THE RESCUE ARTIST

A True Story of Art, Thieves, and the

Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece

By Edward Dolnick

HarperCollins. 270 pp. $25.95

When most of us hear the names Vermeer or Goya, Rembrandt or Munch, we think about the neoclassic facades of great museums, auctions at Sotheby's, connoisseurship and daunting textbooks in AP art history classes. Undercover cops, "fences," ransom notes and murderous thugs are not what come to mind. Journalist Edward Dolnick thinks we might want to give some attention to the seamy overlap of aesthetics, commerce and crime. As he describes the world of art theft and recovery in The Rescue Artist, the topic can be fascinating, dramatic and profoundly depressing.

Stereotypes come tumbling down in this brisk and readable book. Did you assume art theft was a rare occurrence? Dolnick calls it a "huge and thriving industry." Did you imagine that a significant number of stolen paintings are returned to their public or private owners? A dismaying 10 percent is the generally accepted figure. Worse still, according to Dolnick, the police (even at Scotland Yard) are not always interested in improving that statistic when more important and "manly" tasks beckon, nor are museums doing all they can to eliminate the problem. Furthermore, in this field, lightning does strike more than once: Vermeer's "Lady Writing a Letter" has been taken from its Irish owners twice, and one Gainsborough portrait has been stolen three times.

Dolnick's focus is on the theft of Edvard Munch's most famous painting, "The Scream," and the man responsible for its return. Part suspense narrative and part character sketch, the book is interspersed with stories of earlier thefts, from the Louvre's temporary loss of the "Mona Lisa" in 1911 to the almost farcical repeat hits on Russborough House in Ireland, which had something approaching an open-door policy for gun-toters and crackpots in the 1970s and '80s. We are also given information about museum security and guards' salaries (no small factor here), widely differing recovery laws -- if you can sell your stolen painting in Italy or Japan, you're sitting pretty -- and conflicting attitudes toward insuring expensive art. By the time you finish The Rescue Artist, you might be wondering why anything is left on the walls of any but the biggest institutions.

There was something particularly vivid and nutty about the Munch theft, though. Oslo's National Gallery was not a museum with a security record to inspire confidence (two Rembrandts had been taken in the previous decade), but no one anticipated in February 1994 that on the opening weekend of the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, with the world media converging on Norway, two men with a ladder could smash a window, elude a dim-witted guard who assumed the television monitor was malfunctioning, and make off with one of the icons of modern Expressionism.The thieves left behind a cartoon postcard and a note, "Thanks for the poor security." The crime involved not only the heist of a painting valued at $70 million, Dolnick writes, but a "jeering insult, a raised middle finger directed at Norway's cultural and political elite."

Enter Charley Hill, an Anglo-American Vietnam veteran and Fulbright scholar, former beat cop and, at the time of the theft, a Scotland Yard detective with a relish for art history and dangerous undercover work. As a character in a novel, Hill would be a bust from the start. He reads like both an update and a parody of a Raymond Chandler private eye. As a real-life figure, though, he exerts an odd charm; and, when you come down to it, the kind of man who would actually put his life on the line for some cracked pigment on canvas is not going to be anything like you, me or the museum curator. This hard-drinking, arrogant, go-it-alone guy whose idealized self-image is Gilbert Stuart's self-confident "The Skater" is probably just the sort of original thinker to devise a strategy for smoking out the culprits and have the gusto and nerve to follow through on it.

The actual story of making contact with the thieves, creating a cover and successfully negotiating with them is efficiently told, if a bit thin. Without the digressive chapters, the book would be half its length. Still, The Rescue Artist provides its share of page-turning moments, and the seediness and volatility of the experience are not quickly forgotten. Munch worried about the fate of his pictures, but even he could not have imagined all the anxieties they have given rise to.

A felicitous prose style is not Dolnick's strong suit. We are treated to more metaphors that fall flat than any book this short has a right to, and the bombardment of allusions (from Sean Connery to Charles Bronson) is wearying. But the pleasure of peering into an underworld that intersects with a "high culture" venue is undeniable, and, most important, Dolnick raises good questions about museum responsibility, the complexities of criminal motivation and the sheer madness of the human drive to attach obscene price tags to objects that were created for loftier purposes. When "The Scream" is finally retrieved in the last chapter, the questions remain to be confronted amid the elation and relief.

Lest the story end on too positive a note, though, Dolnick concludes with a sobering afterword. In September 2004 two other Munch paintings, including another version of "The Scream," were stolen from the Munch Museum a few miles from Norway's National Gallery, in broad daylight on a Sunday morning. A Norwegian detective who worked with Hill asked in amazement, "Hasn't the city of Oslo learned anything about security in ten years?" Two weeks later, shame-faced officials at the Munch Museum announced that they would be installing more alarms. *

John Loughery is the author of "John Sloan: Painter and Rebel."

Edvard Munch's "The Scream" was stolen from Oslo's National Gallery in 1994. Ten years later, another version of "The Scream" was stolen from Oslo's Munch Museum.