Episode 15



Vanessa Kirby and Charles Hill share the inside story of an iconic art theft. Hill went undercover to retrieve 'The Scream' by Edvard Munch after it was stolen from Norway’s National Gallery. Posing as a buyer for the Getty Museum, Charles drew the dangerous thieves out of the shadows.
Read the transcript →

True Spies Episode 15: The Man From The Getty

NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position?

This is True Spies Episode 15: The Man From The Getty.

CHARLES HILL: You've got to have as much control over your emotions as possible at the time when you're doing the work. And also you've got to tell as few lies as possible. And the few lies you do tell have to be whoppers.

NARRATOR: This is the story of how lies, disguise - and an awful lot of knowledge - helped a British detective recover one of the world’s most valuable paintings after it was stolen in Norway.

CHARLES HILL: Charles Hill is my name and I'm a retired Metropolitan Police officer here in London. And I suppose, looking back on my life and career as a police officer, the greatest successes I had were in recovering stolen works of art.

NARRATOR: And if you’re a thief operating in the rarefied world of fine art, there’s only one color that really stands out: you’ll have a keen eye for shades of green.

CHARLES HILL: They look for the imaginary price tag hanging from it. I mean, they're aware, obviously, of the exorbitant prices that go at auctions for big pictures that they're all aware of, that they know that insurers pay out big bucks for stolen works, too, when they're recovered.

NARRATOR: The Scream, by Edvard Munch, is one such painting. In 2012, a version of the work made history when it sold for almost $120m at Sotheby’s auction house in New York. But it’s more than a good investment. It’s one of the most recognizable images on the planet, splashed across T-shirts, pinned to the dorm-room walls of aspiring artists, and parodied endlessly. It has even inspired an emoji. As it happens, Charles isn’t a fan.

CHARLES HILL: I can't stand Edvard Munch. I certainly looked into his life and he was a God damn Nazi so I can't bear the man. However, that doesn't mean to say that he didn't have a genius for painting.

NARRATOR: In 1994, just as the spotlight of the global media shone briefly on Norway, The Scream was silenced.

CHARLES HILL: On the first day of the Winter Olympics that year, which was held in Norway in Lillehammer, Edvard Munch's The Scream was stolen from the National Gallery in Oslo.

NARRATOR: To get it back, Oslo’s chief of police, Leif Lier, knew that he needed the best in the business, even if that meant reaching out across the North Sea. For those unfamiliar with modern British policing, the Metropolitan Police might conjure up a particular gallery of mental images - big shoes, dress blues, twirling truncheons. But as one of the largest police forces in the world, its operations - overt and covert - are wide-ranging. After earning his stripes patrolling some of London’s most dangerous neighborhoods during the 1980s and 1990s, Charles Hill climbed the ranks to detective chief inspector, working alongside what would become the UK’s National Crime Agency, essentially a British equivalent to the FBI.

CHARLES HILL: What I did while I was a detective chief inspector involved in that kind of work. I also did a lot of undercover work, mostly - not exclusively, but mostly - recovering stolen works of art. And I was highly successful.

NARRATOR: That’s not an empty boast. The year before the theft of The Scream, Charles hunted down a trove of priceless artworks in Antwerp, Belgium, going toe-to-toe with one of Ireland’s most feared criminal gangs in the process.

CHARLES HILL: I recovered a Vermeer, a magnificent portrait by Goya called Doña Antonia Zárate, and other pictures, others from that particular theft from Russborough, which is a great Palladian mansion in the Dublin Mountains, Wicklow. We got all of those back in Antwerp.

NARRATOR: No, Charles Hill was not your average policeman. The son of a blue-collar American airman and a British ballerina, his soft mid-Atlantic accent and academic bearing set him apart from his peers on the force. Tall, neat, well-dressed, and burly, he was a far cry from the grizzled detectives of popular imagination. To his fellow officers, this American art lover must have seemed like an oddity. But to underestimate him would have been a very foolish mistake.

CHARLES HILL: I am very, very fond of my memories of being a cantankerous son of a bitch in the jungle, in my unit, in the 173rd Airborne in the central highlands of Vietnam.

NARRATOR: Despite that military background, Charles was something of a loner in the macho, backslapping world of the Metropolitan Police. But when it comes to great art, there’s no disguising his passion.

