The Reader’s Shelf | It Takes a Thief: True Art Crimes

True crime is not just about blood and bodies, it can also be about paints and canvas, books and bronzes—as the fascinating world of art theft so vividly illustrates. When art and artifacts are stolen, the permanence of the loss is profound; once a masterpiece vanishes, it cannot be replaced. But it can, sometimes, be recovered. These titles explore both outcomes, making the tales they have to tell all the more enticing.

During World War II, the Nazi regime stripped Europe of much of its cultural property. In the final months of the war, a group of museum directors, art curators, and other specialists set out to find and recover the thousands of irreplaceable European treasures stolen by Hitler’s armies. In The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History (Center Street. 2010. ISBN 9781599951508. pap. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9781599952659), Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter tell the riveting story of this band of heroes as they track down and restore these priceless artworks. The film adaptation starring George Clooney and Matt Damon is scheduled for release in 2014. Edsel focuses on Southern Europe and the Vatican art collection in Saving Italy: The Race To Rescue a Nation’s Treasures from the Nazis.

Rarity in any format often translates into cash, and therefore not only is priceless art vulnerable to theft but rare books are prime targets as well. The extreme poverty that so many experienced during the Great Depression prompted a spate of book thefts and fraud that rare book curator Travis McDade presents in his compelling history, The Thieves of Book Row: New York’s Most Notorious Rare Books Ring and the Man Who Stopped It (Oxford Univ. 2013. ISBN 9780199922666. $27.95; ebk ISBN 9780199339532). During the 1930s, a trio of used booksellers managed a ring of thieves who hit libraries up and down the East Coast. Rich in characterization and vividly set, this tale of Manhattan’s Fourth Avenue, known then as “Book Row,” and its “bookleggers” makes for grand reading.

A more recent heist occurred in Boston at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. In 1990, two men, disguised as policemen, managed to steal 13 masterpieces by such artists as Degas, Vermeer, and Rembrandt. It was a perfect crime: the thieves were never caught (although the FBI identified the culprits this past spring) and the art they stole has never been recovered. In The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft (Harper. 2010. ISBN 9780061451843. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9780061972867), Ulrich Boser details the connections the thieves had to organized crime, the shadowy world of black market art sales, and the loops and leads of an investigation that has spanned decades. Boser’s exhaustive account is richly suspenseful and compelling.

One of the figures Boser interviews is Robert K. Wittman, the only full-time undercover FBI agent focused on art theft. In Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures (Broadway. 2011. ISBN 9780307461483. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9780307461490), written with co­author John Shiffman, Wittman relates the intriguing story of his work ingratiating himself into the dangerous world of black market buyers, art thieves, and the crime syndicates that traffic in stolen art. Opening with a scene straight out of a James Bond flick, Wittman captures his readers’ imagination and keeps them engaged as he describes his many cases and his run-ins with FBI bureaucrats.

Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream is nearly as iconic as Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. In February 1994, on the same day as the opening of the Winter Olympics in Norway, two thieves smashed their way into the National Museum in Oslo and made off with Munch’s masterpiece. Enter “the rescue artist,” Charley Hill of Scotland Yard, a proven investigator who worked by his own set of rules to help return the painting to Oslo. In the Edgar Award–winning The Rescue Artist: The True Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece (HarperPerennial. 2006. ISBN 9780060531188. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062041845), Edward Dolnick details Hill’s investigation as well as other thefts.

In Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives Through the Secret World of Stolen Art (Tin House. 2012. ISBN 9781935639381. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781935639398), Joshua Knelman’s account of spending five years mired in the world of art theft, readers meet LAPD detectives, lawyers, and all manner of shady characters and dedicated art experts. Knelman’s sharp investigations also explore the rise in concerted efforts to stop art theft and the growth of such institutions as the FBI’s Art Crime Team. Reading his gritty and fast-paced tale, one gets the exhilarating, dangerous sense of riding in the backseat of a squad car during a late-night, high-speed chase.

This column was contributed by Susanne Wells, Reference Librarian, Indianapolis Public Library

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Neal Wyatt About Neal Wyatt

Neal Wyatt compiles LJ's online feature Wyatt's World and is the author of The Readers' Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers' advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader's Shelf should contact her directly at