The Modigliani Scandal | Chapter 20 of 34

Author: Ken Follett | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 8820 Views | Add a Review

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V

THE NEED TO PAINT was like the smoker′s craving for a cigarette: Peter Usher was reminded of the time he had tried to give it up. There was an elusive irritation, distinctly physical, but unattached to any specific part of his body. He knew, from past experience, that it was there because he had not worked for several days, and that the smell of a studio, the slight drag on his fingers of oils being brushed across canvas, and the sight of a new work taking place, were the only way of scratching it. He felt bad because he had not painted for several days.

Besides, he was frightened.

The idea which had struck him and Mitch simultaneously, that drunken evening in Clapham, had burst with all the freshness and glory of a tropical dawn. It had seemed simple, too: they would paint some fakes, sell them at astronomical prices, then tell the world what they had done.

It would be a gigantic raspberry blown at the art world and its stuffed shirts; a surefire publicity stunt; a historical radical coup.

In the sobriety of the following days, working out the details of the operation, they had realized that it would not be simple. Nevertheless it came to seem more and more workable as they got down to the mechanics of the fraud.

But now, when he was about to take the first dishonest step on the way to the art swindle of the century; when he was about to commit himself to a course which would lead him well over the line between protest and crime; when he was alone and nervous in Paris, he sat in an office at Meunier′s and smoked cigarettes which did not give him comfort.

The graceful old building exacerbated his unease. With its marbled pillars and high, stuccoed ceilings, it was too obviously a part of that confident, superior stratum of the art world—the society which embraced Charles Lampeth and rejected Peter Usher. Meunier′s were agents for half the top French artists of the last 150 years. None of their clients were unknowns.

A small man in a well-worn dark suit scurried purposefully across the hall and through the open door of the room where Peter sat. He had the deliberately harassed look of those who want the world to know just how overworked they are.

″My name is Durand,″ he said.

Peter stood up. ″Peter Usher. I am a painter from London, looking for a part-time job. Can you help me?″ He spoke only schoolboy French, but his accent was good.

A displeased look came over Durand′s face. ″You will appreciate, Monsieur Usher, that we get many such requests from young art students in Paris.″

″I′m not a student. I graduated from the Slade—″

″Be that as it may,″ Durand interrupted with an impatient motion of his hand, ″the company′s policy is to help whenever we can.″ It was plain he did not approve of the policy. ″It depends entirely on whether we have a vacancy at the time. Since almost all our staff require stringent security vetting, clearly there are few jobs for casual callers. However, if you will come with me, I will find out whether we can use you.″

Peter followed Durand′s brisk steps across the hall to an old elevator. The cage came creaking and grumbling down, and they got in and ascended three flights.

They went into a small office at the back of the building where a portly, pink-faced man sat behind a desk. Durand spoke to the man in very rapid colloquial French which Peter could not follow. The portly man appeared to have made a suggestion: Durand seemed to be turning it down. Eventually he turned to Peter.

″I am afraid I must disappoint you,″ he said. ″We have a vacancy, but the job involves handling paintings, and we require references.″

″I can give you a telephone reference, if you don′t mind calling London;″ Peter blurted.

Durand smiled and shook his head. ″It would have to be someone we know, Monsieur Usher.″

″Charles Lampeth? He′s a well-known dealer, and—″

″Of course, we know Monsieur Lampeth. Will he vouch for you?″ the portly man cut in.

″He will certainly confirm that I am a painter, and an honest man. His gallery handled my pictures for a while.″

The man behind the desk smiled. ″In that case, I am sure we can give you a job. If you would return tomorrow morning by which time we will have called London—″

Durand said: ″The cost of the telephone call will have to be deducted from your wages.″

″Thatʹs all right,″ Peter replied.

The portly man nodded in dismissal. Durand said: ″I will show you out.″ He did not bother to hide his disapproval.