CHARLES HILL: When I came back from Vietnam, I worked at night as a security guard. I went to university in Washington, DC to finish off my B.A. that I'd started some years before. And I was doing well, working at night. But I wouldn't work on Saturday nights because on Sunday mornings, Kenneth Clark produced an extraordinary series of films called Civilization, a series of 13 shows. And I went down to the National Gallery in Washington, DC and watched them. Well, that cemented my brain around a love of art. Simple as that.

NARRATOR: Hill’s academic leanings eventually brought him to London, where he studied theology and briefly considered the priesthood.

NARRATOR: As it turned out, his true calling was rather less sedate. Although, in a way, he’s still spent a lifetime in search of the divine. What emerged from Charles’ patchwork of could-have-been lives was complex and often contradictory. A cynic with a rigid moral compass. An art lover with a special gift for violent threats. All told, an unusual fit for the Met…

CHARLES HILL: I think at the time I just found police work interesting. And I remember watching and listening to Sir Robert Mark, who was then the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in London, give a lecture on television. He castigated not just corrupt cops, but corrupt lawyers, everyone who he thought was providing bad news in society as a whole. And I thought: “Well, that's worth doing.” But mainly I thought I could probably do something else better than be a Church of England vicar. And I'm sure I was right. However, we'll never know. But I do, I see this as a vocation, in other words, recovering stolen works of art.

NARRATOR: Hill’s new vocation would turn out to be very bad news indeed for some unlucky members of the art-crime community.

CHARLES HILL: Trophy art heist, whether it's the theft of The Scream or any of the other big pictures I've recovered, all have been generated by money.

NARRATOR: But why paintings? Put yourself in the shoes of a petty criminal, looking for yourentrée into the world of big-ticket crime. Would fine art be your first port of call? Why not guns, or drugs, or trafficking?

CHARLES HILL: So far as trophy-art heists are concerned, the people that do them, although they may be accomplished criminals in a variety of ways - robberies, drugs, you name it - they always extend themselves beyond their range of natural ability. And I find that intriguing. Why do people want to shoot themselves in the foot stealing some masterpieces that they are highly, highly unlikely to ever be able to sell? And it intrigues me the mentality that goes into this.

NARRATOR: And if you were going to summarize that mentality…

CHARLES HILL: Just stupid, stupid greed. One word.

NARRATOR: By the early 1990s, Charles had made his reputation as one of the Met’s most fearless and effective operatives. In doing so, he’d caught the eye of one of the most highly specialized, obscure, and frequently under-funded teams on the force, The Art Squad. As Norway mourned the loss of one of its most precious artworks, it was only a matter of time before the Squad reached out.

CHARLES HILL: In early February 1994, I worked in Europol. The organization had been set up a few years earlier and I was one of the early members of it. So on weekends, I was at home here in London. And that Sunday morning on the news [I heard that] that The Scream had been stolen. So I listened to the news and watched it and thought about it. And on Monday morning I headed back to The Hague. But just before midday, the phone rang. I just got into the office. And I'll be damned, it was the head - or then the supervising officer - of the Art and Antiques Squad, John Butler. And he said: “Charles, have you heard about The Scream being stolen?” And I said: “Yep, I watched it on the news.” And he said: “What do you think we can do?” I said: “Well give me a few minutes. I'll think about it.”

NARRATOR: While Charley takes a few minutes, let me run you through the ins and outs of this particular heist. Did you imagine catsuits, laser-beam alarm systems, and glass cutters? Well, not quite. Just before dawn on a pitch-black winter’s morning, a stolen car pulled up outside the Norwegian National Gallery. What happened next was, quick, dirty, and breathtakingly simple. Two men dashed across the snow, carrying an ordinary household ladder. They placed it against the back wall of the gallery, up to the second floor.

CHARLES HILL: We know that because it was all filmed on CCTV cameras outside, and we also know that the first time, the guy that went up the ladder who broke the window slipped and he fell down into the snow at the bottom. But the guy holding the ladder obviously ordered him back up, so up he went again and smashed the window and then came down with The Scream.

NARRATOR: The sound of breaking glass shattered the frigid air. Within moments, one of the most iconic artworks in history was being lowered unceremoniously back down the ladder. A lonely engine revved and The Scream vanished into the night.

