by  Thomas

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Hoving (Tutankhamun: The Untold Story) isn't much of a writer, but he doesn't have to be with a first-hand story like this one. It has everything--raw ambition, museum politics, comic-opera Europeans, bribes, codes, forgeries, masterpieces, antiSemitism--and, if Hoving lacks style (especially in the stilted dialogue here), he does know how to pace this gorgeously stretched-out drama. In 1960, young Tom Hoving is a ""curatorial assistant"" at the Metropolitan Museum, a medievalist assigned to The Cloisters; and his first big purchase recommendation--a silver cross--has been turned down by the trustees. So Hoving--nakedly ambitious, suspicious of his shifty mentor, Met director William Rorimer--is set afire when he finds data on another, more spectacular cross (ivory, ornately carved) in the office fries. The Met staff has branded it a forgery; but an unusual inscription (""King of the Confessors"" rather than ""King of the Jews"") convinces Hoving otherwise. Thus, the game begins: tracking down the Cross' bizarre owner, a shady Yugoslav famed for his crude forgeries; studying the Cross in a Zurich vault, surreptitiously taking photos; sizing up the museum-world competition; trying to prove authenticity by locating missing pieces of the Cross (in hot pursuit, Hoving breaks into a glass case in a Florence museum!); promising quasibribes to an elegant middle-man. But, throughout, Hoving sees his main obstacle as Rorimer himself--a vain, manipulative sort whose help is indispensable if the trustees are to approve the $600,000 (!) pricetag. And there's a grand irony building: just as the Cross' authenticity becomes unmistakable, Hoving deciphers its elaborate inscriptions: a revenge litany, ""the harshest diatribe against the Jews ever to be found on a work of art."" Should Hoving reveal this to Rorimer? (Who, as Hoving notes elsewhere, is Jewish.) He does eventually share this discovery; Rorimer continues to play games (though, when Hoving challenges him, he backs down, confiding that ""the specter of humiliation surrounds me""); the British Museum closes in; a deadline is set. And at last, scuttling one last attempt by the Cross' owner to unload his forgeries too, Hoving wins the Winchester Cross--and goes on to identify the 12th-century Englishman who made it and the famed anti-Semite who added the inscriptions a few decades later. A great book? Sadly not--what with Hoving's bland prose, his limited likability, and the too-sketchy portrait of Rorimer. But for genuine sheer drama this beats every novel on the bestseller list: utterly engrossing reading for anyone with the slightest interest in museums, art, religion, or history.

Publisher:  Schuster