The Modigliani Scandal | Chapter 28 of 34

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

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I

THE REPORTER SAT AT his desk in the newsroom, thinking about his career. He had nothing better to do because it was Wednesday, and all decisions made by his superiors on Wednesday were reversed on Thursday morning; therefore he had adopted a policy of never actually working on Wednesdays. Besides, his career offered much food for thought.

It had been a short and spectacular one, but there was little substance beneath the glittering surface. He had joined a small weekly in South London after leaving Oxford, then he had worked for a news agency, then he had managed to get this job on a quality Sunday paper. It had taken him less than five years.

That was the glitter: the dross was that it had been worthless. He had always wanted to be an art critic. That was why he had suffered the weekly in order to learn his trade, and put up with the agency in order to prove his competence. But now, after three months on the Sunday paper, he had realized that he was at the end of a very long queue for the art critic′s comfortable chair. There seemed to be no more shortcuts.

The story he was to do this week involved pollution of a reservoir in South Wales. Today, if anyone asked, he was making preliminary inquiries. Tomorrow the pollution story would have shifted to a beach on the Sussex coast, or something. Whatever happened the job had not the remotest connection with art.

A fat file of newspaper clippings in front of him was marked: ʺWater—Pollution—Reservoirs.ʺ He was reaching to open it when the phone rang. He diverted his hand to the receiver.

″Newsdesk.″

″Have you got a pencil ready?″

Louis Broom frowned. He had taken many crank phone calls in five years of journalism, but this approach was a new one. He opened the desk drawer and took out a ballpoint and a pad.

″Yes. What can I do for you?″

The answer was another question. ″Do you know anything about art?″

Louis frowned again. The man did not sound much like a crank. The voice was steady and unhysterical, and there was none of the breathless intensity which normally characterized screwball telephoners.

″As it happens, I do.″

″Good. Listen carefully, because I won′t repeat anything. The biggest fraud in the history of art was perpetrated in London last week.″

Oh dear, thought Louis, it is a crank. ″What is your name, sir?″ he said politely.

″Shut up and make a note. Claypole and Company bought a van Gogh called The Gravedigger for eighty-nine thousand pounds. Crowforth′s bought a Munch titled The High Chair for thirty thousand.″

Louis scribbled frantically as the voice droned a list of ten pictures and galleries.

Finally the voice said: ″The total comes to more than half a million pounds. I′m not asking you to believe me. But you′ll have to check. Then, when you′ve published your story, we will tell you why we did it.″

″Just a minute—ʺ The phone clicked in Louisʹs ear, and he heard the dial tone. He put the receiver down.

He sat back and lit a cigarette while he wondered what to do about the call. It certainly could not be ignored. Louis was 99 percent sure the caller was a nutcase: but it was by following up the onepercenters that great exclusives were found.

He debated telling the news editor. If he did, he would probably be told to pass the tip to the art critic. Much better to make a start on the story first, if only to establish his own claim to it.

He looked up Claypole in the directory and dialed the number.

″Do you have a van Gogh called The Gravedigger for sale?″

″Just a moment, sir, and I will find out.″

Louis used the pause to light another cigarette.

″Hello? Yes, we do have that work.″

″Would you tell me the price?″

″A hundred and six thousand guineas.″

ʺThank you.ʺ

Louis rang Crowforth & Co. and found that they did indeed have a Munch called The High Chair for sale at 39,000 guineas.

He began to think hard. The story was standing up. But it was not yet time to talk about the story.

He picked up the phone and dialed another number.

 

Professor Peder Schmidt hobbled into the bar on his crutch. He was a big, energetic man with blond hair and a red face. Despite a slight speech impediment and an atrocious German accent, he had been one of the best art lecturers at Oxford. Although Louis had studied English, he had attended all of Schmidt′s lectures for the pleasure of the man′s grasp of art history and his enthusiastic, iconoclastic theories. The two men had met outside the lecture theater, gone drinking together, and argued fiercely about the subject closest to their hearts.

Schmidt knew more about van Gogh than any other man alive.

He spotted Louis, waved, and came over.

ʺThe spring on your bloody crutch still squeaks,″ Louis said.