CHARLES HILL: The ladder was still up.

NARRATOR: And the thieves had even left an actual calling card, a postcard with a cartoon image of three men laughing uproariously emblazoned on the front, and a message scrawled on the back: Thanks for the poor security. Charles could hardly walk away from such an obvious taunt.

CHARLES HILL: So I sat in my office and I stared at the frozen canal outside. I sat and I thought: “I know what we can do.”

NARRATOR: A priceless work of art is missing. The perpetrators are openly mocking the authorities. They think they’re smart. You have to be smarter. How do you take them down? How do you turn their arrogance to your advantage?

NARRATOR: In his office in the Hague, Charles thought about the one thing that all thieves have in common: greed. To get his men, he’d need to use every tool in his undercover arsenal - disguise, deception, and crucially, the prop trap. More on that later. He would have to transform himself into bait that no art thief could resist - a buyer of great pictures, with deep, deep pockets. Fortunately, the Art Squad had connections.

CHARLES HILL: One of the detective sergeants, a very able man at Scotland Yard at the time, Dick Ellis, had done some work with an FBI agent to assist the Getty Museum. So I said: “What I can do is I could be the man from the Getty.”

NARRATOR: The beginnings of a plan were in motion. Charles Hill would become The Man From The Getty Museum in California - a fast-talking private buyer with far more cash than scruples. The museum was more than happy to help. Scotland Yard, a dramatic heist, an exotic - if chilly - locale? What’s not to like? Together with the Getty, the Art Squad started putting together Charles’s legend, the backstory that would allow him to fly under the radar as the chase began.

CHARLES HILL: All I wanted from them was the creation of an identity.

NARRATOR: Art thieves aren’t renowned for their trusting nature. To infiltrate their world, you need to look, sound and act like the real deal. Like any spy, your cover has to go deep. Charles had to become The Man from the Getty.

CHARLES HILL: Even onto their system, because you never know when a villain, a criminal, has access to confidential information through some bungling young employee or whoever. So the Getty Museum was very good about that. They just created a complete identity for me and I got calling cards and all that.

NARRATOR: But it can’t be that simple. How do you make sure your legend holds up, inside and out?

CHARLES HILL: You've got to have as much control over your emotions as possible at the time when you're doing the work. And also you've got to tell as few lies as possible. And the few lies you do tell have to be whoppers.

NARRATOR: And with that in mind, Hill’s alter-ego was born.

CHARLES HILL: Chris Roberts, or as I pronounce it - clear my throat here - Chris Roberts. I was posing as a mid-Atlantic accented, dodgy art dealer, I had to get my American 'r's in. “Hi there. I'm Chris Roberts.” And when you work on it, it comes back very quickly.

NARRATOR: But an accent and an attitude aren’t going to cut it in deep cover. You need to know everything there is to know about the priceless painting at the heart of your mission. What makes it truly unique? What makes up the DNA of a masterpiece? If you don’t know that, how would you know you’re not being fobbed off with a fake?

CHARLES HILL: It was the original version. It's the one he did on a big piece of cardboard. And it's the one where he blew out a candle on it. So we look at the original version of The Scream. You look down on the right, you'll see some white splotches. That's candle wax. And that's how I remembered. I mean, you can't blow out a candle twice in the same way.

NARRATOR: There are four versions of The Scream. This one taken from Norway’s National Gallery was the original, from 1893, the purest distillation of Munch’s terrifying vision. With his alias under construction and his art buff credentials, well… buffed, there was just one thing Charles needed: backup. Enter Sid Walker, the finest undercover officer of his generation. The head of the Met’s Undercover Unit, and 15 years older than Charles, he’d been a friend and mentor for years. He was also an intimidating physical presence, the perfect hard-man minder to Charles’s brash American art dealer. The stage was set. It was time to put the Art Squad’s scheme into effect. Within a month, they set to work.

In Europe’s criminal underworld, word had spread that The Man From The Getty was willing to part with serious cash to get his hands on an original Munch. A rogues’ gallery of pretenders emerged from the woodwork - petty crooks, chancers, even a pair of anti-abortion campaigners who claimed to have stolen the painting to raise awareness for their cause. None of them were credible. Meanwhile, in Oslo, the Norwegian police were faring no better. Their one credible suspect was tantalizingly out of reach.

