The top of the ladder rested on a sill just beneath a tall window on the second floor of the museum. Behind that window was an exhibit celebrating the work of Norway's greatest artist, st, Edvard Munch. Fifty-six of Munch's paintings lined the walls. Fifty-five of them would be unfamiliar to anyone but an art student. One was known around the world, an icon as instantly recognizable as the Mona Lisa or van Gogh's Starry Night. In poster form, it hung in countless dorm rooms and office cubicles; it featured endlessly in cartoons and on T-shirts and greeting cards. This was The Scream.
The man on the ladder made it to within a rung or two of the top, lost his balance, and crashed to the ground. He staggered to his feet and stumbled back toward the ladder. The guard sat in his basement bunker unaware of the commotion outside. This time the intruder made it up the ladder. He smashed the window with a hammer, knocked a few stubborn shards of glass out of the way, and climbed into the museum. An alarm sounded. In his bunker, the guard cursed the false alarm. He walked past the array of television screens without noticing the lone monitor that showed the thieves, stepped over to the control panel, and set the alarm back to zero.
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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