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During the 1979 London Times strike, journalist Watson decided to write a book on art-theft and interviewed the head of stolen-art recovery operations at the Italian Foreign Office. ""Why not try to recover some stolen art yourself?"" said the charismatic diplomat/detective there. So Watson did just that, with help from Italian officials, the former head of Scotland Yard's fine art squad, and assorted dealers and cops. The stolen painting in question: Caravaggio's Nativity, missing from Palermo since 1969. The plan: Watson would adopt the phony identity of a rich-but-shady art dealer, ""John Blake,"" hoping to attract offers and contacts from the art-theft sales underground. And Watson, always writing of ""Blake"" in the third person, documents every stage of this persona-building--in somewhat unnecessary, less-than-exciting detail. The pace picks up a bit, however, once ""Blake"" does at last find two promising, separate leads: a dealer in Naples who once offered the Caravaggio for sale; an apparent network of selling-and-smuggling (stolen art, heroin) involving Italy/Mexico/US connections. So both trails are pursued, still in ""Blake"" disguise. That Naples dealer does indeed lead Blake/Watson to the Caravaggio thieves: dicey negotiations, in Italy and London, ensue; then, just when a deal seems to be in the making, a southern-Italy earthquake destroys the delicate connection (the painting too, perhaps). Nor does the other lead seem to be working out: Blake/Watson is offered many paintings--most of them fake, alas, rather than stolen. Eventually, however, the ring offers ""Blake"" a genuine, stolen item--a Bronzino portrait; and, after lots of complications (price negotiations, smuggling arrangements), the Bronzino arrives in New York, a wired-for-sound Watson gets the necessary evidence. . . and the cops close in for a caught-redhanded arrest. Watson, unfortunately, is an uninspired writer: the large cast of characters here never quite comes to life; the reporter/hero himself, despite supposed dangers, is only very blandly engaging. And a relatively small caper-story is padded out with workaday history (auctions, art thefts, Caravaggio), excess minutiae, and a few irrelevant digressions. Still: an unusual first-hand closeup of art-world skulduggery, admirably un-fictionalized and moderately engrossing.

Pub Date: Jan. 6th, 1983
Publisher: Doubleday