If you thought the world of classical art was full of boring people discussing paintings in hushed pseudo-intellectual voices, then it's about time you took
some time out to meet Charley Hill, a
former Scotland Yard undercover officer and
Fulbright scholar, now a freelance detective
who has made recovering stolen art treasures
his life's work. Now almost 60
years old, he has a convivial face framed by
spectacles and curly brown hair and is able
to talk with art world academics and the
criminal fraternity on equal terms.
Before serving in the Metropolitan Police
for 20 years he was a paratrooper in Vietnam
(his father was a US Air Force officer, his
mother English); at university he studied
history and theology and claims the 17th and
18th centuries as his favorite periods for
art; His wife is the niece of
Ireland's most famous living painter,
Louis le Brocquy, and he loves his work,
saying "It's the only thing I'm interested
in. I'll do it till I drop."
His finds to date include Goya's Dona Antonia Zarate (stolen from a house in Ireland) and Titian's Rest on the Flight to Egypt (stolen from Longleat House in Wiltshire, England), Jean-Baptiste Oudry's The White Duck (stolen from Hougton Hall in Norfolk, England), Vermeer's Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid, and, of course, The Scream. In an interview with the Telegraph Newspaper in 2002 he explained that he left the police force because art crime had become too big, too international and too specialized for a local police force ("Specialization lost favor five or six years ago and has never returned") and increased levels of bureaucracy left his team with little flexibility; plus the expense of running a dedicated art and antiques squad was leading to his team being cut further and further. He says that leaving the police has given him more freedom to follow his own interests in his own way, he says, "I'm more interested in recovering the art than capturing the criminals."
As you can imagine, Hill has scant regard for the petty regulations that might get in the way of him doing his job - like many a fictional cop (except that he's the real thing), he's not going to let the pedantic letter of the law stand in the way of practicality when it comes to tracking down the stolen wares - indeed the whole chase is something of a game for him.
The author intersperses tales of other art heists and Hill's time in Vietnam in with the main thread of the story. Some reviewers found these digressions too frequent and too distracting, but others, recognizing that Dolnick's intention was to write a bigger story than that of just one theft, felt that these side-stories added depth to the whole, transmogrifying The Rescue Artist into a treatise on art theft in general, not just one incident.
Importantly, Dolnick blows apart any image we might have of art thieves being the gentlemen of their trade stealing to order for reclusive collectors - he paints the thieves as no better or worse than any other thieves - apparently they choose to steal art simply because they can - it's valuable and, even in museums, it's relatively unguarded.
"Outstanding...fascinating, expertly told, with characters as crisply-drawn as any Rembrandt, and ... intrigue." - Arthur Golden, author of Memoirs of a Geisha.
"The Rescue Artist is a masterpiece. Engrossing, entertaining, often surreally hilarious." - Mary Roach, author of Stiff.
This review was originally published in August 2005, and has been updated for the July 2006 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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