The theft of The Scream in 1994 may have been less Thomas Crown and more Keystone Cops, but it grabbed the attention of both the world’s press and detectives from Scotland Yard, detectives who loved nothing better than going undercover to retrieve stolen masterpieces.
It was a particularly low-tech kind of theft, requiring just two men, a stolen car, a ladder, a hammer and some wire cutters. On the morning of 12 February 1994, one of the men scaled the ladder (on the second try – that ladder was a slippery bugger), took a hammer to the window and climbed into room 10 of Oslo’s National Gallery, where he proceeded to cut the wires holding Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Sliding the bulky painting down the ladder to his accomplice, the thief quickly followed.
It took just 50 seconds to steal a painting valued at $72 million.
The National Gallery had been robbed before, and it had made attempts to beef up security, but it was still far from invulnerable. Museums are, by their nature, susceptible to theft. They are meant to be places where art is accessible, not locked away in vaults. And the received wisdom was that no one would steal such a famous painting, as any buyer would know it was stolen.
There was an element of mockery in the theft, coming as it did on the opening day of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. As if to emphasize the fact, the thieves left a postcard behind, which said “Thanks for the poor security.”
The Yard Steps In
Art theft is an international crime. Differing laws mean that stolen art frequently surfaces far from where it originated. Scotland Yard’s Art and Antiques Unit, founded in 1969, was focused on London, but had many international contacts. The theft of The Scream quickly caught their attention. As detective Charley Hill put it in the book The Rescue Artist by Edward Dolnick, it had “sweet fuck-all to do with policing London. But it’s too good to miss.”
It was Hill, a man with an eclectic resume – former soldier, scholar, and cop – who came up with the plan that would retrieve the The Scream, which should come as no surprise. He’s done this before, and since, retrieving such stolen masterpieces as Vermeer’s Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid, and Titian’s Rest on the Flight into Egypt.
Hill’s plan saw him go undercover as ‘The Man from the Getty’. The richest museum in the world, the Getty has a reputation for having exceedingly deep pockets and for spending profligately. The Norwegian government couldn’t pay for the painting, so the cover story went, but the Getty could. In return, Norway would loan it the painting.
So Charley Hill became Christopher Charles Roberts, complete with Getty Museum ID and business cards.
In tandem with the Norwegian investigation, run by Detective Leif Lier, the Art Squad sting went into effect. Hill/Roberts brought £500,000 with him to Norway to meet the go-betweens. The hotel at which they met, the Oslo Plaza, was hosting the Scandinavian Narcotics Officers Annual Convention, which gave their dodgy contacts reason for suspicion which required some fast talking on Hill’s part to allay. Such is the life of an undercover policeman.
After a fraught investigation and a number of meetings with some distinctly dodgy people, The Scream was recovered in May. A triumphant press conference followed. Four men were charged with stealing the painting, receiving sentences from six years, three months to two years and eight months.
The story doesn’t end there, of course. Art theft is an ongoing crime. In his afterward to The Rescue Artist, Edward Dolnick notes that after he had sent in his manuscript in 2004, he heard a news report about another art theft in Oslo of …. you guessed it, The Scream.