″Then you can oil it with whisky,″ Schmidt replied. ″How are you, Louis? And what is all this secrecy about?″

Louis ordered a large scotch for the professor. ″I was lucky to catch you in London.″

″You were. Next week I go to Berlin. Everything is hurry and chaos.″

″It was good of you to come.″

″It was indeed. Now what is this about?″

″I want you to look at a picture.″

Schmidt downed his scotch. ″I hope it′s a good one.″

ʺThatʹs what I want you to tell me. Let′s go.″

They left the bar and walked toward Claypole′s. The shopping crowds on the West End sidewalks stared at the odd couple: the young man in his brown chalk-stripe suit and high-heeled shoes, and the tall cripple striding along beside him, wearing an open-necked blue shirt and a faded denim jacket. They went along Piccadilly and turned south to St. James′s. In between an exclusive hatter′s and a French restaurant were the leaded bow windows of Claypole′s.

They went in and walked the length of the small gallery. At the far end, under a spotlight of its own, they found The Gravedigger.

To Louis it was unmistakably a van Gogh. The heavy limbs and tired face of the peasant, the flat Dutch countryside, and the lowering sky were the trademarks. And there was the signature.

″Professor Schmidt! This is an unexpected pleasure.″

Louis turned to see a slight, elegant man with a graying Vandyke beard, wearing a black suit. Schmidt said: ″Hello, Claypole.″

Claypole stood beside them, looking at the picture. ″Something of a discovery, this one, you know,″ he said. ″A wonderful picture, but quite new to the market.″

ʺTell me, Claypole, where did you get it?″ Schmidt asked.

″I′m not sure I should tell you. Professional secrets, you know.″

″You tell me where you got it and I will tell you what it is worth.″

″Oh, very well. It was a piece of good fortune, really. Chap called Renalle, from a minor agency in Nancy, was over here last week. Staying at the Hilton and disposing of quite a large collection from the estate of some industrialist or other. Anyway, he simply offered me the picture first.″

″And for this you are asking how much?″

″One hundred and six thousand guineas. A fair price, I think.″

Schmidt grunted and leaned heavily on his crutch, gazing at the picture.

Claypole said: ″What do you think it′s worth?″

Schmidt said: ″About a hundred pounds. It′s the best forgery I′ve ever seen.″

 

Louis′s editor was a short, beak-nosed man with a Northern accent who was fond of the word ″bugger.″ He pulled at the end of his nose and said: ″So we know that all of the paintings were bought by the people who the anonymous caller said they were bought by. It seems likely that the prices he mentioned were right. We also know something he didn′t tell us: that they were all bought from a man calling himself Renalle who was staying at the Hilton. Finally, we know that at least one of the paintings is a forgery.″

Louis nodded. ″The caller also said something like: ′We will tell you why we did it.′ So it sounds as if the caller was in fact Renalle.″

The editor frowned. ″I think it′s a stunt,″ he said.

″That doesn′t alter the fact that a mammoth con had been put over on the London art fraternity.″

The editor looked up at Louis. ″Don′t worry. I′m not knocking the story,″ he said. He thought for a moment. ″All right, this is how we′ll do it.″ He turned to Eddie Mackintosh, the paper′s art critic. ″I want you to get hold of Disley at the National Gallery, or someone of equal standing. It has to be a body we can call Britain′s leading art expert. Get him to go around all these galleries with you and authenticate the pictures or declare them forgeries. Offer a consultancy fee if you think it′s wanted.

″Whatever you do, don′t tell these guys that their pictures are forgeries. If they find out they′ll have the police in. Once the Yard know about it, some hotshot crime man on a daily will get it and spoil it for us.

″Louis, I want you to go at it from the other end. You′ve got a story, whatever Eddie discovers—on major forgery is enough. Try and track down this Renalle. Find out which room he was in at the hotel, how many people were there, and so on. Okay.″

The tone was dismissive, and the two journalists left the editor′s office.

 

Louis gave the reception clerk £5 for a look at the hotel register. There was no Renalle listed for any day the previous week. He double-checked. The only peculiarity was a Mr. Eric Clapton. He pointed the name out to the clerk.

ʺYes, I remember. He had a beautiful French girl with him. Name something like Renault. I remember, because a taxi came with loads of heavy pictures for him. He was a good tipper, too.″

Louis made a note of the room number. ″When guests pay by check, do you keep a record of the bank the check is drawn on?″

″Yes.″

Louis gave him two more fivers. ″Can you get me the address of this Clapton′s bank?″

″Not immediately. Can you come back in half an hour?″

″I′ll ring you from my office.″

He walked back to the office to kill the half-hour. When he rang the hotel, the clerk had the answer.

″The check was overprinted with the names Hollows and Cox, and Mr. Hollows signed it,″ he added.

Louis took a taxi to the bank.

