News & Politics

Future Bookshelf: Mark Deli Siljander, Ulrich Boser and the Case of the Missing Masterworks

"The Future Bookshelf" is a weekly feature highlighting upcoming or recently signed books with a Washington connection. Tune in each week for a new installment, author interviews, and deal gossip.

The big news on February 28 was the suicide bombing at an air base in Afghanistan where Vice President Dick Cheney had been waiting to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But buried below that story in the headlines on my RSS feed was one from the BBC that also got my attention: “Picasso Paintings Stolen in Paris.”

It turned out that robbers had waltzed into the home of Pablo Picasso’s granddaughter while she and her mother were sleeping and lifted “Maya With Doll,” a portrait of Picasso’s daughter, and “Portrait of Jacqueline,” a painting of the Spanish artist’s second wife. The two oil works are estimated to be worth a combined $66 million. In the three weeks since the theft, Paris police haven’t made any arrests.

Art theft is a burgeoning industry. Much was made in 2004 of the theft of two Edvard Munch paintings—“The Scream” and “Madonna,” with a combined insured value of $121 million—from the Munch Museum in Oslo. They were recovered later that year, but the case remains unsolved.

According to the Art Loss Register, more than 400 Picaccos are currently missing, including seven stolen from a Zurich gallery in 2004. And it’s hard to forget the looting of artifacts from Baghdad’s libraries and museums in the early days of the Iraq war.

Who is behind this real-life Thomas Crown Affair? Does a love for art or money motivate the madness? On whose walls do these famous works now hang?

Washington writer Ulrich Boser—whose work has appeared in US News and World Report, Smithsonian, the Washington Post, and the Washington City Paper—will take on one of the world’s largest unsolved art thefts in his new book, Missing. The subject is the 1990 robbery of Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, in which two men dressed as police officers pillaged the small museum, taking off with $300 million worth of works by Manet, Degas, Flinck, and Rembrandt. They also cut from its frame Vermeer’s “The Concert,” one of only 36 paintings Vermeer is known to have completed and the museum’s crown jewel. That painting is still missing, and the case remains open. Suspects have included the Irish Republican Army, South American drug traffickers, and Boston organized-crime head Whitey Bulger.

Boser—who won the 2004 National Award for Education Reporting and in December published a story in Archaelogy about Hannibal’s route over the Alps (—will employ famed art detective Harold Smith’s files in his narrative, to be published by Smithsonian Books.

To all of you art and museum lovers out there, take it from the Future Bookshelf: Boser is a writer to watch. And to those of you who haven’t stepped into the National Gallery of Art, the National Portrait Gallery, the Hirshhorn Museum, the Phillips Collection, or Washington’s many other art treasure troves, do yourselves a favor and make the trip soon. As the Boston case shows, there’s no guarantee the opportunity will be there forever.

Other recent Washington-related book deals:

Local journalist Martin Schram signed on with Thomas Dunne Books to write How America Dishonors, Deceives, and Disserves Those Who Fight Our Battles. Schram, who writes a column for the Scripps Howard News Service, will trace the struggles of young American servicemen and servicewomen from recruitment to combat to discharge. The book will be released in winter 2008.

After working for 20 years as a clandestine serviceman for the CIA, Gary Berntsen put down his pistol for a pen. His 2001 book, Jawbreaker: The Attack on Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda: A Personal Account by the CIA’s Key Field Commander, written with Ralph Pezzullo, made it to the New York Times bestseller list. This year, Berntsen and Pezzullo will give fiction a shot with The Walk-In, a CIA thriller to be published by Crown.

This fall, Melville House will publish Reporting Iraq: An Oral History by the Journalists Who Covered It. Some 50 writers contributing to the project—under the auspices of the Columbia Journalism Review—include Post reporters Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Anthony Shadid, New York Times correspondent Dexter Filkins, the London Independent’s Patrick Cockburn, and several foreign reporters.

Former Michigan congressman Mark Siljander will recount his spiritual journey in which he “discovered commonalities between Islam and Christianity” in Reconcilable Differences: The True Story of the Quest to Bridge the Divide Between Islam and Christianity, slated for a summer 2008 publication by HarperSanFrancisco. Siljander also served as US ambassador to the United Nations.