Paal Enger, Who Stole Munch’s ‘The Scream,’ Is Dead at 57

Paal Enger, a rising prospect for a celebrated Norwegian soccer club who traded a game that he loved for another — art theft — that he absolutely relished, culminating in his infamous 1994 heist of Edvard Munch’s masterpiece “The Scream,” died on June 29 in Oslo. He was 57.

His death was confirmed by Nils Christian Nordhus, an Oslo-based lawyer who formerly represented Mr. Enger. He did not provide any more details.

Mr. Enger, who was born in Oslo on March 26, 1967, rose from the junior system of Vaalerenga, a five-time champion of Norway’s top-level league, now known as Eliteserien, and in 1985 made his debut with the club.

As a youth, he was a fan of the Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona. But his real hero, according to a 2021 profile in The Athletic, was Don Vito Corleone, the fictional crime boss played by Marlon Brando in “The Godfather.” He was so immersed in Mafia lore that when he was 15, he flew to New York to see for himself the locations where the Academy Award-winning “Godfather” films were shot.

By then, he was no stranger to the world of life outside the law. “I grew up in Tveita, on the east side of Oslo, and people there don’t have much money,” he said in an interview last year with the British tabloid The Sun. “We started doing crime when we were very young and I found it exciting. I carried on because I enjoyed it very much.”

Graduating from boosting candy to cracking safes and blowing up automated teller machines with neighborhood friends, he proved a phenom in both athletics and crime.

His outlaw alter ego was no secret to his teammates, who noticed that he threw away his tracksuits after every practice rather than wash them, and that he frequently showed up in luxury cars that were far beyond a teenager’s budget. “I remember once he popped up with a BMW 735i,” one former teammate told The Athletic. “He liked to steal expensive cars, there’s no doubt about it.”

Despite his taste for larceny, most on the squad considered him a model teammate, even as his pursuits beyond the law had him living like a superstar. “I did so much crime in my 20s,” he told The Sun, “that I had everything — cars, boats, money, the most beautiful women in Oslo. But I wanted more.”

Specifically, he wanted one of his nation’s crown jewels. “The Scream,” which has been called Norway’s “Mona Lisa,” is one of the most recognizable — and reproduced — paintings in the world.

Munch, known for haunting Expressionist paintings that explored themes like sexuality and madness, actually made four versions of “The Scream,” two rendered in paint and two in pastel and crayon. The only one in private hands, an 1895 pastel, sold at auction in 2012 for nearly $120 million to the financier Leon Black.

Carrying emotional scars from his childhood with a violent stepfather, Mr. Enger found a kindred spirit in the agonized howling of the painting’s ghostly subject, an expression of personal anguish as well as a broader existential dread.

“My obsession with this picture started the first time I saw it,” Mr. Enger said in “The Man Who Stole ‘The Scream,’” a documentary released last year. “As soon as I got close to the picture I got an extraordinary feeling. Of anxiety. Strange things in my head. I had such an intense connection with ‘The Scream’ right away. And it’s never left me.”

Having grown accustomed to just taking anything he desired, he decided that the famous painting should be no exception.

In 1988, Mr. Enger, accompanied by his friend and longtime partner in crime Bjorn Grytdal, slipped through a window at the Munch Museum in Oslo to steal a version of “The Scream.” But a hitch in their plan led them instead to snatch another Munch masterwork, “Love and Pain,” also known as “Vampire.”

“The disappointment lasted days,” Mr. Enger later recalled, “but then it started to become fun.” In part, that was because he kept the painting hidden in the ceiling of a pool hall he owned that was frequented by off-duty police officers.

“They don’t know it’s hanging just one meter from them,” he added. “That was the best feeling. We let them play for free just to have them there.”

The amusement ended when his accomplice let word slip to a neighbor who was a police informant. Mr. Enger spent four years in prison for the theft, effectively ending any hope of soccer glory.

Even so, his ambition burned. He turned his sights back to his muse and quarry.

On Feb. 12, 1994, Norway’s attention — along with considerable law enforcement resources — was focused on the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer.

Mr. Enger took advantage of the distraction. He and an accomplice clambered up a ladder outside the National Gallery in Oslo, smashed a window and slipped in — and within 50 seconds, The Athletic reported, slipped out with the museum’s version of “The Scream,” which at the time was valued at about $55 million.

The thieves left behind the ladder, their wire cutters and a note: “A thousand thanks for your poor security.”

Given his history, Mr. Enger was an obvious suspect. Still, he knew that the police had nothing on him, so he began taunting them, calling with false leads.

“I don’t think I really understood completely how much it meant for the National Gallery, the police and everyone,” he later said. “I made a fool of them on national TV.”

The stymied authorities eventually reached out to Scotland Yard, which dispatched Charles Hill, a detective from its art and antiques unit, to Norway. Mr. Hill, posing as a representative of the J. Paul Getty Museum in California, expressed interest in buying “The Scream” from an art dealer who was connected to Mr. Enger.

Despite misgivings over the highly unlikely scenario that a prestigious museum would shell out for a stolen masterpiece, Mr. Enger dispatched Mr. Grytdal, one of his accomplices in the theft, to pursue a deal.

“I felt, ‘Maybe I have had it long enough,” Mr. Enger later recalled. “Maybe just drop all those dreams I had of the game to come. I was totally sure the police had almost no evidence against me, so the only one they could arrest was Bjorn.”

That too proved a highly unlikely scenario. Three months after the theft, the police arrested Mr. Enger, Mr. Grytdal and two other accomplices.

Mr. Enger once said that he had “four children with four different mothers from four countries.” Information on survivors was not immediately available.

In 1996, Mr. Enger was sentenced to six years and three months in prison, where he took up painting, taking stylistic inspiration from his artistic hero.

After his release, he established an art career of his own. In 2011, his abstract paintings were exhibited at a gallery in Norway.

Still, he did not go clean. In 2015, he was charged with stealing 17 paintings from an Oslo gallery.

This is not to say that he was wholly averse to acquiring art by legitimate means. In 2001, he bought an unsigned Munch lithograph at auction for about $3,000.

Leaving the auction house that day, he ran into the former head of security for the National Gallery. “Congratulations,” he told Mr. Enger. “It’s great that you’ve actually bought a Munch — much better than stealing one.”

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