CHARLES HILL: The Norwegian police knew that there had been a guy called Pal Enger and another called Grytdal, who had stolen paintings by Munch earlier that had been recovered.

NARRATOR: Career criminal Pal Enger liked to think of himself as something of a mastermind - the Professor Moriarty of the frozen North. In the aftermath of The Scream heist in ’94, he lapped up the publicity, even posing next to the empty frame for reporters. His confidence had been well placed. Despite the shoddy execution of the robbery, and the fact that he’d been sighted at the National Gallery just five days previously, the local police had nothing substantial to tie him to the crime. But for now, Pal was out of the picture. What Charles Hill needed was a lead he could use. It came in the form of an art dealer from Åsgårdstrand, a sleepy little town on the Oslofjord. As it happened, the dealer’s sister was the estranged wife of the president of the Norwegian National Gallery.

CHARLES HILL: It was that family connection that was the first real breakthrough we had. And without doubt, the art dealer's name was Einar-Tore Ulving. And Ulving said to the main man: “I know these people. I can get these things back.” And that's the introduction I had into the people that did have it.

NARRATOR: Ulving wasn’t working alone. He came with a companion - one whose art-world credentials were worn lightly, if they existed at all.

CHARLES HILL: The guy's name was Jan Olsen, and Olsen was a fire raiser and a thief. And he was also, the last time he'd been in prison, he had won the Scandinavian Thai kickboxing championship. So he was a very fit zonker who took drugs and he just fitted in with the world in which Ulving regaled and they were friends.

NARRATOR: In other words, a thug. Olsen was Ulving’s connection to Norway’s criminal underworld, acting as a necessary middleman between the thieves and the ‘respectable’ art world. And now the time had come for ‘Chris Roberts’ to meet with Ulving and Olsen. Charles Hill’s alter ego was about to make his first public appearance. Under that kind of pressure, how would you make your entrance? Would you shuffle in sideways, stealthily taking in the lie of the land? A subtle nod to the bellboy? Or would you command the stage?

CHARLES HILL: Well, I rented a car at Oslo Airport. I got a big car, pulled up to the hotel in Oslo, handed my keys to the guy at the door, and told him I had a couple of bags in the back. I handed him a wedge of kroner and walked in. And before I got to the reception at the hotel, in the loudest voice I could to attract attention, I did my: “Hi there, I'm Chris Roberts” to the very good-looking Scandinavian gal sitting there at the reception. And I gave her the eye and...

NARRATOR: So far, so on-brand for our brash American art dealer.

CHARLES HILL: But that impressed Ulving and Olsen because Ulving then jumped up and came shooting across to me as I was booking in and he took it from there. Then I went over and met Olsen. But by then, also sitting there - but they'd clocked him already - was my man Sid, who'd come on an earlier flight.

NARRATOR: Oops, your bodyguard’s been spotted. How do you manage the situation? Think fast. There’s a priceless masterpiece riding on this.

CHARLES HILL: And so we got to talking and then I'm sure it was Olsen that said: “There's a guy over there who’s staring at us. Is he with you?” And I said: “Yeah, yeah. He's come in from Amsterdam. I better go say hello to him. He's gonna look after me.” And Olsen is a tough guy, but Sid had been the champion wrestler as a Metropolitan Police cadet many years before and he, too, was built like a brick sh**house.

NARRATOR: If you’re unfamiliar with British slang, that means: “Don’t mess with Sid Walker.” It’s a tense moment between Sid and Olsen, two imposing Alpha Males sizing each other up. Fortunately, it’s in everyone’s best interest to play nice. Charles broke the silence.

CHARLES HILL: And I said: “Sid's a Brit who lives in Amsterdam.” And you know, Sid sorta grunted: “Yeah, that's right.” And that really impressed Olsen because you say Amsterdam, a Brit or Irishman, immediately you think drugs. Or fake paintings. That evening, we went up to this really nice - overlooking the city - kind of bar at the very top of the hotel, a very tall hotel. And I paid for the drinks and all of that.

NARRATOR: Drinks, views, and small-talk. Sounds perfectly pleasant. But no one’s here for the ambiance. The conversation quickly turned to money. After some light negotiation, the thieves' reward was set at half the money that Charles and Sid had brought. They’d have been willing to part - at least temporarily - with much, much more.

