The Rescue ArtistA True Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2005 Edward Dolnick
All right reserved.ISBN: 0060531177
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 acrossthe snow. Behind the bushes along the museum's front wall they found theladder 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 warmthof the basement security room. He had paperwork to take care of, whichwas a bore, but at least he was done patrolling the museum, inside andout, on a night when the temperature had fallen to fifteen degrees. He hadtaken the job only seven weeks before.
The guard took up his stack of memos grudgingly, like a student turningto his homework. In front of his desk stood a bank of eighteen closedcircuittelevision monitors. One screen suddenly flickered with life. Theblack-and-white picture was shadowy — the sun would not rise for anotherninety minutes — but the essentials were clear enough. A man bundled in aparka 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 hispaperwork, oblivious to the television monitors.
The top of the ladder rested on a sill just beneath a tall window on thesecond floor of the museum. Behind that window was an exhibit celebratingthe work of Norway's greatest artist, Edvard Munch. Fifty-six ofMunch's paintings lined the walls. Fifty-five of them would be unfamiliarto anyone but an art student. One was known around the world, an iconas 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, losthis balance, and crashed to the ground. He staggered to his feet and stumbledback toward the ladder. The guard sat in his basement bunker unawareof the commotion outside. This time the intruder made it up the ladder. Hesmashed the window with a hammer, knocked a few stubborn shards ofglass out of the way, and climbed into the museum. An alarm sounded. Inhis bunker, the guard cursed the false alarm. He walked past the array oftelevision screens without noticing the lone monitor that showed thethieves, stepped over to the control panel, and set the alarm back to zero.
The thief turned to The Scream — it hung only a yard from the window — and snipped the wire that held it to the wall. The Scream, at roughly two feet by three feet, was big and bulky. With an ornate frame and sheets of protective glass both front and back, it was heavy, too — a difficult load to carry out a window and down a slippery metal ladder. The thief leaned out the window as far as he could and placed the painting on the ladder. "Catch!" he whispered, and then, like a parent sending his toddler down a steep hill on a sled, he let go.
His companion on the ground, straining upward, caught the slidingpainting. The two men ran to their car, tucked their precious cargo intothe back seat, and roared off. Elapsed time inside the museum: fifty seconds.In less than a minute the thieves had gained possession of a paintingvalued at $72 million.
It had been absurdly easy. "Organized crime, Norwegian style," a Scotland Yard detective would later marvel. "Two men and a ladder!"
* * *
At 6:37 a.m. a gust of wind whipped into the dark museum and set thecurtains at the broken window dancing. A motion detector triggered asecond alarm. This time the guard, 24-year-old Geir Berntsen, decidedthat something was wrong. Panicky and befuddled, he thrashed about tryingto sort out what to do. Check things out himself? Call the police?Berntsen still had not noticed the crucial television monitor, which nowdisplayed a ladder standing unattended against the museum's front wall.Nor had he realized that the alarm had come from room 10, where TheScream hung.
Berntsen phoned his supervisor, who was at home in bed and halfasleep,and blurted out his incoherent story. In midtale, yet another alarmsounded. It was 6:46 a.m. Fully awake now, Berntsen's supervisor holleredat him to call the police and check the monitors. At almost precisely thesame moment, a police car making a routine patrol through Oslo's emptystreets happened to draw near the National Gallery. A glance told the tale:a dark night, a ladder, a shattered window.
The police car skidded to a stop. One cop radioed in the break-in, andtwo others ran toward the museum. The first man to the ladder scrambledhis way to the top, and then, like his thief counterpart a few minutesbefore, slipped and fell off.
Back to the radio. The police needed another patrol car, to bring theircolleague to the emergency room. Then they ran into the museum, thistime by way of the stairs.
The policemen hurried to the room with the ladder on the sill. A frigidbreeze flowed in through the broken window. The walls of the dark roomwere lined with paintings, but there was a blank spot next to the high windowon University Street. The police ducked the billowing curtains and stepped over the broken glass. A pair of wire cutters lay on the floor. Someonehad left a postcard.