Art Thefts BOURGEOIS AND BRUTAL

Article excerpt

Byline: Philip Kopper, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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 CarrA 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. …