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Mild-mannered and law-abiding, Chris Norgren, curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Seattle Art Museum, is an unlikely undercover investigator, but when a priceless Rubens portrait is discovered in a shipment of “authentic reproductions” in a local warehouse, Chris is pressed into service to find out how it got there. The quest leads him to the medieval city of Bologna, one of his favorite places, but all too soon what might have been a welcome Italian interlude turns into a bizarre journey into shady art...
Mild-mannered and law-abiding, Chris Norgren, curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Seattle Art Museum, is an unlikely undercover investigator, but when a priceless Rubens portrait is discovered in a shipment of “authentic reproductions” in a local warehouse, Chris is pressed into service to find out how it got there. The quest leads him to the medieval city of Bologna, one of his favorite places, but all too soon what might have been a welcome Italian interlude turns into a bizarre journey into shady art world doings and murderous secrets . . .
From the Edgar Award-winning author of Old Bones comes a highly praised art world mystery and an exciting new series. Seattle museum curator Chris Norgren sets off on a routine junket to Italy, and ends up investigating an art theft involving 24 masterpieces.
"It's perfectly safe," Tony said with his most engaging would-I-lie? grin. "There's nothing to worry about, believe me."
Well, of course, that was when the alarm bells began jingling. It wasn't that I didn't trust Tony; it was just that he tended to have his eyes on the end results (or "systemic organizational objectives," as he called them)—so much so that he sometimes failed to perceive the trifling little problems that might lie along the way. And even when he did perceive them, he had been known to gloss them conveniently over. To the eventual sorrow of those who, like me, worked for him.
But the day was not conducive to misgivings. We were on Pier 56, in our shirtsleeves, sitting beneath a table umbrella under a rare Seattle sky of glorious blue, watching the ferries glide sedately out of Elliott Bay and into a sparkling Puget Sound. The good smells of salt water and creosote were in our nostrils, the dry, groaning creak of tied-up ships in our ears. On the round, enameled metal table in front of us were big cardboard buckets of steamed clams and glasses of white wine that we'd carried over from Steamer's take-out counter a few yards away. It was no time for presentiments of gloom.
Not that it didn't occur to me that it wasn't beyond Tony to have orchestrated this: to have waited for just such a bright and blameless day, and to have suggested just such a cheerful lunch spot, in order to spring his rash and risky ideas on me.
"And what about the Mafia?" I asked. "They're bound to be involved in this."
"The Mafia," he said contemptuously, "is a thing of the past. Don't you read the newspapers? Besides, do you think I'd consider it for a moment if there were any danger to you?" When I remained pointedly silent he smiled reprovingly. "Chris, would I?"
"Only if it was for the greater good of the Seattle Art Museum," I said.
I think I ought to explain at this point that Tony Whitehead is one of my favorite people. Almost everything useful that I know about the museum world I learned from Tony. For almost five years I had worked for him at the San Francisco County Museum of Art, and when he accepted the directorship of the Seattle Art Museum five months ago, he asked me along as his curator of Renaissance and Baroque art. I jumped at the chance. One reason was that my long and messy divorce had just concluded, requiring me to sell my Victorian house on Divisadero Street whether I wanted to or not, and I wanted to put that entire part of my life—the San Francisco years—behind me.
The other reason was Tony. He was a first-rate administrator, he gave me breathing room, he trusted my judgment, and hardly a day passed when I didn't learn something from him. But he was a born con man (no small attribute in an art museum director), with a style that was somewhat freewheeling, to put it mildly, and it was equally true that not too many days passed when he didn't have me grinding my teeth over something.
I wasn't grinding my teeth now, but I was worried. "It's not the danger," I said, more or less honestly. "I just don't like the feel of the whole thing. It sounds ... sleazy. You're asking me to be an informer, to spy on the people I'm dealing with."
"Absolutely not. Far from it. The people you're dealing with aren't crooks. At least let's hope not." He put down a stubbornly closed clam he had been unable to pry open and used a paper napkin to wipe butter from sleek, round fingers. "Look, you're going to be in Bologna anyway, right? You're going to see everybody who's anybody. You're bound to hear things. All they want you to do is meet with their people a few times and pass along anything you hear that might be pertinent. That's all. Is that so terrible? This is a natural for you, Chris. Besides, if I know you, you'd tell them anyway, even without being asked."
"Of course you would," Tony said comfortably. "You're the most law-abiding person I know. You're ethical. You stop at stop signs when there's nobody around. I've seen you."
I knew it was meant as a compliment, and it was true enough, but it annoyed me all the same; coming from Tony it sounded like a character flaw. Besides, who wants to be the most law-abiding person someone knows?
"Maybe, maybe not," I said more defiantly, and swigged at the cold wine.
