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The Irish Game : A True Story of Crime and Art
In the annals of art theft, no case has matched--for sheer criminal panache--the heist at Ireland's Russborough House in 1986.
The Irish police knew right away that the mastermind was a Dublin gangster named Martin Cahill. Yet the great plunder --including a Gainsborough, a Goya, two Rubenses, and a Vermeer-- remained at large for years. Cahill taunted the police with a string of other crimes, but in the end it was the paintings that brought him low. The challenge of disposing of such famous works forced him to reach outside his familiar world into the international arena, and when he did, his pursuers were waiting.
The movie-perfect sting that broke Cahill uncovered an astonishing maze of banking and drug-dealing connections that redefined the way police view art theft. As if that were not enough, the recovery of the Vermeer--by then worth $200 million--led to a remarkable discovery about the way Vermeer achieved his photographic perspective.
The Irish Game places the great theft in Ireland's long sad history of violence and follows the thread that led, as a direct result of Cahill's desperate adventures with the Russborough art, to his assassination by the IRA. With the storytelling skill of a novelist and the instincts of a detective, Matthew Hart follows the twists and turns of this celebrated case, linking it with two other world-famous thefts--of Vermeer's "The Concert" and other famous paintings at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, and of Edvard Munch's "The Scream" at the National Gallery of Norway in Oslo. Sharply observed, fully explored, The Irish Game is a masterpiece in the literature of true crime.
In this engaging account of how stolen paintings have become collateral in the international drug trade, starting with the 1974 theft of a priceless Vermeer from an Irish estate, British author Hart (Diamond: A Journey to the Heart of an Obsession) offers a convincing revisionist view of the closest thing the book has to a protagonist, legendary Irish thug Martin Cahill (aka "The General"). The case that the "slovenly, loyal, suspicious, immovable" Cahill was no mastermind, however, tends to render the narrative more prosaic than dramatic, as does the argument that most heists, including the sensational 1990 robbery from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the 1994 theft of Edvard Munch's The Scream, involved more chutzpah and embarrassing security lapses than Topkapi-like planning. The author's primary strength lies in his character portraits-he describes one upper-class art thief as rooting around "in the issues of the day like someone picking through a bin for a hat that would fit." The dedicated Irish police who tracked these criminals and attempted numerous stings to recover the paintings deserve credit for their heroism, but they aren't particularly memorable. Still, Hart sheds light on a little-known area of modern crime that should be of interest to many general readers.
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April 29, 2004
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