CHARLES HILL: We took a million sterling ($1.4m), which I think came to a roughly four million kroner.

NARRATOR: But the sniff of hard cash - however modest the sum - had a very positive effect on relations between the undercover policemen and their prey. Things were going smoothly, so far. But fate can have a vicious sense of humor, and it was about to push Charles’s skill - and his cover - to its limits.

CHARLES HILL: Wasn't until the following morning that I suddenly realized we've got a problem here. That was because the hotel was being used by the Scandinavian narcotics officers for their annual conference.

NARRATOR: Oh dear. The hotel was swarming with law enforcement. It’s hard to imagine a worse place to pull off an undercover sting - even a loner like Charles had made a few friends over the years. And as Charles and Ulving enjoyed a friendly breakfast the next morning, he’d find himself wishing he’d made fewer.

CHARLES HILL: My one problem was a friend of mine who ran the Swedish financial investigation unit, a retired prosecutor from Gothenburg.

NARRATOR: Ex-prosecutor Christer Fogelberg and Charles Hill went back a few years. There was every chance he’d be recognized. As an undercover operative, how do you mitigate that kind of blow to your cover? What would you do?

CHARLES HILL: So I made my excuses, went back to my room, picked up the phone. John Butler was in the hotel as well on the floor above me. Rang John, I said: “Get the office to ring the Norwegian Financial Investigation Unit in Stockholm. Get them to contact Christer Fogelberg straight away and tell him that if he sees me, he's not to say anything and ignore me. And tell him as much as you want about the undercover operation.”

NARRATOR: Shoulders hunched, head down, and sweating into his coffee, Charles waited for the unwitting kiss of death from his old friend. As Ulving chatted about art, an announcement flashed up on one of the hotel’s TV screens: “Would Mr Fogelberg please report to reception? An urgent call is waiting.” Stockholm had come through. There would be no unhappy reunions today. One crisis had been averted, but the day had plenty more lined up.

CHARLES HILL: We had a drink downstairs in the bar and all these narcotics cops, and customs officers from throughout Scandinavia, and all their friends from Western Europe, and the DEA, and all the rest of it, they were all there. And sitting at the bar was an undercover cop, one of Lier's finest, staring at his glass of beer. And Olsen walked up to him, tapped him on the back - he had a bulletproof jacket on - and told him he ought to finish up his beer. Came back, he said: “Who's the undercover cop?”

NARRATOR: Think fast. When so much hangs on a delicate trust, how would you explain away a bulletproof vest? If you’re the worldly-wise art dealer Chris Roberts, you can always blame geopolitics.

CHARLES HILL: And I had at least the wit to say: “I don't what's going on here, but I tell you, there's some narcotic officers conference here. The customs and the rest of them. And this is the hotel, as I recall, where the Arab-Israeli - the Palestinian and Israeli peace talks - have been held. And they're probably thinking they're going to be targets of some terror, PLO, terrorist bomb. And that's what all these guys are here, around the building, in here and you name it.”

NARRATOR: This explanation satisfied Olsen, but by now, it was clear that a little privacy might be in order.

CHARLES HILL: I said: “You can come up to my room.”

NARRATOR: A cover story has to be all-encompassing. Your clothes, your shoes, what you drink, what you smoke. It should all be in the service of your legend. But why wait for your target to drip-feed themselves your story? Far quicker to give it to them all at once. Charles Hill was about to set what those in the trade call a ‘prop trap’.

CHARLES HILL: And what I did is I laid out all my stuff, my wallet, all the stuff the Getty had left for me in the room. And I was there with them - Olsen, Ulving, and Sid. And I said: “Right, I got to go for a crap.” I had a bottle of Canadian Club with me, so I left it with them and I said: “I'll be back.” I went in, locked the door of the bathroom, and made the appropriate noises and things.” You know, I just wandered around for an appropriate amount of time to give Olsen - because I thought he'd do it and he did do it - he went through my things. And Sid knew. “So what? That's the way Charles operates. It'll all work.” And just watched him do it and said nothing, and Ulving wouldn't have known what the hell was going on. And then when I thought I'd spent enough time in the john, I flushed it. In fact, I flushed it twice to make sure… And then I sprayed the room with whatever that smelly stuff was. So I came out smelling like a bathroom disinfectant and it went wonderfully well. He'd just gone through my things, confirmed to himself that I was kosher.