The "they" Tony had mentioned were the Italian carabinieri, who had contacted the FBI for help. The FBI had in turn gotten hold of Tony, who was always ready to do anything that might bring the museum some favorable publicity. Or just about any publicity. And what we were talking about was a trio of sensational art thefts in Italy twenty-two months earlier. In one, thieves had gotten into the prestigious Pinacoteca Museum in Bologna, making off with a carload of precious paintings: two Tintorettos, a famous Perugino Madonna, and fifteen other highly valuable pictures.
The second break-in had been at the neo-Gothic townhouse of Clara Gozzi in nearby Ferrara. Signora Gozzi, a well-known collector, had been robbed of two portraits by Bronzino and a handsome Correggio nude, along with two other paintings. Her best-known picture, a portrait by Rubens, had been undergoing cleaning at a Bologna restorer's studio at the time, and the discriminating thieves had demonstrated that they knew exactly what they were after by their third burglary, the theft of her Rubens from the restorer's workshop. In accomplishing this, they had apparently been surprised by an elderly night watchman who had paid for his interference with his life.
All three burglaries had taken place on the same night, apparently within four hours of each other. This was not unusual in the highly evolved arena of art thievery. A major theft in a particular area is always followed by an explosion of security precautions on the part of shaken museums and collectors, so that stealing anything else becomes a very risky proposition until things become lax again with the passage of many years. Say, two.
But professional thieves are not patient people. They don't like to wait two years, so they get around the problem by robbing two collections—sometimes three—at virtually the same moment. By the time the first is discovered, the last is already a fact. When brought off successfully, this is always a sign of a highly sophisticated gang. (Raffles to the contrary, professional art thieves are never loners. They are always gangs.)
In any event, nothing was heard of the paintings for a year and a half. Then a month ago relatively reliable reports began to trickle in; the Perugino from the Pinacoteca had wound up in Dresden; a Saudi had bought one of signora Gozzi's Bronzinos on the black market for $180,000. And now the art world was boiling with the rumor that the rest of them were about to surface; that is, become available to buyers with ready cash and not too many questions.
The prevailing assumption was that they were still hidden away somewhere in Bologna, and that was how I came into it. For, as it happened, I was scheduled to leave for Bologna the following Sunday anyway, to make the final arrangements for an exhibition that would travel from Italy to museums in Seattle, San Francisco, Dallas, New York, and Washington, D.C. Northerners in Italy, it was to be called; a collection of thirty-two sixteenth- and seventeenth-century pictures that had been painted by Dutch, Flemish, French, and German masters while studying in Italy.
Since it had been my idea in the first place, it had fallen to me to make most of the preparations, and on the following Sunday evening, I would be boarding United 157 to Chicago, there to catch TWA 746 to Rome and then an Alitalia flight to Bologna's Borgo Paniglae Airport. The whole trip would take nineteen hours and I wasn't looking forward to it.
Among the people I would be talking to once I got there would be signora Clara Gozzi herself, who was lending the show a Fragonard, a Van Dyck, and two other paintings from her still-considerable collection; and Amedeo Di Vecchio, director of the Pinacoteca Museum, who was supplying most of the other pictures. And, as Tony said, there was little doubt that I would encounter everybody else who was anybody on the gossipy and rumor-laden Bolognese art scene. (All art scenes are gossipy and rumor-laden.) That, I supposed, was why it was a natural for me. But that didn't make me comfortable with it.
"What about Calvin?" I asked Tony hopefully. Calvin Boyer, the museum's marketing director, would join me in Bologna after I got there, to gather material for press releases or to perform whatever other arcane functions Tony was entrusting him with. "This is more his line, isn't it?"
Not that I had ever been completely clear on what Calvin's line was. But Calvin didn't have friends in Italy who would never trust him again when they learned he'd been passing tidbits of their conversation on to the FBI, or the carabinieri, or wherever they eventually wound up.
"Wouldn't work," Tony said. He ate economically, the way he did everything—spearing a clam, pulling it from its shell with a deft twist, and neatly flicking it into his mouth. "Calvin's going to be there only a few days, and his Italian isn't good enough. Besides, you're already involved."CHAPTER 2
I was involved, all right. In fact, as my friend Louis, who happens to be a psychotherapist, informed me afterward, I brought the whole thing on myself in the classic mode of the Nietzschean Tragedy. Except, he said, it was more thriller than tragedy.
I don't know about that. It seems to me I may have forged the way for a new art form: the Nietzschean Farce.
It had started the previous Wednesday at a little after five. The museum had just closed, but I was in my office on the fifth floor, working on the catalogue for a Meissen porcelain exhibition that we would be mounting later in the year. Decorative arts are not exactly in my line, but Tony had found out about a summer internship I'd once put in at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and now I was reaping the benefits. It was tedious work. As a curator, I admire Meissen porcelain enormously; who wouldn't? But looking at a roomful of it makes me glassy-eyed after ten minutes, and writing about it makes me positively catatonic.
"Knock-knock." Calvin's voice, from the doorway. I looked up. An interruption was not unwelcome.
