The Irish Game (Matthew Hart)

There’s nothing like a good art heist movie. A shady collector bankrolls a technically sophisticated theft but eventually gets caught when an even more impressive armada of security forces snare him in a net. Real art heists don’t always involve collectors. Increasingly, art is a commodity for drug traffickers. The works aren’t appreciated as art by their kidnappers in secret, humidity-controlled basement vaults. More often, they’re rolled up and stored like savings bonds waiting to mature.

In The Irish Game [LibraryThing / WorldCat], author Matthew Hart tells the story of a painting of Jan Vermeer that was stolen from the same Irish manor twice in twelve years. The first theft was political in nature; the second purely criminal. Authorities pretty much knew who orchestrated the second take. It was Martin Cahill, an underworld figure well-known to authorities. But nailing Cahill wasn’t easy. He was too deft at protecting his affairs and certainly good at hiding the Vermeer. The painting was eventually recovered by the son of the man who had found the same painting 19 years earlier. (That may sound like a spoiler, but it isn’t. My copy of the paperback had that fact printed on its cover.)

Mixed with his narrative of international art crime, the Irish underworld, and criminal investigation, the author discusses the artwork itself. He explains the discoveries made during the restoration of the Vermeer and suggests various lighting and pigment elements used so well by the Dutch master. All the information ran through my head recently when I had the rare opportunity to see two Vermeer paintings myself. (There are only about 35 Vermeers in existence) I also appreciated that I could see the paintings. You just don’t get glimpses of masterpieces when they’re stashed under the floorboards of some underworld scum.

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