Master Thieves by Stephen Kurkjian

Genre: history
Secondary genre: heist
Format read: audiobook
Rating: planchet-3

If you read yesterday’s review of The Map Thief, then this book ties in very nicely with it, but is much more enjoyable.

Art enthusiasts and fans of heist fiction might be familiar with the story of the Gardner Museum theft in 1990 when 2 security guards were tied up and locked in a room, 13 works of art were stolen, and other were damaged in what appeared to be a random act of vandalism.

This book follows a slightly different investigative route than the police, arguing that the plan to rob the Gardner and the plan the thieves followed was thought up by another man–a may who was serving a prison sentence at the time of the robbery and had no connection to the crime. Which begs the question: Who were the thieves? How did they find out about the plan? And above all, where are the missing artifacts?

A real life mystery, Master Thieves reveals how what at first appears to be a hap-hazard robbery leaves many questions and no clues.

I really really enjoyed the story, though on audio it was a little hard to follow, frequently jumping between different criminal elements and naming many people in quick succession. I think it would have been a bit easier for me to read if I’d had a hard copy or ebook, but it was still quick to get through and I wasn’t bothered by my few moments of confusion.

Aside from the obvious link of being about theft of cultural objects, there is one other link between Master Thieves and The Map Thief: The changes in how crimes involving museum objects and cultural items had a direct impact in how the crime at the Garden was investigated, and how it would have been prosecuted, had there been any leads on who committed it.

If you enjoy art history, mob stories, or books like Catch Me If You Can, then this is worth giving a try.

The Map Thief by Michael Blanding

Genre: biography
Secondary genre: history, heist
Format read: audiobook
Rating: planchet

Fans of Catch Me If You Can and White Collar might fight my next selection interesting.

The Map Thief is a biography of a dealer in antique maps turned con man. E. Forbes Smiley didn’t start out dealing maps, but rather fell into it through his interest in history.

For about twenty years he was above board and well respected, but then his high living finally caught up to his checkbook, and he started stealing from the libraries and museums he’d helped establish.

The case was huge, impacting American laws regarding cultural patrimony (that is, things of historical and cultural value that may or may not have a high monetary value). As someone trained in art history, restoration, and conservation, it was a fascinating read from that perspective.

Sadly, if this were a fictional account I’d say it was poorly written with flat, unappealing characters. Smiley is just another mediocre, middle aged man who can’t handle his money or manage to show respect for others, thinking the world owes him something. Through the book he takes criticism poorly, lashes out at those who challenge him, and justifies the thefts through the fact that he helped establish most of the collections his maps came from. From a cultural preservation standpoint, I have a hard time imagining he was even a very good thief, cutting and tearing pages, folding them, and retouching with materials that weren’t historically accurate.

I won’t deny he was treated unfairly by the justice system after his arrest (though nonviolent, he was put in solitary for months at a time and denied basic hygiene), but all in all I thought the book was dull and it’s subject unsympathetic. The author’s last name says it all, really.