Calvin Boyer is a small, nimble man in his late twenties with an interesting face; a little plump, a little bug-eyed, and just a little weasely around the mouth and chin. He always puts me in mind of a shifty rabbit, right down to an upper lip that quivers when he gets excited.
He is bright, hard-working, and upbeat, but there is something oily about him, at least to my eyes; a kind of smug cunning. Like Tony, he's a pitchman, but he lacks Tony's formidable credentials as a scholar. Calvin is the only member of the senior staff who is not expert in some aspect of art. His degrees are in journalism and marketing, and when I work with him I sometimes feel as if I'm on the other end of a salesman's spiel.
Nevertheless, I like him too, quite a lot. My friend Louis implies that this indiscriminate liking of people may signal a problem area. He wonders if it represents a displaced hunger for affection resulting from a failure on my mother's part to breast-feed me. This is something we will never know, because I'm too embarrassed to ask my mother whether she breast-fed me or not. When I tell him this, Louis looks at me darkly, shakes his head, and mutters about infantile repression and the anaclitic redefinition of love objects.
Everybody should have a Freudian psychotherapist for a friend. One's life is simplified tremendously.
I like Louis, too, by the way.
"Chris," Calvin said, "I just got a call from a guy named Mike Blusher. He imports old paintings from Italy, and he says he's pretty sure he's got a couple of genuine Old Masters that got included in his latest shipment somehow. He doesn't have any idea how they got there. He says he never ordered them. He wants somebody to check them out, and they're in your ball park."
This was not as exciting as you might think. Museums get agitated calls about Old Masters found in attics or cellars or furniture warehouses, all the time. In my six years as a curator, only one has turned out to be the real thing, and that was when a garbage collector called the museum in San Francisco to say that he'd found a pair of sculptured wooden hands, clasped as if in prayer, in a trash can, and they looked kind of old.
They were: They were from the workshop of Donatello and they had been part of a wooden altar shrine in Fiesole from 1425 to 1944, when they bad been "liberated" by an overly enthusiastic GI who had whacked them off with a rifle butt. After that, they had remained in a cardboard box in his garage for another forty years, until he threw them out. They are now back in Fiesole; one of my more satisfying coups.
The only one like it in six years. "Fine," I said. "If he wants to bring them in tomorrow after three, I'll have a look."
"Well, I told him you'd go on out to his warehouse to look at them."
I laughed. "Are we making house calls now?"
"Look, you can't blame him for not wanting to drive them around in his car. And the guy's a steady patron of the museum, good for twenty thousand a year. I really think you ought to go. I don't suppose you could do it now?"
"No car," I said. I was living in an apartment in Winslow, across the Sound. I took the ferry to the city every morning and walked to work.
"I'll drive you. I'll even spring for dinner when we're done. We could be at Mike's warehouse by about 6:10, and I could have you back for the—" He consulted his watch and pressed some tiny buttons on it. "—for the—mm ..."
When Calvin consults his watch, it is always something of a production. Calvin is the only person I know who actually sends away for those items you see advertised in airline magazines, and that's where his watch came from; a rectangular, sinister, dull-black thing with two faces. A navigator watch, he once explained to me, outfitted with chronograph, dual LCD display, luminous analog dial, and ratcheted safety bezel. Plus more buttons than I have on my stereo system.
"—for the 9:50 ferry!" he said triumphantly. "How's that?"
I nodded. It sounded better than the Meissen. And I certainly didn't have anything else waiting for me that evening, at my apartment or anywhere else. The fact is, I hadn't made the world's greatest adjustment to bachelorhood after ten years of marriage. I guess I hadn't made the greatest adjustment to marriage either, or I wouldn't be divorced.
I locked up the office and we walked to the covered garage at the Four Seasons, where Calvin insisted on parking his car. The rest of the staff parked in the slots behind the museum. Calvin was the sort of person you'd expect to drive a Porsche, and he did, although he claimed with a straight face that it was for reasons of economy. He had owned four, he said, and had sold each of the previous three for more than he'd paid for it. We pulled out onto Fifth Avenue, slowly made our way through the sluggish traffic to Madison, and turned right to jerk and grind our way down the steep incline to Alaskan Way.
"God," Calvin said, "this traffic gets worse every day. It's all you goddam newcomers. It's really hard on my Porsche." To Calvin, it was never his car or his automobile. Only his Porsche.
"I'm from San Francisco," I said. "This seems like a Sunday drive in the country to me. Calvin, what did you mean, this guy imports old paintings from Italy? That's illegal. You can't get an old painting out of Italy without special government permission."
"Well, they're not really old. They're just doctored to look old. He runs a firm called Venezia and he imports bushels of them. The Italian government doesn't give a damn about them."
I looked at him in amazement. "He imports forgeries?"
"No, high-class fakes that are baked in an oven or whatever they do to make them look old. They're only forgeries if you try to pass them off as the real thing, right? As long as you label something a copy, it's perfectly legal."
Excerpted from A Glancing Light by Aaron Elkins. Copyright © 1991 Aaron Elkins. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted January 8, 2015
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