A disclaimer to begin this review. I am not an “artsy-fartsy” kinda guy. The art exhibits to which I have been were all in the company of a woman. Half a century ago a young lady was accompanied to a place in San Francisco to see an exhibit of Maxfield Parrish
paintings. The experience is still indelibly etched into my memory. Blue has always been my favorite color and the vibrant blue hues of his paintings were amazing. The paintings found in books seem pale in comparison to seeing the paintings up close and personal.
Prior to the pandemic I read something about an author, Claudia Riess, “a Vassar graduate, has worked in the editorial departments of The New Yorker and Holt, Rinehart and Winston, and has edited several art history monographs,” who had written about the death of World Chess Champion Alexander Alekhine,
so I reached out only to learn Chess played a small role in the books she had already written, and was still writing. She sent me the first three books of a series of four books but they were misplaced during the pandemic. It was only years later the unopened package was discovered. After again contacting Claudia she sent the fourth book of the series, suggesting I review it first, as it is her latest effort in “An Art History Mystery” series. The title is, “To Kingdom Come.”
The first read was the last book of the series.
The truth is my taste in reading art books has been more along the lines of, The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World’s Largest Unsolved Art Theft, by Ulrich Boser. Some years later I read another book concerning the heist, Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist, by Stephen Kurkjian. Then came, History’s Biggest Art Heist: The largest art theft in history remains unsolved after thieves stole 13 masterpieces worth $500 million from a Boston museum. So whodunit? by Christopher Klein (https://www.history.com/news/historys-biggest-art-heist-remains-unsolved). Years later another book about the heist was published, WHITEY’S HEIST: The BREAKING of the GARDNER MUSEUM WILL an ongoing ENTERPRISE, by Jeffrey Barrett.
At Amazon one finds: “James WHITEY Bulger gave me a Gardner Museum ART HEIST interview in Waikiki, Hawaii just one month before he was arrested in California. ONLY after my death can you release this true story. Harvard orchestrated the breaking of the Isabella Stewart Gardner WILL that stipulated if anything was moved taken or sold the entire paintings and collection would be given to Harvard to be sold at their discretion. Harvard made Gardner Museum broke and in disrepair a new WILL modified deal to save it from total ruination The Gardner Family especially John Gardner gladly agreed to the new Harvard Museums/Gardner Museum Collaboration. The theft from the Blue Room of Manet’s the Chez Tortani was a key deliberate act of the Gardener Museum ensuring they were deliberately involved in the selling of that one piece of art because the thieves never entered the Blue Room that evening.”
In addition, during these years I read an article, Stéphane Breitwieser: World’s Most Notorious Art Thief (https://pursuitmag.com/stephane-breitwieser-story-worlds-notorious-art-thief/), which was so interesting I read other articles about the art thief: The Secrets of the World’s Greatest Art Thief (https://www.gq.com/story/secrets-of-the-worlds-greatest-art-thief); and, Stephane Breitwieser: The Truth About The Art Thief Who Stole $1.4 Billion (https://www.grunge.com/478873/stephane-breitwieser-the-truth-about-the-art-thief-who-stole-1-4-billion/?utm_campaign=clip).
The latest article read on the subject was: The Case of the Disputed Lucian Freud: A collector thought he had bought a painting by the celebrated British artist. How far would he go to prove it? By Sam Knight
September 19, 2022. (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/09/26/the-case-of-the-disputed-lucian-freud)
This has been fascinating reading because, The Fake Art Industry Is Booming Online: From exhibition catalogue pages marketed as original prints to brazenly fake “authorized” copies of Harings and Warhols, we’re living in a golden age of art piracy, by Chris Cobb September 28, 2022 (https://hyperallergic.com/764867/the-fake-art-industry-is-booming-online/)
Caveat Emptor. One of the things learned is that it is extremely difficult to prosecute art thieves because it is difficult to prove what was stolen was an original work. As P.T. Barnum famously said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
With a background like that it should be obvious why I would look forward to reading “An Art History Mystery.”
To Kingdom Come is a very well written, and researched, book that flowed, and it was a pleasure to read. I will admit it became obvious there was some difficulty in keeping the players straight in my memory. An earlier article read stated, “One early indicator of memory issues, according to Dr. Restak, is giving up on fiction. “People, when they begin to have memory difficulties, tend to switch to reading nonfiction,” he said. “Over his decades of treating patients, Dr. Restak has noticed that fiction requires active engagement with the text, starting at the beginning and working through to the end. “You have to remember what the character did on Page 3 by the time you get to Page 11,” he said. (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/06/well/mind/memory-loss-prevention.html)
That sounded like me. I therefore decided to associate each different character with someone previously known, so that when they popped up again all that had to be done was to “see” the character in my mind. It worked for me…
The review will begin with what can be found at Amazon:
“Amateur sleuths, Erika Shawn-Wheatley, art magazine editor, and Harrison Wheatley, art history professor, attend a Zoom meeting of individuals from around the globe whose common goal is to expedite the return of African art looted during the colonial era. Olivia Chatham, a math instructor at London University, has just begun speaking about her recent find, a journal penned by her great-granduncle, Andrew Barrett, an active member of the Royal Army Medical Service during England’s 1897 “punitive expedition” launched against the Kingdom of Benin.
