There is a problem when you steal famous artworks: "Art is easy to steal, but hard to sell." So writes Matthew Hart in _The Irish Game: A True Story of Crime and Art_ (Walker). For the criminals described here, it is easy to steal the art: bind and gag the guards, rip up the alarms, and especially get in and out fast. When Hart describes one successful heist after another, it certainly seems like no particular challenge. But what does the crook do when he has that painting? It is then that the risks mount up; the mere possession of a Rembrandt might give very esthetic thieves satisfaction, but that's not what they are in the game for. There is little reality to the "Dr. No" perpetrator, named for the fantastically evil evildoer pitted against James Bond; there really aren't secretive billionaires ordering thefts for hire to get their particular favorite artwork to themselves. What is far more likely nowadays is that a fraction of the stolen item's value could be used for collateral in, say, a drug deal. Still, the thief needs to unload the artwork somehow, and this need provides the drama in the episodes of Hart's book, as international police forces work together to orchestrate elaborate sting operations.
In 1974, the Vermeer _Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid_ was stolen from the Beit collection at Russborough House near Dublin by a gang whose most curious and visible member was Rose Dugdale, a seductive, smart, spoiled rich kid who rebelling against whatever, was an Englishwoman supporting the IRA's campaign of terror. Twelve years later, it was stolen again by Dublin gangster Martin Cahill. Most of Hart's book has to do with the difficulties of finding the paintings again, the dangers and the dead ends as international police forces set spies on Cahill and his gang, and Cahill set his spies on them. Remarkably, after both these robberies, conservators that had to clean and repair the painting found new aspects of the canvas that changed scholarly opinions about them. The work of the restorers, and their discoveries, are described here in satisfying detail. Tangential to the main story are descriptions of the famous unsolved thefts from the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston and the 1994 theft of Munch's _The Scream_ from the National Gallery of Norway.
Hart has given a fast-paced and captivating account of the symbiosis between cops and robbers. He has valuable remarks on the contemporary art world, art restoration, and the particular way the Irish play the game. He helps explain the peculiar relationship between Cahill's gang and the Garda by analyzing the history of the Irish resistance to authority. The recovered Vermeer was rehung at Russborough House, where yet another attempt was made on it. The Beit collection has since been taken in by Dublin's National Gallery, which is less isolated and more protected. Hart shows, however, that it is a reasonable conjecture that someone is looking at the Vermeer on the Gallery's walls and wondering just how difficult it might be to make off with it again, and how difficult to gain riches by finding a taker.