The manager told him: ″We never give the addresses of clients, I′m afraid.″

Louis argued: ″These clients have been involved in a major fraud. If you don′t give me the addresses now, youʹll have to give them to the police soon.″

″When and if the police ask for the addresses, they will get them—provided they have the authority to seize them.″

″Would it be compromising yourself to ring them? One of them? And ask their permission?ʺ

″Why should I?ʺ

″I am prepared to remember your help when I write my story. There′s no real necessity for the bank to appear in a bad light.ʺ

The manager looked thoughtful. After a minute he picked up the phone and dialed. Louis memorized the number.

ʺThereʹs no reply,″ the manager said.

Louis left. From a phone booth he got the operator to put him through to the local exchange for the number the manager had dialed. The local operator gave him the address. He took a taxi.

A station wagon loaded with luggage was parked in the drive. Mr. Hollows had just returned from a camping holiday in Scotland with his family. He was untying the ropes on the roof rack.

He was worried to find that someone had opened a bank account in his name. No, he had no idea what it could be about. Yes, he could lend Louis a photograph of himself, and he happened to have a snap of himself with his friend Mr. Cox.

Louis took the photographs back to the bank.

″Neither of those men is the man who opened the account,″ said the bank manager.

He was worried now. He telephoned Mr. Hollows, and got even more worried. He slipped so far as to tell Louis that a lot of money had passed in and out of the account. It had been converted to negotiable securities, which had been deposited in the bank′s safe.

He took Louis to the vault, and opened the safe deposit box Mr. Hollows had rented. It was empty.

Louis and the manager looked at each other. Louis said: ʺThe trail stops here.″

 

″Listen to this: ′Britain′s top art expert, Mr. Jonathan Rand, thinks the paintings are the work of the best art forger this century has seen.′ Is that you, Mitch, or me?″

Peter and Mitch were sitting in the studio of the Clapham house, drinking the second cup of coffee after breakfast. They had a copy each of the Sunday paper, and they were reading about themselves with a mixture of awe and glee.

Mitch said: ″These newspaper boys worked bloody fast, you know. They found out all about the bank account and the safe deposit box, and they interviewed poor Hollows.″

″Yes, but what about this: ʹThe forger covered his trail so well that Scotland Yard believe he must have had the help of an experienced criminal.′ I reckon I′m the brilliant forger and you′re the experienced criminal.ʺ

Mitch put the newspaper down and blew on his coffee to cool it. ″It just shows how easily it can be done—which is what we set out to prove.″

″Here′s a good bit: ʹThe forger′s masterstroke was to provide each painting with a provenance—which is the art world′s equivalent of a pedigree, and is normally thought to guarantee the authenticity of a work. The provenances were on the official paper of Meunier′s, the Paris artists′ agents, and had the company′s stamp. Both paper and stamp must have been stolen.′ I like that—the masterstroke.″ Peter folded his paper and threw it across the room.

Mitch reached out for Anne′s guitar and began to play a simple blues tune. Peter said: ″I hope Arnaz is laughing—he paid for the joke.″

″I don′t think he really believed we could pull it off.″

″Nor did I,″ Peter laughed.

Mitch put the guitar down suddenly, causing the soundbox to boom. ″We haven′t done the most important bit yet. Let′s get on with it.″

Peter swallowed the rest of his coffee and got up. The two put on their jackets, called goodbye to Anne, and went out.

They walked along the street and squeezed into the telephone booth on the comer.

″Something′s worrying me,″ said Peter as he picked up the phone.

″That bit about Scotland Yard?″

ʺRight.ʺ

ʺItʹs bothering me, too,″ said Mitch. ″They might be all set to trace our call to the newspaper. They could get down here to the kiosk, throw a cordon around the area, and question everyone until they found someone connected with art.″

″So what do we do?″

ʺLetʹs just phone another newspaper. Theyʹll all know about the story by now.″

ʺOkay.ʺ Peter lifted the directory from the rack and looked under D for Daily.

″Which one?″ he said.

Mitch closed his eyes and stuck a finger on the page. Peter dialed the number, and asked to speak to a reporter.

When he got through he asked: ʺDo you take shorthand?″

The voice replied testily: ″Of course.″

ʺThen take. I am Renalle, the master forger, and I am about to tell you why I did it. I wanted to prove that the London art scene, in its concentration on masterpieces and dead painters, is phony. The best ten dealers in London cannot tell a forgery when they see one. They are motivated by greed and snobbery, rather than love of art. Because of them the money going into art is diverted away from the artists themselves, who really need it.″

ʺSlow down,″ the reporter protested.