Olivia is about to disclose what she hopes the sleuthing duo will bring to light when the proceedings are disrupted by an unusual movement in one of the squares on the grid. Frozen disbelief erupts into a frenzy of calls for help as the group, including the victim, watch in horror the enactment of a murder videotaped in real time.
It will not be the only murder or act of brutality Erika and Harrison encounter in their two-pronged effort to hunt down the source of violence and unearth a cache of African treasures alluded to in Barrett’s journal.
Much of the action takes place in London, scene of the crimes and quest for redemption.” (https://www.amazon.com/Kingdom-Come-Art-History-Mystery-ebook/dp/B09Z1KFNB4/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top?ie=UTF8)
Amazon shows seven reviews of the book but only three are given, each from the United States. All three reviews are given five stars, and were written by women. The other reviews, with either four, or three stars, are from elsewhere in the world but are not shown. None of the reviews were read. To the book:
A fellow named Harrison is married to a woman, Erika, and they have a young child. Erika is the star of the book, which would have made Mother, who read all of the Perry Mason books, happy. It was obviously a man’s world ‘back in the day’ and the only woman was the secretary, Della Street. If Claudia had been writing the Perry Mason books Della would have solved the crimes.
The most disconcerting thing written in the book came out of nowhere when Harrison asks, “Erika, am I losing you?”
This was simply a non sequitur, as it came out of the blue and was totally unnecessary, other than to confirm the woman was in control and her husband nothing but ancillary. The author has turned the husband into an insecure wimp for no reason whatsoever.
“The question was an explosion, yet delivered so softly, it was as if she knew she’d been shot, but not in what part of her body.
“Am I, Erika?”
She climbed back into bed and moved his laptop aside. “Where did that come from? How can you ask – how can you think that?”
“I don’t know. You have it all. Your career, our child, your breakthrough ideas, your fawning detective, lapping up your every word. What do you need me for? An occasional roll in the hay?”
She could not help laughing. Higher pitched than her usual laugh. “First of all, where did you come up with that dated expression? Second, where do you come off calling it occasional?”
“So am I.” She was giddy, on the verge of tears. “This is coming out of nowhere. You know I love you – need you, Harrison. You fulfill me.”
Reading the above caused bile to rise up in my throat making me want to HURL!
It also caused me to wonder if that made it qualify for “Chick Lit,” which has, according to some, “fallen out of fashion with publishers while writers and critics have rejected its inherent sexism.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chick_lit#cite_note-googlewordcount-1) Has it become de rigeur for the male to be included only to protect and support the female? The pendulum has swung the other way and women are graduating from college in larger numbers than men (https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/11/08/whats-behind-the-growing-gap-between-men-and-women-in-college-completion/). There has been a sea change in the number of female politicians over the past few decades. When coming of age often heard was a woman saying, “It’s a man’s world.” Has it become a “woman’s world?” I do not care to read about weak, insecure men. It is difficult to imagine Perry Mason and Paul Drake playing the parts of Harrison and John, the detective, while Della Street solves the case.
But wait, there’s more, unfortunately. Erika, who if you recall, is a young mother with a young child she has left behind in New York with not a family member, but a hired “nanny,” for who knows how long while she gallivants all over the world. From what is written it would have been much better if Harrison had been left behind in New York to care for the child because Erika is no team player as she goes off alone to catch someone who has already murdered at least once. The two men have no clue where the woman is because she gave them the slip. The book strains credulity.
After finishing the book I was left wondering… Then the page was turned and there were the “End Notes” and after reading I wondered no more as the notes brought it all together and answered the questions in my mind. The author informs the reader of how a “…reference to the Benin Bronzes sparked an idea for an art history mystery.” The author writes, “I read the reviews of books written on the Kingdom of Benin (in modern-day Nigeria!) and, more specifically, on the British “punitive expedition” of 1897, during which thousands of art and artifacts were seized from Benin City, a few in retaliation for an aggressive action that had occurred about a month earlier. Dan Hick’s The British Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution, appeared to be the most comprehensive coverage of the event and its surrounding history. I started my education with the Hicks book, and the sentence of his that most succinctly summed up the event and got my blood boiling was this:
“The sacking of Benin City in February 1897 was an attack on human life, on culture, on belief, on art, and on sovereignty.”
The author was not the only one with boiling blood. Everybody wants to rule the world. Might is right. There are untold spoils of war hidden deep in the vaults in Great Britain, and other countries, that were stolen from other countries. All of those ill-gotten gains should be returned to the countries of origin.