Peter went straight to a bar and ordered a very expensive double whisky. Giving Lampeth′s name had been a foolish impulse. Not that the dealer would refuse to vouch for him: guilty conscience ought to see to that. But it meant that Lampeth would know that Peter had been employed by Meunier′s in Paris around this time—and that knowledge could do fatal damage to the plan. It was unlikely; but it was an added risk.

Peter tossed off his whisky, cursed under his breath, and ordered another.

Peter started work the next day in the packing department. He worked under an elderly, bent Parisian who had devoted his life to taking care of pictures. They spent the morning uncrating newly arrived works, and the afternoon wrapping outgoing pictures in layers of cotton wool, polystyrene, cardboard and straw. Peter did the heavy work—withdrawing nails from wood, and lifting heavy frames—while the old man prepared soft beds for the pictures with as much care as if he were lining a cradle for a newborn child.

They had a big, four-wheeled dolly with pneumatic tires on hydraulic suspension: the aluminum gleamed, and the old man was proud of it. It was used to transport the pictures around the building. The two of them would gingerly lift a work onto its rack, then Peter would push it away, with the old man going ahead to open doors.

In a corner of the room where they did their packing was a small desk. Late on the first afternoon, while the old man was away at the lavatory, Peter went through all the drawers. They contained very little: the blank forms the old man filled up for each picture handled, a clutch of ballpoint pens, a few forgotten paper clips, and some empty cigarette packets.

They worked very slowly, and the man talked to Peter about his life, and the pictures. He disliked most of the modern painting, he said, apart from a few primitives and—surprisingly, Peter thought—the superrealists. His appreciation was untutored, but not naive: Peter found it refreshing. He liked the man instantly, and the prospect of deceiving him became unwelcome.

On their trips around the building Peter saw plenty of the official company letterhead on secretaries′ desks. Unfortunately, the secretaries were always around, and so was the old man. In addition, the letterhead was not enough.

It was not until the end of the second day that Peter set eyes on the thing he had come to steal.

Late in the afternoon, a picture arrived by Jan Rep, an elderly Dutch painter living in Paris, for whom Meunier′s were agents. Rep′s work attracted huge sums, and he painted very slowly. A telephone call notified the old man that the painting was coming, and a few moments later he was instructed to take it immediately to the office of M. Alain Meunier, the senior of the three brothers who ran the company.

When they lifted the picture out of the crate, the old man stared at it with a smile. ″Beautiful,″ he said eventually. ″Do you agree?″

″It doesn′t appeal to me,″ Peter said ruefully.

The old man nodded. ″Rep is an old man′s painter, I think.″

They loaded it onto their dolly and wheeled it through the building, up in the lift, and into M. Meunier′s office. There they placed it on a steel easel and stood back.

Alain Meunier was a gray, jowly man in a dark suit, with—Peter thought—a glint of greed in his small blue eyes. He looked at the new picture from a distance, and then walked close to study the brush-work; then he viewed it from either side.

Peter stood near Meunier′s huge leather-inlaid desk. It bore three telephones, a cut-glass ashtray, a cigar box, an executive penholder made of red plastic (a present from the children?), a photograph of a woman—and a small rubber stamp.

Peter′s eyes fastened on the stamp. It was stained with red ink at its rubber base, and the knob was of polished wood. He tried to read the back-to-front words of the stamp, but could only make out the name of the firm.

It was almost certain to be what he wanted.

His fingers itched to snatch it up and stuff it into his pocket, but he was certain to be seen. Even if he did it while the backs of the others were turned, the stamp might be missed immediately afterward. There had to be a better way.

When Meunier spoke Peter gave a guilty start. ″You may leave this here,″ the man said. His nod was dismissive.

Peter wheeled the dolly out through the door, and the two of them returned to their packing room.

He spent two more days trying to figure out a way to get at the stamp on Meunier′s desk. Then a better idea was handed to him on a plate.