NARRATOR: At this point, Charles and Sid would have been forgiven for thinking they were out of the woods. Their cover had held up under the most trying circumstances. Surely it was only a matter of time before The Scream presented itself. Later that night, on the brink of another fretful night’s sleep, it did just that.

CHARLES HILL: Late at night, I had a phone call from Olsen saying Ulving was in a car downstairs and they were gonna go take me to see the painting. I said: “Screw you, I'm not going out for a walk in the woods at midnight. We'll do it in the morning.”

NARRATOR: But even in the face of the not-inconsiderable wrath of the Man From The Getty, Ulving just kept calling back. Charles was intrigued. His instinct told him ‘no’, but this could be his only chance. Time to make a call. Upstairs at the Plaza Hotel, a groggy DCI John Butler picked up the phone. It was midnight. In no uncertain terms, he told Charles exactly what he thought of Ulving’s invitation. But would you pass up the chance to get your hands on what you came for?

CHARLES HILL: So, having told him what I was going to do, and then him having said: “You can't do it,”... I went down and did it anyway.

NARRATOR: By his own admission, Charles was not a perfect policeman. But his total disregard for bureaucracy, authority, and basic social niceties were critical tools in his arsenal. And tonight, he’d put them all to the test.

CHARLES HILL: So I got into Ulving's big Mercedes and I left the door open and left my right leg out, as I got in. And Olsen and Ulving, who were in the car, both turned towards me telling me I've got to go with them.

NARRATOR: By now, Charles had a handle on Olsen and Ulving. He had an idea of their limits, the lines they wouldn’t cross. Then a third man entered the Mercedes.

CHARLES HILL: And then the other backdoor opened, and in got a guy called Grytdal. And he started talking in a sort of a menacing sort of way.

NARRATOR: If the name Grytdal rings a bell, it should. Remember the prolific - if slightly bumbling - Norwegian art-thief Pal Enger? The one who posed by the space The Scream had previously occupied? Chief suspect number one? Grytdal was his partner in crime. This would be as close as Charles came to the brains of the operation - if there was ever a moment not to blow it, this was it.

CHARLES HILL: And I told him: “Listen, guys, I'm not gonna go anywhere with you now. We'll do this in the morning. My man Sid's gonna come with me, come in my car. I don't mind driving in your car, but you tell me where to meet you. We'll do that.” And in fact, I said to Olsen: “You come and I’ll put you up for a night in the hotel.” I could see Olsen's face light up.

NARRATOR: While Olsen drained the minibar, Charles retired to his room for another fitful sleep. After all, there were any number of ways that the next morning’s excursion could go horribly wrong and he was achingly close to the finish line.

CHARLES HILL: Sid drove with Olsen in the backseat, me in the front, and Sid - being the kind of gangster, hoodie kind of guy wannabe - did all his anti-surveillance stuff, driving around circles twice, and parking up and waiting for people to pass you and then back in. I can't tell you how impressed Olsen was by all this crap.

NARRATOR: Sid might have been showing off, but he had the right idea. It was important that a petty crook like Olsen believed that he was finally playing with the big boys. But amusing as it was for him, the Man From The Getty couldn’t afford to linger too long. He had a rendezvous to make. Along the highway from Oslo, there’s a service station at a place called Drammen. Ulving and his menacing new associate, Grytdal, were already there when Charles, Sid, and Olsen swaggered in. As the men bantered over coffee and pastry, they hashed out a plan. Sid would drive back to Oslo with Olsen and Grytdal, and keep them occupied until the exchange was made. Charles and Ulving, who was more or less harmless and clearly terrified, would press on to The Scream’s remote hiding place on the Fjord. Charles was pleased. Violent men like Olsen and Grytdal were unpredictable at best. At this delicate stage in the operation, they were the last thing he needed on his plate. With the muscle en route to Oslo to pick up money they’d never spend, the two art dealers - one real and crooked, one fake and law-abiding - set off towards the Norwegian countryside.

CHARLES HILL: For me, it was exceptionally tense driving with Ulving in his big, smart Mercedes, because he hadn't any sleep there in the night, and he was jaded to say the least. So he's kind of weaving down the road.

