Art theft? It's such a scream

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The first thing that crossed my mind when I heard about the theft of Edvard Munch's The Scream was that if ever a painting could be said to have been asking for it, it was this one.

The first thing that crossed my mind when I heard about the theft of Edvard Munch's The Scream was that if ever a painting could be said to have been asking for it, it was this one. There was the picture's celebrity, which should deter art thieves but never seems to. And there was the image itself, which in many photos looked as if reacting to its own rough seizure.

As someone who has always found the painting's self-advertising agony a bit wearisome, I'm afraid I felt a little jolt of vindication at the news that it had been abducted. "At last you've really got something to moan about," I thought. The Scream has long been the Nike "swoosh" of neurosis, a brand logo that has been reproduced virtually everywhere, and was even treated as a repeatable graphic by Munch himself, since he produced four versions of the picture. It is also, as far as I know, the only great painting to have been reproduced as an inflatable plastic punchbag - perhaps the finest tribute to its timeless powers of aggravation.

I realise that this will sound flippant about an event described in one Oslo daily as "a great blow to Norwegian culture", but what can I say? We can't all care equally about every piece of art - and, in any case, I would be willing to bet it will eventually turn up again - just as another Munch Scream did after a theft in 1994.

Yet I can't help feeling either that it was a worse day for connoisseurs of the heist than it was for connoisseurs of fine art - a sentiment that seemed to find covert expression in much of the coverage.

In popular culture fine-art theft generally features as an aristocratic branch of larceny - a kind of Thomas Crown Affair. But there was no disguising that this was thoroughly vulgar, even farcical at times. So over-excited were the raiders that they crashed into the plate-glass doors at the entrance to the museum, having mistimed the automatic opening mechanism, a Jerry-Lewis-style pratfall that couldn't but detract from the elegance of the operation. Add to that the CCTV images of hooded villains legging it across the lawns, and you had something with all the refinement of a sudden lunge at a newsagent's till. As Aftenposten rather sniffily noted, it was "almost as easy as robbing a kiosk".

What people really value in an art theft is obvious from a car advert running on television. This features a man in SWAT-team gear descending from a gallery skylight on a zip-line and stopping with surgical precision just inches from the floor. As it happens, he's outwitted by the Picasso portrait he's after, which dodges around the walls like a startled gecko, but the essence of the thing is still there - expertise, precision and connoisseurship. The thief doesn't hesitate in the face of an aesthetic smorgasbord, but heads straight for the canvas he wants. The fictional gallery has done its bit too, by putting in place security measures which demand a bit of flair to circumvent them. As a result this fictional attempt could reasonably be described as "audacious" - the approving adjective which featured in virtually every newspaper report on the theft of The Scream.

(The word "audacious" has had an interesting history, sliding from the unconscionable to the admirable. When Leontes describes Paulina as "audacious" in The Winter's Tale he doesn't mean that she's daring and courageous, but that she's repulsively amoral. Now, though, "audacious" often mitigates a crime rather than excoriating it.)

As well as audacity, we like our thieves to show good taste. Reports on art theft quite often note how selective a burglary has been, the most delicious grace note being the implication that art works have been stolen to order. When a famous Goya portrait of the Duke of Wellington was stolen from the National Gallery in 1961, the makers of Dr No immediately capitalised on the fact by propping a copy on the set of Dr No's secret hideout. As he passes it, Sean Connery does a double-take which long ago lost its pertinence, but the fantasy of the ruthless millionaire who will stop at nothing to possess a masterpiece still has its force. Art theft, we like to believe, is just a specialised form of discernment.

Unfortunately, the reality is much more banal. It's a criminal business - the fourth-largest after drugs, money-laundering and illegal arms trading, according to The Art Loss Register. Like most businesses, it attracts more idiots than geniuses, and those who stole The Scream appear to have been more idiotic than most. If they had any respect at all for the field in which they work they'd give the painting back to the gallery. That way someone with a bit more style could have a crack at stealing it properly.