The old man was sitting at his desk, filling out one of the forms, while Peter sipped a cup of coffee. The old man looked up from his work to say: ″Do you know where the stationery supplies are?″

Peter thought fast. ″Yes,″ he lied.

The old man handed him a small key. ″Fetch me some more forms—I have almost run out.″

Peter took the key and went. In the corridor he asked a passing messenger boy where the supply room was. The boy directed him to the floor below.

He found it in an office which seemed to be a typing pool. He had not been there before. One of the typists showed him a walk-in cupboard in a corner. Peter opened the door, switched on the light, and went in.

He found a ream of the forms he wanted straightaway. His eye roamed the shelves and lit on a stack of headed notepaper. He broke a packet and took out thirty or forty sheets.

He could not see any rubber stamps.

There was a green steel cabinet in the far end of the little room. Peter tried the door and found it locked. He opened a box of paper clips, took one, and bent it. Inserting it in the keyhole, he twisted it this way and that. He began to perspire. In a moment the typists would wonder what was taking him so long.

With a click that sounded like a thunderclap the door opened. The first thing Peter saw was an opened cardboard box containing six rubber stamps. He turned one over and read the impression underneath.

He translated: ″Certified at Meunier, Paris.″

He suppressed his elation. How could he get the thing out of the building?

The stamp and the headed paper would make a suspiciously large package to take past the security men at the door on the way home. And he would have to conceal it from the old man for the rest of the day.

He had a brainwave. He took a penknife from his pocket and slid its blade under the rubber bottom of the stamp, working the knife from side to side to dislodge the rubber from the wood to which it was glued. His hands, slippery with sweat, could hardly grip the polished wood.

″Can you find what you want?″ a girl′s voice came from behind his back.

He froze. ″Thank you, I have them now,″ he said. He did not look around. Footsteps retreated.

The rubber came away from the bottom of the stamp. Peter found a large envelope on a shelf. He put the notepaper and the thin slice of rubber into the envelope and sealed it. He took a pen from another box and wrote Mitch′s name and address on the envelope. Then he closed the steel cupboard door, picked up his ream of forms, and went out.

At the last minute he remembered the bent paper clip. He went back into the store, found it on the floor, and put it in his pocket.

He smiled at the typists as he left the office. Instead of going back to the old man, he wandered around the corridors until he met another messenger boy.

″Could you tell me where I take this to be posted?″ he asked. ″It′s air mail.″

″I′ll take it for you,″ the messenger said helpfully. He looked at the envelope. ″It should have air mail written on it,″ he said.

″Oh dear.″

″Don′t worry—I′ll see to it,ʺ the boy said.

″Thank you.″ Peter went back to the packing department.

The old man said: ″You took a long time.″

″I lost my way,″ Peter explained.

 

Three days later, in the evening at his cheap lodging house, Peter got a phone call from London.

″It came,″ said Mitch′s voice.

″Thank Christ for that,″ Peter replied. ″I′ll be home tomorrow.″

 

Mad Mitch was sitting on the floor of the studio when Peter arrived, his fuzzy ginger hair laid back against the wall. Three of Peter′s canvases were stood in line on the opposite wall. Mitch was studying them, with a frown on his brow and a can of Long Life in his hand.

Peter dumped his holdall on the floor and went over to stand next to Mitch.

″You know, if anyone deserves to make a living out of paint, you do,″ said Mitch.

″Thanks. Where′s Anne?″

″Shopping.″ Mitch heaved himself to his feet and crossed to a paint-smeared table. He picked up an envelope which Peter recognized. ″Clever idea, ripping the rubber off the stamp,″ he said. ″But why did you have to post it?″

″No other way to get the stuff out of the building safely.″

″You mean the firm posted it?″

Peter nodded.