NARRATOR: Beyond Drammen, the narrow road turned to dirt. Ulving didn’t, or couldn’t, slow down, and trucks whizzed by, horns blaring their disapproval in the rearview mirror. After a white-knuckle drive along the fjord, the Mercedes finally came to a halt in the picturesque port town of Åsgårdstrand. This, Ulving explained, was his summerhouse. No wonder he was nervous. He’d taken a huge personal risk.

CHARLES HILL: And we went into his kitchen and there was carpet on the floor and he said: “Well, it's down there.” I said: “Fine, well go get it.” He said: “Well, don't you want to see it down there?”

NARRATOR: Charles, understandably, had no intention of going underground. Ulving’s nerves were already shot, and the ensuing torrent of abuse from The Man From The Getty sent him scuttling down the secret hatch beneath the carpet.

CHARLES HILL: And he came and there it was wrapped up in a blue sheet, bedsheet, so I undid the blue sheet and I opened it and I saw the back.

NARRATOR: For a moment, Charles’s heart sank. A rough, penciled outline of The Scream’s iconic central figure loomed blindly out of the cardboard. After all this, had he been duped? Luckily, he held his nerve and thought back to his research.

CHARLES HILL: What a lot of people don't know is that Munch started it on the back. So the central figure in black outline is on the back. And that's what I looked at. But instinctively, I thought, well... And so I took my two hands and just turned it and I turned it in the same way Munch must've turned it. There's the central image there. And I looked straight down and there was the blown-out wax.

NARRATOR: The drops of wax that Munch had carelessly spilled across his cardboard canvas were a seal of authenticity, literally. But to Charles’ well-trained eye, there was even better evidence.

CHARLES HILL: Well, the great thing about a masterpiece like that, even though you may despise the painter, is it'll tell you it's a masterpiece. And it did.

NARRATOR: The vivid beauty of the painting struck Charles immediately. It has never left him, even though Charles’ memories of these events, which took place nearly 30 years ago, are faded around the edges. Nonetheless, he’ll always remember what happened next with a twinge of guilt.

CHARLES HILL: I opened the passenger side door. And I did try to get the seat forward to put it in. And here I'll make a confession. I accidentally damaged the painting, putting it in the backseat. And then closed up and we went.


CHARLES HILL: But anyway, when all was said and done, they just ironed it out. It was cardboard. I mean, not a cereal box cardboard, but a proper piece of cardboard. And so they were able to conserve it, restore it appropriately.

NARRATOR: No harm, no foul. Ulving took Charles to a nearby hotel in Åsgårdstrand, in which the dealer owned a part-share. As they drove, Norwegian police were screaming down the dirt road to the fjord.

CHARLES HILL: The cops turned up. I'd barricaded myself into the room as best I could. And then I opened the door of the minibar, had myself a couple of drinks, and then actually made an expensive phone call to Los Angeles, to a guy called Wilbur Faulk, who was the head of security at the Getty Museum. I had his number and I told him: “The cops are coming to get it now.” And to thank him, to thank the Getty for what they did.

NARRATOR: And just like that, The Man From The Getty had served his purpose. The Scream was on its way home. Meanwhile, back in Oslo, Sid Walker was on babysitting duty. Olsen and Grytdal were becoming restless. “When,” they asked, “were they getting paid?” The tension in the room was already at a fever pitch. What happened next really didn’t help.

CHARLES HILL: A knock came on the door in this hotel room and it was two cops who were bringing the money. They were in, sort of what in police terminology in London, is called half blues. I mean, their black boots on and their police trousers. But they had jackets on, both of them looking like Starsky and Hutch on the top half, but cops on the bottom half. And they knocked on the door and took Sid by surprise. And I think Olsen said: “I'll get the door.” So, he opened the door and there are two cops with the money, and he hadn't put the chain on, so they just pushed their way in. And so the five of them are all pretty much surprised to see each other.

NARRATOR: The Norwegian police - known more for their procedural work than for their mastery of disguise - had sparked a powderkeg.

CHARLES HILL: Gyrtdal went berserk and started fighting. And the money bag got dropped.

NARRATOR: A threat of violence had loomed over proceedings since the British policemen’s first encounter with the Norwegian crooks. Now that violence was unleashed. There was only one thing for it.

