The Scream by Edvard Munch
There he was deep in thought, scribbling notes at a booth table when I arrived at the Viennese Cafe at the National Gallery. ‘Doge!’ I shouted as I walked towards the table. (“Doge” after the Doge of Venice, is one of my nicknames for him).
‘Nathanielle, how wonderful to see you.’
(Nathanielle being one of his nicknames for me – a twist on the angel Nathaniel). We hugged. ‘How are you Doge?’
‘Well, besides having my withers wrung by BS, I’m great.’
‘Well you look great.’
‘And you look greater.’
‘I walked into town, that’s why I’m a bit late and sweaty,’ I said using a paper napkin to wipe my face.
‘Sit down, sit down,’ he said hanging my coat on the coat rack, ‘I want to buy you lunch.’
Edward Dolnick’s book The Rescue Artist lay on the table. It recounts the theft and recovery of Munch’s The Scream stolen on the 12th February 1994 from the National Gallery in Oslo. Charley was one of the key players in getting it back. At the time he was working with his colleagues Dick Ellis and John Butler at the Arts and Antiquities Squad of Scotland Yard who collaborated with the Norwegian authorities in recovering the painting. Together they came up with a cunning sting operation in which Charley went undercover as a dodgy middleman named Christoper Charles Roberts who told the thieves he was sent by the Getty Museum in LA to negotiate with them. The Getty, he said, would pay their ransom in return for the Norwegian government lending it the painting. A plausible plan as everyone knew (crooks included) that the Getty had so much money in those days it was literally handing it out to all and sundry.
‘Did you enjoy playing the role of Chris Roberts?’ I asked.
‘It brought out the vulgar rogue in me,’ he smiled.
You can hear him speak about the experience on the BBC World Service.
The book, which is an insightful and hilarious read, is in development (admittedly for the last eight years) to be made into a movie. Charley told the Hollywood production company that he wants to play himself. Why not? And of course I shall play his muse.
Something I didn’t know until recently is that there are four versions of The Scream: two paintings and two pastels plus there’s also a limited number of lithographs. The painting completed in 1893 hangs in the National Gallery, Oslo – this is the one Charley et gang recovered on the 7th May 1994.
The second painting completed in 1910 is in the The Munch Museum. It was also stolen, this time in August 2004 along with another painting by Munch called Madonna. The Norwegians recovered both two years later.
As for the pastel versions: the first completed in 1893 is in The Munch Museum. The second (1885) was bought by New York financier and art collector Leon Black at Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art auction on 2 May 2012. Black paid just under $120 million for it. Written on the back of the frame is the following poem by Munch:
I was walking along the road with two friends / the sun was setting / suddenly the sky turned blood red / I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence / there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city / my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety / and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.
Our lunch arrived: two large portions of kedgeree. I was ravenous and tucked in as the AD filled our glasses with house white and continued to enlighten me in on his recent travails regarding the recovery of two Francesco Guardi paintings stolen from Russborough House just outside Dublin in 1986 (a whole other story) and various other projects.
To my simultaneous delight and dismay dessert was on the house; a plate of petit four our lovely waiter was adamant to offer us. Well, I couldn’t say no but what about my up and coming Hollywood career… and Munch thought he had problems.
To mark the anniversary of the 1994 theft of The Scream Charley will be on the BBC again this coming Wednesday – will stick up the link then.
‘How I recovered the Scream’ – Witness – BBC News