″Jesus. I hope no one happened to notice the name on the envelope. Did you leave any other giveaway clues?″

″Yes.″ Peter took the can from Mitch and drank a long draft of the beer. He wiped his mouth on his forearm and handed the can back. ″I had to give Charles Lampeth′s name as a reference.″

″Did they check it?″

″I think so. Anyway, they insisted on a referee they knew and could telephone.″

Mitch sat on the edge of the table and scratched his stomach. ″You realize you′ve left a trail like the bloody M1.″

″It′s not that bad. It means they probably could trace us, given time. Even then they couldn′t prove anything. But what matters is they can′t catch up with us before we′re finished. After all, we only want a few more days.″

″If everything goes to plan.″

Peter turned away and sat on a low stool. ″How did your end go?″

″Great.″ Mitch brightened up suddenly. ″I swung it with Arnaz—he′s going to finance us.″

″What′s in it for him?″ said Peter, curious.

″A laugh. He′s got a great sense of humor.″

″Tell me about him.″

Mitch swallowed the rest of the beer and threw the can accurately into a bin. ″He′s somewhere in his thirties, half-Irish and half-Mexican, brought up in the USA. Started selling original paintings out of the back of a truck in the Midwest when he was about nineteen. Made money hand over fist, opened a gallery, taught himself to appreciate art. Came over to Europe to buy, liked it and stayed.

″He′s sold his galleries now. He′s just a kind of intercontinental art entrepreneur—buys and sells, makes a pile, and laughs at the mugs all the way to the bank. A moderately unscrupulous bloke, but he feels the same about the art scene as we do.″

″How much money has he put up?″

″A thousand quid. But we can have more if we need it.″

Peter whistled. ″Nice guy. What else have you pulled off?″

″I′ve opened us a bank account—under false names.″

″What names?″

″George Hollows and Philip Cox. They′re colleagues of mine at the college. For references, I gave the Principal and the College Secretary.″

″Isn′t that dangerous?″

″No. There are over fifty lecturers at the college, so the connection with me is pretty thin. The bank would have written to the referees and asked whether Hollows and Cox were in fact lecturers and lived at the addresses given. They will get told yes.″

″Suppose the referees mention it to Hollows or Cox?″

″They won′t see them. It′s four weeks to the new term, and I happen to know that they aren′t social friends.″

Peter smiled. ″You have done well.″ He heard the front door open, and Anne′s voice called hello. ″Up here;″ he shouted.

She came in and kissed him. ″I gather it went off all right;″ she said. There was a sparkle of excitement in her eyes.

″Well enough,″ Peter replied. He looked back to Mitch. ″The next step is the grand tour, isn′t it?″

″Yes. That′s down to you, I think.″

Anne said: ″If you two don′t need me, the baby does.″ She went out.

″Why me?″ said Peter.

″Anne and I mustn′t be seen in the galleries before delivery day.″

Peter nodded. ″Sure. Let′s go over it, then.″

″I′ve listed the top ten galleries here. You can get around them all in a day. You look first of all for what they′ve got plenty of and what they′re short of. If we′re going to offer them a picture, we might as well be sure it′s one they need.

″Secondly, the painter has to be easily forgeable. He must be dead, he must have a large body of work, and there can be no complete record of his work anywhere. We′re not going to copy masterpieces—we′re going to paint our own. You find one painter like that for each gallery, make a note, then go on to the next.″

″Yes—weʹll also have to exclude anyone who habitually used any specialized kinds of material. You know, everything would be much easier if we limited ourselves to watercolors and drawings.″

″We couldn′t raise the kind of money we need to make a spectacular splash.″

″How much d′you think we′ll raise altogether?″

″I shall be disappointed if it′s less than half a million.″

 

An atmosphere of concentration filled the big studio. Through the open windows, the warm August breeze brought distant traffic murmurs. For a long while the three people worked in a silence broken only by the contented gurgling of the baby in a playpen in the middle of the room.

The baby′s name was Vibeke, and she was just a year old. Normally she would have demanded attention from the adults in the room; but today she was playing with a new toy, a plastic box. She found that sometimes the lid would go on, and sometimes it would not; and she was trying to figure out what made the difference. She too was concentrating.