CHARLES HILL: Sid had the presence of mind to say to Olsen: “Let's run.” So they both ran out, leaving the two cops, the money, and Gyrtdal getting the bells of h*** hammered out of him by the two big cops.

NARRATOR: While Grytdal took a beating at the hands of Oslo’s finest, Olsen made his escape. It was short-lived.

CHARLES HILL: By the time Olsen and Sid got downstairs, Olsen was ahead of him - a super-fit guy, and fast, and younger than Sid - and was out the door at the back. Missed by all the cops around the place because they went out the back.

NARRATOR: Olsen burst out of the hotel’s rear exit into the chill of a Norwegian spring evening. As he sprinted away through the streets of Oslo, the events of the evening began to percolate. How had the cops known where to find him? More importantly, how had they gotten hold of his money? And where the hell was that idiot American?

CHARLES HILL: Then Olsen, finally - dumb ass - realized what had happened.

NARRATOR: It finally dawned on Olsen. He’d been played by the Man from the Getty. It was only a matter of time before he was caught. Resigned to his fate, he made for the nearest phone booth to turn himself in. Oslo’s chief of police, Leif Lier, was nothing if not accommodating.

CHARLES HILL: Olsen then said to him: “If I bring a taxi, will you pay the fare?” And Leif Lier said yeah, and did.

NARRATOR: There’s only one player not accounted for: Einar-Tore Ulving, the art dealer and middleman who’d gotten in way over his head. Astoundingly, he was never charged. When the trial finally came to court in 1996, Ulving’s testimony was vague and noncommittal - a few less-than-friendly social visits from Olsen in the intervening months had made sure of that. In the end, Grytdal and Olsen were sentenced to four and two years, respectively, for handling stolen goods. The attention-seeking Pal Enger, who had been the likeliest suspect all along, was revealed to be the brains of the operation, serving six years for his crime. But in the end, there was one old enemy that even Charles Hill couldn’t face down, fast-talk or intimidate: bureaucracy.

CHARLES HILL: That was appealed to Norwegian Supreme Court, and they decided, the top court in Norway, that there was an unsound conviction because I was in the country and my man Sid on - well, not false passports - they were proper passport office passports, but under false names. And that's against Norwegian law. So they all got off scot-free.

NARRATOR: After months of careful planning, meticulous research, and huge personal risk, the case fell apart on a technicality. Nobody had anticipated this - not the Met, not the Norwegians, and not Charles Hill. Of the convicted men, all but Enger were freed on appeal. But Charles, more interested in paintings than people on his best day, was sanguine. A gaping wound in the fabric of Norwegian culture had been sutured. The Scream had been returned. Nothing else mattered. But despite his outstanding record, Charles wasn’t long for the Met.

CHARLES HILL: My ambition had always been to be the director of intelligence in the police. That was never going to happen. And I sure as hell wasn't going to become some clone, some community commander-type partnership policing person. Come on. And, when you're dealing with criminals, you've got to deal with them.

NARRATOR: It seems odd that someone who takes such a dim view of crooks would make a living out of pretending to be one. You have to wonder, how did someone as fiercely moral as Charles break bread with his polar opposites?

CHARLES HILL: Criminals are still human beings. So you latch into their humanity, some of them. It's difficult. It's difficult latching on. And certainly, for most of ‘em, you would not want to introduce them to your mother. However, they are human beings. You've got to treat them as such.

NARRATOR: In some dark cloister of his psyche, the priest that Charles Hill might have been, lives on. Today, Charles is freelance - a detective for hire. And even in his mid-70s, he’s still on the hunt for some of the world’s most precious works of art, some of which have been lost for decades.

CHARLES HILL: Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston was raided by two men dressed as Boston police officers on the night of St Patrick's Day, 1990. So that was early in the morning of March the 18th or the 17th. And they stole an extraordinary haul of trophy art - three Rembrandts, a Vermeer, the list goes on. That's my main priority at the moment. I want to pursue that. So I've got major works of art to recover and I intend to do it.

NARRATOR: I’m Vanessa Kirby. Join us next week for another debrief with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills, and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former Head of Training at British Intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.

Guest Bio

Charles Hill was an art detective with London's Scotland Yard who is best known for recovering Edvard Munch’s The Scream after it was stolen from the Oslo National Gallery. He died in 2021.

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