Bookshelf: great art in Ireland

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Let me strongly recommend, as diversionary reading, two recent books on art in Ireland that I happened to pick up at bookstores—they've both got handsome covers—and which I found to be fascinating reading.

The first is The Irish Game, by Matthew Hart. It tells how Vermeer's painting Lady Writing a Letter With Her Maid, owned by Sir Alfred and Lady Beit, was stolen by professional art thieves not once but twice from Russborough House, a Georgian mansion in the Wicklow Mountains not far from Dublin. Hart, a London-based writer, describes the Irish gangsters who organized the heists, the Irish detectives who recovered the painting, and the way that great paintings are used as collateral in drug deals by organized criminals. It seems they're too famous to sell to anyone, and owners and insurance companies are not always willing to pay ransom, but as relatively small and portable objects that can easily be kept in hiding, they can be held as security for large payments of money. If the thieves can't recover their value in the legal market for art—which in the case of a Vermeer would be in the tens or even hundreds of millions—they can take advantage of their considerably less but still substantial value in the illegal market for art.

Another fascinating tale is told by American writer Jonathan Harr in The Lost Painting. Harr tells how several art experts, working more or less independently, helped to establish the identity of a lost Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ, which was owned by a house of Jesuits in Lower Leesom Street, Dublin, just a few blocks off St. Stephen's Green. The painting had been donated by an elderly female doctor some years before, and neither she nor the Jesuits had any idea that it was a Caravaggio, or that it was worth anything at all.

But Sergio Benedetti, an Italian who worked as a restorer at the National Gallery of Ireland, did, and with the help of an octogenarian Etonian and two young Italian art history students, he established its identity as a Caravaggio sold by the Mattei family, for whom it had evidently been painted, to a Scots aristocrat in 1802. (Note: The Scot cheated on the Papal States customs duty.) There's lots of fascinating detail here, about the arts business and ancient Roman family archives. I'm familiar with the streets in Rome where Caravaggio lived, and I've visited the National Galley of Ireland and saw The Taking of Christ in July 2003; and I can assure you that Harr has done an excellent job of describing the 17th-century artist and the 20th-century art mystery.

Christmas gift idea: Give copies of these two books to the people on your list who have a taste for art, art restoration, art thievery, Ireland, or just fascinating stories painstakingly but entertainingly well told.