Her mother sat nearby at a battered table, writing with a fountain pen in meticulous copperplate script on a sheet of Meunier′s letterhead. The table was littered with opened books: glamorous coffee table art books, heavy tomes of reference, and small learned articles in paper covers. Occasionally Anne′s tongue would stick out of the comer of her mouth as she labored.

Mitch stood back from his canvas and gave a long sigh. He was working on a fairly large Cubist Picasso of a bullfight; one of the series of paintings which led up to the Guernica. There was a sketch on the floor beside his easel. He looked at it now, and deep frown-lines gouged his forehead. He lifted his right hand and made a series of passes at his canvas, painting a line in the air until he thought he had it right; then with a quick final stroke he put the brush to the canvas.

Anne heard the sigh, and looked up, first at Mitch and then at the canvas. A kind of stunned admiration came over her face. ″Mitch, it′s brilliant,″ she said.

He smiled gratefully.

″Really, could anyone do that?″ she added.

″No,″ he said slowly. ″It′s a specialized talent. Forgery for artists is a bit like mimicry for actors. Some of the greatest actors are lousy mimics. It′s just a trick which some people can do.″

Peter said: ″How are you getting on with those provenances?″

″I′ve done the Braque and the Munch, and I′m just finishing the Picasso,″ Anne replied. ″What kind of pedigree would your van Gogh have?″

Peter was reworking the picture he had done in the Masterpiece Race. He had a book of color plates open beside him, and he frequently flicked over a page. The colors on his canvas were dark, and the lines heavy. The body of the gravedigger was powerful yet weary.

″It would have been painted between 1880 and 1886,″ Peter began. ″In his Dutch period. Nobody would have bought it then, I don′t suppose. Say it was in his possession—or better, his brother Theoʹs—for a few years. Then bought by some fictional collector in Brussels. Turned up by a dealer in the 1960s. You can invent the rest.″

″Shall I use the name of a real dealer?″

″Might as well—only make him an obscure one—German, say.″

″Mmm.″ The room became quiet again as the three returned to their work. After a while Mitch took down his canvas and began a new one, a Munch. He put on a pale gray wash over the whole surface, to get the brittle Norwegian light which pervaded so many of Munch′s paintings. From time to time he closed his eyes and tried to rid his mind of the warm English sunshine in the studio. He tried to make himself feel cold, and succeeded so well that he shivered.

Three loud knocks at the front door shattered the silence.

Peter, Mitch and Anne looked at one another blankly. Anne got up from the desk and went to the window. She turned to the men, her face white.

″It′s a policeman,″ she said.

They looked at her with astonished incredulity. Mitch was the first to adjust.

″Go to the door, Peter,″ he said. ″Anne, hide those provenances and the notepaper and stamp. I′ll turn the canvases with their faces to the walls. Let′s go!″

Peter walked slowly down the stairs, his heart in his mouth. It just did not make sense—mere was no way the law could be on to them already. He opened the front door.

The policeman was a tall young constable with short hair and a sparse mustache. He said: ″Is that your car outside, sir?″

″Yes—I mean no,″ Peter stuttered. ″Which one?″

″The blue Mini with things painted all over the wings.″

″Ah—it belongs to a friend. He′s a guest here at the moment.″

″Perhaps you′d like to tell him he′s left his sidelights on,″ said the bobby. ″Good day, sir.″ He turned away.

″Oh! Thank you!″ Peter said.

He went back up the stairs. Anne and Mitch looked at him with fear in their eyes.

Peter said: ″He asked me to tell you that you′ve left your sidelights on, Mitch.″

There was a moment of uncomprehending silence. Then all three of them burst out into a loud, almost hysterical laughter.

In her playpen, Vibeke looked up at the sudden noise. Her startled look dissolved into a smile, and she joined enthusiastically in the laughter, as if she perfectly understood the joke.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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