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Silva’s new thriller goes inside world of art heists

In “The Rembrandt Affair,” best-selling spy novelist Daniel Silva  takes a behind-the-scenes look at the world of art theft — setting one of the most lucrative forms of criminal activity against the backdrop of Iran’s quest to acquire nuclear weapons. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

In “The Rembrandt Affair,” best-selling spy novelist Daniel Silva blends the worlds of art and intelligence. He takes a behind-the-scenes look at the world of art theft — setting one of the most lucrative forms of criminal activity against the backdrop of Iran’s quest to acquire nuclear weapons. An excerpt.

Chapter one
Though the stranger did not know it, two disparate series of events were by that night already conspiring to lure him back onto the field of battle. One was being played out behind the locked doors of the world’s secret intelligence services while the other was the subject of a global media frenzy. The newspapers had dubbed it “the summer of theft,” the worst epidemic of art heists to sweep Europe in a generation. Across the continent, priceless paintings were disappearing like postcards plucked from the rack of a sidewalk kiosk. The anguished masters of the art universe had professed shock over the rash of robberies, though the true professionals inside law enforcement admitted it was small wonder there were any paintings left to steal. “If you nail a hundred million dollars to a poorly guarded wall,” said one beleaguered official from Interpol, “it’s only a matter of time before a determined thief will try to walk away with it.”

The brazenness of the criminals was matched only by their competence. That they were skilled was beyond question. But what the police admired most about their opponents was their iron discipline. There were no leaks, no signs of internal intrigue, and not a single demand for ransom — at least not a real one. The thieves stole often but selectively, never taking more than a single painting at a time. These were not amateurs looking for quick scores or organized crime figures looking for a source of underworld cash. These were art thieves in the purest sense. One weary detective predicted that in all likelihood the paintings taken that long, hot summer would be missing for years, if not decades. In fact, he added morosely, chances were extremely good they would find their way into the Museum of the Missing and never be seen by the public again.

Even the police marveled at the variety of the thieves’ game. It was a bit like watching a great tennis player who could win on clay one week and grass the next. In June, the thieves recruited a disgruntled security guard at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and carried out an overnight theft of Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath. In July, they opted for a daring commando-style raid in Barcelona and relieved the Museu Picasso of Portrait of Señora Canals. Just one week later, the lovely Maisons à Fenouillet vanished so quietly from the walls of the Matisse Museum in Nice that bewildered French police wondered whether it had grown a pair of legs and walked out on its own. And then, on the last day of August, there was the textbook smash-and-grab job at the Courtauld Gallery in London that netted Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear by Vincent van Gogh. Total time of the operation was a stunning ninety-seven seconds — even more impressive given the fact that one of the thieves had paused on the way out a second-floor window to make an obscene gesture toward Modigliani’s luscious Female Nude. By that evening, the surveillance video was required viewing on the Internet. It was, said the Courtauld’s distraught director, a fitting end to a perfectly dreadful summer.

The thefts prompted a predictable round of finger-pointing over lax security at the world’s museums. The Times reported that a recent internal review at the Courtauld had strongly recommended moving the Van Gogh to a more secure location. The findings had been rejected, however, because the gallery’s director liked the painting exactly where it was. Not to be outdone, the Telegraph weighed in with an authoritative series on the financial woes affecting Britain’s great museums. It pointed out that the National Gallery and the Tate didn’t even bother to insure their collections, relying instead on security cameras and poorly paid guards to keep them safe. “We shouldn’t be asking ourselves how it is great works of art disappear from museum walls,” the renowned London art dealer Julian Isherwood told the newspaper. “Instead, we should be asking ourselves why it doesn’t happen more often. Little by little, our cultural heritage is being plundered.”

The handful of museums with the resources to increase security rapidly did so while those living hand to mouth could only bar their doors and pray they were not next on the thieves’ list. But when September passed without another robbery, the art world breathed a collective sigh of relief and blithely reassured itself the worst had passed. As for the world of mere mortals, it had already moved on to weightier matters. With wars still raging in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the global economy still teetering on the edge of the abyss, few could muster a great deal of moral outrage over the loss of four rectangles of canvas covered in paint.

The head of one international-aid organization estimated that the combined value of the missing works could feed the hungry in Africa for years to come. Would it not be better, she asked, if the rich did something more useful with their excess millions than line their walls and fill their secret bank vaults with art?

Such words were heresy to Julian Isherwood and his brethren, who depended on the avarice of the rich for their living. But they did find a receptive audience in Glastonbury, the ancient city of pilgrimage located west of London in the Somerset Levels. In the Middle Ages, the Christian faithful had flocked to Glastonbury to see its famous abbey and to stand beneath the Holy Thorn tree, said to have sprouted when Joseph of Arimathea, disciple of Jesus, laid his walking stick upon the ground in the Year of Our Lord 63. Now, two millennia later, the abbey was but a glorious ruin, the remnants of its once-soaring nave standing forlornly in an emerald parkland like gravestones to a dead faith. The new pilgrims to Glastonbury rarely bothered to visit, preferring instead to traipse up the slopes of the mystical hill known as the Tor or to shuffle past the New Age paraphernalia shops lining the High Street. Some came in search of themselves; others, for a hand to guide them. And a few actually still came in search of God. Or at least a reasonable facsimile of God.

Christopher Liddell had come for none of these reasons. He had come for a woman and stayed for a child. He was not a pilgrim. He was a prisoner.

It was Hester who had dragged him here — Hester, his greatest love, his worst mistake. Five years earlier, she had demanded they leave Notting Hill so she could find herself in Glastonbury. But in finding herself, Hester discovered the key to her happiness lay in shedding Liddell. Another man might have been tempted to leave. But while Liddell could live without Hester, he could not contemplate life without Emily. Better to stay in Glastonbury and suffer the pagans and druids than return to London and become a faded memory in the mind of his only child. And so Liddell buried his sorrow and his anger and soldiered on. That was Liddell’s approach to all things. He was reliable. In his opinion, there was no better thing a man could be.

Glastonbury was not entirely without its charms. One was the Hundred Monkeys café, purveyor of vegan and environmentally friendly cuisine since 2005, and Liddell’s favorite haunt. Liddell sat at his usual table, a copy of the Evening Standard spread protectively before him. At an adjacent table, a woman of late middle age was reading a book entitled Adult Children: The Secret Dysfunction. In the far back corner, a bald prophet in flowing white pajamas was lecturing six rapt pupils about something to do with Zen spiritualism. And at the table nearest the door, hands bunched contemplatively beneath an unshaved chin, was a man in his thirties. His eyes were flickering over the bulletin board. It was filled with the usual rubbish — an invitation to join the Glastonbury Positive Living Group, a free seminar on owl pellet dissection, an advertisement for Tibetan pulsing healing sessions — but the man appeared to be scrutinizing it with an unusual devotion. A cup of coffee stood before him, untouched, next to an open notebook, also untouched. A poet searching for the inspiration, thought Liddell. A polemicist waiting for the rage.

Liddell examined him with a practiced eye. He was dressed in tattered denim and flannel, the Glastonbury uniform. His hair was dark and pulled back into a stubby ponytail, his eyes were nearly black and slightly glazed. On the right wrist was a watch with a thick leather band. On the left were several cheap silver bracelets. Liddell searched the hands and forearms for evidence of tattoos but found none. Odd, he thought, for in Glastonbury even grandmothers proudly sported their ink. Pristine skin, like sun in winter, was rarely seen.

The waitress appeared and flirtatiously placed a check in the center of Liddell’s newspaper. She was a tall creature, quite pretty, with pale hair parted in the center and a tag on her snug-fitting sweater that read GRACE. Whether it was her name or the state of her soul, Liddell did not know. Since Hester’s departure, he had lost the capacity to converse with strange women. Besides, there was someone else in his life now. She was a quiet girl, forgiving of his failings, grateful for his affections. And most of all, she needed him as much he needed her. She was the perfect lover. The perfect mistress. And she was Christopher Liddell’s secret.

He paid the bill in cash — he was at war with Hester over credit cards, along with nearly everything else — and made for the door. The poet-polemicist was scribbling furiously on his pad. Liddell slipped past and stepped into the street. A prickly mist was falling, and from somewhere in the distance he could hear the beating of drums. Then he remembered it was a Thursday, which meant it was shamanic drum therapy night at the Assembly Rooms.

He crossed to the opposite pavement and made his way along the edge of St. John’s Church, past the parish preschool. Tomorrow afternoon at one o’clock, Liddell would be standing there among the mothers and the nannies to greet Emily as she emerged. By judicial fiat he had been rendered little more than a babysitter. Two hours a day was his allotted time, scarcely enough for more than a spin on the merry-go-round and a bun in the sweets shop. Hester’s revenge.

He turned into Church Lane. It was a narrow alleyway bordered on both sides by high stone walls the color of flint. As usual, the only lamp was out, and the street was black as pitch. Liddell had been meaning to buy a small torch, like the ones his grandparents had carried during the war. He thought he heard footfalls behind him and peered over his shoulder into the gloom. It was nothing, he decided, just his mind playing tricks. Silly you, Christopher, he could hear Hester saying. Silly, silly you.

At the end of the lane was a residential district of terraced cottages and semidetached houses. Henley Close lay at the northern-most edge, overlooking a sporting field. Its four cottages were a bit larger than most in the neighborhood and were fronted by walled gardens. In Hester’s absence, the garden at No. 8 had taken on a melancholy air of neglect that was beginning to earn Liddell nasty looks from the couple next door. He inserted his key and turned the latch. Stepping into the entrance hall, he was greeted by the chirping of the security alarm. He entered the disarm code into the keypad — an eight-digit numeric version of Emily’s birth date — and climbed the stairs to the top floor. The girl waited there, cloaked in darkness. Liddell switched on a lamp.

She was seated in a wooden chair, a wrap of jeweled silk draped over her shoulders. Pearl earrings dangled at the sides of her neck; a gold chain lay against the pale skin of her breasts. Liddell reached out and gently stroked her cheek. The years had lined her face with cracks and creases and yellowed her alabaster skin. It was no matter; Liddell possessed the power to heal her. In a glass beaker, he prepared a colorless potion — two parts acetone, one part methyl proxitol, and ten parts mineral spirits — and moistened the tip of a cotton-wool swab. As he twirled it over the curve of her breast, he looked directly into her eyes. The girl stared back at him, her gaze seductive, her lips set in a playful half smile.

Liddell dropped the swab to the floor and fashioned a new one. It was then he heard a noise downstairs that sounded like the snap of a lock. He sat motionless for a moment, then tilted his face toward the ceiling and called, “Hester? Is that you?” Receiving no reply, he dipped the fresh swab in the clear potion and once again twirled it carefully over the skin of the girl’s breast. A few seconds later came another sound, closer than the last, and distinct enough for Liddell to realize he was no longer alone.

Rotating his body quickly atop the stool, he glimpsed a shadowed figure on the landing. The figure took two steps forward and calmly entered Liddell’s studio. Flannel and denim, dark hair pulled into a stubby ponytail, dark eyes — the man from the Hundred Monkeys. It was clear he was neither a poet nor a polemicist. He had a gun in his hand, and it was pointed directly at Liddell’s heart. Liddell reached for the flask of solvent. He was reliable. And for that he would soon be dead.

Excerpted from “The Rembrandt Affair” by Daniel Silva. Copyright (c) 2010, reprinted with permission from Penguin Group.