- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 5, 2009

By R.A. Scotti
Knopf, $23.95, 225 pages

By Ulrich Boser
Smithsonian Books (Collins) $25.99, 260 pages

A curator friend used to say of Monet and Renoir that “If they hadn’t invented Impressionism, others would have. Something was in the air.” So be it with books and the simultaneous publication of “Vanished Smile” and “The Gardner Heist”; now’s the time for true-crime chronicles in art history.

These volumes recount the thefts of priceless art from venerable museums, two crimes that made news worldwide, but have never been surely solved although the first occurred a century ago. One lovely surprise in that case — the gentle heist of Mona Lisa right out of the Louvre — is that it can still make a delicious book today, thanks to an author’s research, erudition and artistry.

In spinning this story of operatic complexity (most facts have been told before), R.A. Scotti’s pen is as deft as Leonardo da Vinci’s brush. Add to Ms. Scotti’s assets her sly intent: She embellishes the mystery with enough red herrings and droll distractions to make Agatha Christie proud, and enough interesting information to deserve a doctorate.

Reading like a thriller, “Vanished Smile” opens in 1911 when New York is glutted with robber-baron arrivistes eager to buy, borrow or steal old masters’ masterpieces. An elegant poseur, an Argentine “Marques,” disembarks from the Mauretania and declares to customs that his luggage contains a painting, Mona Lisa. Writing a con as brilliant as the one she describes, Ms. Scotti reveals on page 9 that the counterfeit aristocrat did this six times and imported six flawless fakes — but she doesn’t even hint at the rest of this story for 200 pages.

For now, it’s enough to know that while Mona Lisa hangs safe in Paris, this mountebank offers to sell the world’s most famous painting to six of America’s richest collectors in a blind auction. Each pigeon knows that if he’s the highest bidder he can never show his prize, but must savor the icon in secret, the miser collector in his velvet crypt. So the caper begins.

Months later, a portly guard in the Louvre sleeps off his lunch, inured to the beauty on the walls and the few tourists who visit the Salon Carré where Leonardo’s mythic portrait hangs on hooks. On Sunday, August 20, Mona Lisa is there; on Monday, the museum is closed; on Tuesday, she is gone. Pfft.

This prompts the circus of a grand Gallic scandal, spiced with French farce. Yet the side shows that Ms. Scotti offers have substance: a glimpse of turn-of-the-century forensics (e.g., the first fingerprinting), a brief on Parisian jurisprudence, a survey of art history. She drops nuggets: this museum has “vast underground vaults … fashioned from the caves of the ancient wolf hunters who gave the Louvre its name.… Loup + vivre, ‘where wolves live.’” She pillories the alpha males of art commerce: “The Duveens did not become wealthy by being scrupulous.” She visits ateliers where Modern Art is born.

Enter Picasso, almost a pitiable victim terrorized by flics who rightly suspect him of harboring stolen goods. He betrays his friend the writer Guillaume Apollinaire, champion of the new art, who is jailed despite his innocence. Ms. Scotti goes to Florence for one of her denouements, as a ratty housepainter invites the Uffizi’s director to his fleabag pension and surrenders Mona Lisa from a suitcase under the bed. Vincenzo Peruggia had worked in the Louvre, and he serves a few months in jail while Mona Lisa returns to Paris absolutely unharmed.

But the thief, a moron who claims no accomplices, doesn’t have the brains or character to have done the deed alone. In fact, there are many loose ends, such as the faux Marques and his six fake Mona Lisas back in Manhattan. Suffice it that Scotti ties them up in a way that satisfies — if one can applaud a true-crime whodunit that doesn’t certify who actually did it. Honor-bound not to give away too much, this reviewer will write only that the possibilities are fabulous, and the telling sublime.

In “The Gardner Heist,” America’s biggest art theft remains unsolved despite all-out efforts by police, independent investigators and the FBI. Nor has anyone found the priceless swag stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston’s eccentric survivor of the Gilded Age, that trusted security systems about as strong as parasols.

On St. Patrick’s night 1990, gunmen overpowered the guards and made off with the richest haul ever taken from a museum. The $500-million hoard included paintings by Manet and Degas, one of only 30 known Vermeers and three Rembrandts, among them his only seascape, the epic “Storm on the Sea of Galilee,” that was ripped from its stretchers. This robbery is as brutal as the Louvre’s was bourgeois.

Though the case is still officially open, Ulrich Boser” href=”/themes/?Theme=Ulrich+Boser” >Ulrich Boser fingers a psycho mastermind in what reads like a police procedural. It even has a cerebral hero in Harold Smith, private investigator, genius sleuth, art connoisseur, and human grotesque with cancer-ridden face. Following his lead, Mr. Boser (a Washingtonian incidentally) sloughs through the arcane world of art theft and detection. After Smith dies, he dons the Holmesian mantle himself and becomes obsessed with the case until he thinks he solved it.

Though their subjects are so similar, Mr. Boser cannot compete with Ms. Scotti as a stylist of luminous prose nor with her easy erudition in cultural history and art. But his subject is closer to home and engagingly American, and his journeyman first-person reportage explains more about today’s museums, art world and art underworld.

Both writers try to explain the ineffable power of art, the driving force in both books, and one of Mr. Boser’s thugs comes close to expressing it. “There’s nothing like the rush of being in a museum at two in the morning, knowing you have the run of the place. It was like being in Aladdin’s cave.” Or as the grande dame Isabella Gardner wrote after purchasing her prize Rembrandt, “I am now as a tramp who has the Sun all to himself.”

In the end, these grand thefts prove the pricelessness of great art, which lies in its perpetual ability to move the human heart, and to drive the criminal hand to steal bits of wood or cloth adorned with painted colors. Beyond the dollar signs, why do such crimes matter? Art detective Smith explains, “When art is stolen there are hundreds of thousands of people who would be deprived of seeing it. Art theft isn’t just a crime against the owner.” It’s a crime against everyone, because these immortal works are humankind’s inheritance while, as genuine collectors know, the “ownership” of one is just a brief possession.

Philip Kopper has written books about three museums, ghostwritten memoirs by the founders of two other museums and served on the governing board of yet another.

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