The 2004 theft in Oslo of Munch’s ‘The Scream’ appeared remarkably easy, particularly when one considers that the same painting had been stolen before. It happened soon after this book was published, but the first theft of 'The Scream' plays an important part in Hart’s intriguing story of another painting stolen twice, Vermeer’s ’Lady Writing A Letter With Her Maid’.
Vermeer left us only 34 or 35 paintings; they are among the world’s most jealously guarded works of art. Even so, one of them, ‘The Concert’ was stolen in 1990 from the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum in Boston, and has yet to be recovered. And ’Lady’ was abducted twice from its home at Ireland’s Russborough House, where it was part of the extraordinary Beit collection. (Postscript: I went back to Dublin in 2009 to see Vermeer's 'Lady' in a special triptych exhibition at the National Gallery, you can find what I wrote about that here.)
Russborough is a formidable Palladian house nestled into the foreboding Wicklow Mountains. It was designed in the mid-eighteenth century by Richard Cassells for Joseph Leeson, whose rise from sergeant at the Boyne in 1690, to landed Earl of Milltown, might easily be seen as a paradigm of the Protestant Ascendancy. When the house passed from the Leesons to Captain Denis Daly, a Roman Catholic, in 1902, the local priests were enraged by the nakedness of the 150 year old Italian statuary. Daly dutifully ordered the offending nudes removed; the grounds staff dismembered them gleefully.
Russborough sat empty for more than twenty years, until Sir Alfred Beit bought it in 1952,specifically to house one of the world‘s finest private art collections, which he’d inherited from his uncle of the same name. The first Sir Alfred accumulated works by Goya, Velasquez, Gainsborough, and Rubens, as well as the Vermeer. Hart, whose first book was a history of diamonds, most likely first encountered the story along the way, because the Beit money came from South African diamonds and gold.
The first Russborough robbery,in 1974,was engineered by English heiress turned IRA revolutionary Rose Dugdale. Beit was pistol-whipped,bound,and forced to watch the thieves tear paintings from their frames with a screwdriver. Dugdale was caught because she was starkly conspicuous hiding out in a remote village in Cork. But the theft had its silver lining. To repair the screwdriver damage, the Vermeer was given to picture restorer Andrew O’Connor. He uncovered, beneath layers of varnish, the letter’s seal, fallen to the floor in the Lady’s haste to open it. Suddenly, the emotional thrust of the painting changed; the viewer’s curiosity about the backstory of The Lady and the contents of her letter intensified.
Twelve years later, Martin Cahill, known as ’The General’, waltzed into Russborough and waltzed out with a fortune in paintings, only to discover unloading stolen art is more difficult than stealing it. The major buyers are insurance companies, other crooks and the police; the problem is telling them apart. Thus far in the story, Hart had stayed on firm, if somewhat familiar ground. It’s cinematic déjà vu: The General Meets The Girl With A Pearl Earring. But from this point, where the story should intensify, he begins to digress.
The problem is that his heroine, Vermeer’s letter-writing Lady, spends most of the tale trapped offstage. So like Cahill searching for a market for his paintings, Hart stretches his net further, giving perfunctory accounts of the robbery at the Gardner and that preposterously easy first theft of The Scream from Norway’s National Gallery. Presumably, had Shergar been a work of art, rather than a mere Irish national treasure, his kidnapping would have been included too.
In fairness, the sting operation which recovered The Scream led to another, which eventually netted Rosborough’s Vermeer, so there are grounds for its inclusion. The excuse for including the Boston connection appears to be simply that it was a brilliant robbery of another Vermeer, whose success reminded Cahill he ought to cash in his own. The Boston story cries out either to be told in more detail, or be integrated more convincingly into this narrative.
Surprisingly, Hart’s police are his most interesting characters. Cahill’s symbiotic, if antagonistic, relationship with the Garda suggests the line between cop and criminal may be extremely fine, and shifting, especially in a world where cops must play crooks to set up stings. That Cahill avoids one such operation by simply driving past the assembled police who are in a pub borrowing a telephone to signal the springing of their trap, hardly bolsters his reputation as Dublin’s Napoleon of Crime. Irish cops in particular appear to walk a tightrope between crime and politics in a society inclined to both celebrate its robin hoods and ignore its makers of fine art. The pub-loving cops of Irish cliche are the voices which dominate the narration, until it seems each chapter ought to be accompanied by three pints of Guinness. Not that the Irish provide all the best stories. FBI agent Tom Bishop saw his sting collapse when an official bureau post-it note fell out of a file during a meeting with the criminals he was trying to entrap.
‘Lady Writing A Letter’ was recovered for the second time after the police determined that stolen art was being used a collateral for drug smuggling. The mention of drug trafficking immediately led to increased international cooperation. The full details of the drug connections, like the Boston robbery, are never explained satisfactorily, but once The Lady has been recovered we discover her theft has again been a boon to art criticism.
Hired to restore damage inflicted by the thieves, Danish conservator Jorgen Wadum found a pinprick in the centre of the Lady’s eye, from which he believed Vermeer may have used string and chalk to establish his perspective lines. This contradicts Philip Steadman’s work establishing Vermeer’s use of the camera obscura, but after insisting Wadum’s pinprick burst Steadman’s theoretical balloon, Hart never bothers to explain how. Instead, he follows the Lady to her new, safer home in Ireland’s National Gallery, and we learn in a coda that even without its Vermeer in situ, Russborough House was robbed yet again. Part thriller, part art history, part Irish travel guide and part portfolio of national stereotypes playing on an international stage, Hart’s material seems to have overwhelmed him just as surely as the Vermeer overwhelmed the General. In the process, none of the stories receive the depth of coverage they demand, but even this shallow wade is certainly a lot of fun.
THE IRISH GAME: A True Story of Crime and Art
Matthew Hart, Chatto & Windus 2004, ISBN 0701177551
NOTE: I originally wrote this for the TLS, who thought it rather too jokey for an art review and rather too arty for a thriller review. Or something like that. Or maybe it was the crack about the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland...