Art Heist at the RISD Museum

Local author Charles Pinning sets his latest book at the RISD Museum


The RISD Museum has always been special. Whether it’s the exotic (gotta love that mummy), eclectic (from Degas to designer gowns), esoteric (the Warhol cows as wallpaper) or just educational (the wonderful kids programming), the place entertains. Now adding to that allure is Irreplaceable, a book by local author Charles Pinning, that has at its core, a major art heist from the museum followed by the disappearance of one of its employees.

In what he calls “an intellectual romp,” Charles creates a complicated but entertaining yarn that ties the theft into an attempt to solve the granddaddy of all art heists, the one at Boston’s Gardner Museum in 1990 that remains unsolved to this day. The story should prove a great read for locals, as Charles races us down well-described touch points in Providence, Newport, Boston and the North Shore in search of both the evildoers and the stolen art.

Leading us on the chase are Swanson Di Chiera, a struggling Providence writer trying to make it from rejection slip to rejection slip, and Aleda Collie, a famous actress who has returned to Providence to star in and co-produce a film based on the life of the famous 19th century art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner. Turns out Swanson and Aleda had briefly been an item growing up and the film provides the spark to perhaps rekindle the old romance. After the RISD theft (which is strangely similar to the old Gardner heist) and the disappearance of the RISD curator responsible for the show, the two embark on a search and discovery quest to unravel what is going on. Along the way we meet some nasty people including one who works for our own DCYF.

As for Charles’ extensive research on the historical aspects of Isabella Gardner and who might have knocked off her museum? If you’re interested in art, his ideas are definitely worth collecting.

The author has a suburb ear for dialogue, whether it’s the tentative give and take between two old friends probing where to go next in their relationship, or between the childless Swanson and the two young charges who have unexpectedly been dropped into his life. The characters themselves are well drawn, complete with human foibles, yet not totally predictable. And while one might quibble over a couple of perhaps unnecessary touches, for the most part, things work.

In a recent book club discussion on the East Side, Charles explained that there is a reality-based background to the story he has drawn so well. Turns out he and the actress Cybill Shepherd met in New York when Charles was in college working a summer job in the city. “Before The Last Picture Show and before she became famous,” he quickly adds. They in fact reunited when she was in Providence doing a film. As to more than that, Charles remains elusive though he does note there is some interest in going celluloid with Irreplaceable with Cybill Shepherd in the lead role. And lest you think Charles is mere dilatant, he has spent years checking out the famous Gardner heist and feels his analysis of the event is as solid as anyone’s.

With that in mind, go and enjoy this entertaining summer read while we await either Irreplaceable the Sequel or Irreplaceable the film. A resident of the Armory section of Providence, Charles reports that he is working on several other writing projects and has been encouraged by the local response to his book. Not surprisingly, it’s selling well at the RISD Museum bookstore.