Peter ignored him. ″I am now offering the dealers their money back, minus my expenses which come to about one thousand pounds. The conditon is that they set aside one-tenth of the cash—that will be about fifty thousand pounds—to provide a building in Central London where young, unknown artists can rent studios at low prices. The dealers must get together, and set up a trust fund to buy and manage the building. The other condition is that all police inquiries are dropped. I will look for their reply to my offer in the columns of your newspaper.″

The reporter said quickly: ″Are you a young painter yourself?ʺ

Peter put the phone down.

Mitch said: ″You forgot the French accent.″

″Oh, fuck,″ Peter swore. They left the phone booth.

As they walked back to the house, Mitch said: ″What the hell, I don′t suppose it makes any difference. Now they know it was not a French job. That narrows their field to the whole of the UK. So what?″

Peter bit his lip. ″It shows we′re getting slack, that′s what. We had better be careful not to count our chickens before they′ve paid up.″

″Hatched.″

″Fuck proverbs.″

Anne was in the front garden, playing with Vibeke in the sunshine, when they got back.

″The sun is shining—letʹs go out,″ she said.

Peter looked at Mitch. ″Why not?″

A deep American voice came from the sidewalk outside. ″How are the happy forgers?″

Peter whitened and turned around. He relaxed when he saw the stocky figure and white teeth of Arnaz. The man had a parcel under his arm.

″You scared me,″ Peter said.

Still smiling, Arnaz opened the rotting wooden gate and walked in. Peter said: ″Come on inside.″

The three men went up to the studio. When they had sat down Arnaz waved a copy of the newspaper. ″I congratulate you two,″ he said. ″I couldn′t have done a better job myself. I laughed my ass off in bed this morning.″

Mitch got up and pretended to stare at Arnaz′s behind. ″How did you get it back on again?″

Peter laughed. ″Mitch, don′t get manic again.″

Amaz went on: ″It was a brilliant operation. And the forgeries were good. I happened to see the van Gogh in Claypole′s last week. I almost bought it.″

″I suppose it′s safe for you to come here,″ Peter said thoughtfully.

″I think so. Besides, it′s necessary if I′m to make a profit on this deal.″

Mitch′s voice was hostile. ″I thought you were in this for the laughs.″

ʺThat too.″ Arnaz smiled again. ʺBut mainly, I wanted to see just how good the two of you were.″

″What the hell are you getting at, Arnaz?″ Peter was becoming uneasy now.

ʺLike I said, I want to see a profit on my investment. So I want you to do one more forgery each. For me.″

″No deal, Arnaz,ʺ said Peter. ″We did this to make a point, not to make money. We′re on the verge of getting away with it. No more forgeries.″

Mitch said quietly: ″I don′t think weʹre going to have any choice.″

Arnaz gave him a nod of acknowledgment. He spread his hands in a gesture of appeal. ″Look, you guys, there′s no danger. No one will know about these extra forgeries. The people who buy ′em will never let on they′ve been conned, because they′ll be implicating themselves in something shady by buying them in the first place. And nobody but me will know you did the forging.″

″Not interested,″ said Peter.

Arnaz said: ″Mitch knows you′re going to do it, don′t you, Mitch?″

″Yes, you bastard.″

″So tell Pete here.″

″Amaz has us by the balls, Peter,″ Mitch said. ″He′s the one person in the world who can finger us for the police. All it would take would be one anonymous phone call. And we haven′t got our deal with the art dealers yet.″

″So? If he fingers us, why can′t we finger him?″ Mitch replied: ″Because there′s no proof against him. He had no part in the operation—nobody saw him, whereas loads of people saw me. We can be put up on identity lineups, asked to account for our movements on the day in question, and Christ knows what. All he did was give us money—and it was cash, remember? He can deny everything.″

Peter turned to Arnaz. ″When do you want the forgeries?″

″Good lad. I want you to do them now, while I wait.″

Anne looked around the door with the baby in her arms. ″Hey, you lot, are we going to the common or not?ʺ

″I′m sorry, darling,ʺ Peter replied. ″It won′t be possible now. We′ve got to do something else.″

Anne′s expression was unreadable. She left the room.

Mitch said: ″What sort of paintings do you want, Amaz?ʺ

The man picked up the parcel he had brought with him. ″I want two copies of this.″ He handed it to Mitch.

Mitch unwrapped the parcel and took out a framed painting. He looked at it with puzzlement in his eyes. Then he read the signature, and whistled.

″Good God,″ he said in amazement. ″Where did you get this?″

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

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