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It is a headline-making story: the discovery of a previously unknown Rembrandt. René Vachey, the iconoclastic art dealer who claims to have uncovered it, wants to make a gift of it to the Seattle Art Museum, but curator Chris Norgren is wary. Vachey is notorious in art circles for perpetrating scandalous shams; not for profit but for the sheer fun of embarrassing the elite and snobbish “experts” of the art establishment. And thanks to the web of strings attached to Vachey’s donation (e.g., no scientific testing ...
It is a headline-making story: the discovery of a previously unknown Rembrandt. René Vachey, the iconoclastic art dealer who claims to have uncovered it, wants to make a gift of it to the Seattle Art Museum, but curator Chris Norgren is wary. Vachey is notorious in art circles for perpetrating scandalous shams; not for profit but for the sheer fun of embarrassing the elite and snobbish “experts” of the art establishment. And thanks to the web of strings attached to Vachey’s donation (e.g., no scientific testing permitted), even Rembrandt expert Chris is uncertain as to whether or not the painting is authentic.
His doubts multiply when he goes to Dijon to examine it and finds himself in the middle of a host of controversies of which Vachey is the devilish focus. But there is no doubt that the bullet soon found in Vachey’s head is authentic. And there is no telling how much time Chris has to find the truth about the “masterpiece”—and the murder—before he finds himself painted into a corner by a shrewd and villainous murderer.
1993 Nero Award, given by the Nero Wolfe Society/the Wolfe Pack for literary excellence in the mystery genre.
Featuring art curator/detective Chris Norgren, this marvelous mystery by an Edgar Award-winning author is a masterpiece of murder. Is a newly discovered Rembrandt a fake? Chris Norgren wonders, because the bullet found in its collector's head is genuine. . . .
"My treat," Tony said, reaching over my extended hand to pick up the check. "This is on me."
Oh-oh, I thought. Watch out now.
This is not to imply that Tony Whitehead is a devious type, or one in whom every generous action implies some ulterior motive. It's just that Tony usually doesn't do things without a reason. Sometimes it's to your advantage, sometimes it's not. And it's been my experience that when he picks up the tab—it's not.
Tony is my boss, the director of the Seattle Art Museum (or SAM, as we insiders call it). I'm Chris Norgren, the curator of Renaissance and Baroque art. We were lunching a few blocks from the museum in the stylish, dark-wood elegance of a trendy new dining spot called Palomino. Our table was at a railing overlooking the spectacular glass-and-granite atrium of the Pacific First Centre building four stories below. As befitted a restaurant that described itself as "a Euro-Seattle bistro," Palomino was neoeclectic all the way. The furnishings were vaguely Art Deco, the wall hangings and open brick ovens vaguely Country French, the massive round columns and mauve walls vaguely Aegean.
It was all very handsome and inviting, and certainly of the moment, but it wasn't a choice I would have expected from Tony, who prided himself on ferreting out little hole-in-the-wall "finds" under the Alaskan Freeway. He'd surprised me by suggesting it. And made me wonder what was up.
Not that I didn't trust him, you understand. As a matter of fact, I do trust him. And I like him a lot. He works hard and he has high standards for himself and his staff. He's a skilled administrator and a formidable Trecento scholar, and more than once I'd seen him stand up for his people when the chips were down. He'd been particularly kind to me at a critical time in my life.
All the same, there was an occasional whiff of snake oil in his nature, and he had a history of getting me involved in things I should have known better than to get involved in. Always for the greater good of the Seattle Art Museum, of course, or in the interests of art itself. But not always in the interests of my personal comfort and convenience.
"How was the meal?" he said amiably.
"Delicious," I said. Which was true. I'd had a spit-roasted-chicken pizza, thereby taking advantage in one dish of both the Milanese girarrosto that roasted the fowl, and the alder-fired Roman pizza oven. The famous apple-wood-fired oven had made its contribution in the form of bruschetta, delicately charred chunks of Italian bread coated with olive oil, garlic, and bits of sun-dried tomato. I hadn't figured out a way to try the hardwood grill, too, but whatever I'd had was excellent.
"How about some dessert?"
"Why don't we have some salad? You know, a palate-cleanser."
I agreed. We ordered green salads. Did we wish fresh Gorgonzola and walnuts on them, the black-shirted, black-trousered waitress wanted to know. We didn't. Would we care for another glass of wine?
"Go ahead, Chris," Tony said expansively. "No hurry getting back. We've got all the time in the world."
"No, thanks, Tony. Gee, I wonder why I have this feeling I'm going to need a clear head."
"Ha, ha," he said reassuringly, "not really. Although, you know, there is something I wanted to tell you about. Don't look so edgy, Chris. I think you're going to find this interesting."
I didn't doubt it.
He reached for the bruschetta and tore off a piece. "As it happens, there's a collector who wants to give us one of his paintings," he said off-handedly. "It'd fall in your bailiwick if we take it."
"What painting?" I asked warily.
"Oh, it's just a portrait. By, what's his name, you know, Rembrandt."
Well, there in a nutshell was why no one had ever accused Tony of not knowing how to get someone's attention.
"What's-his-name-Rembrandt," I said thickly, once I got my voice going again. "Tony, this is ..." I frowned. "What do you mean, if we take it? Are you kidding me?"
"Well, we do have a small problem. The man we're talking about is René Vachey."
"René ...?" I stared at him. "And he just ... just up and offered us this old Rembrandt he happened to have lying around?"
Tony continued his placid chewing. "That's about it. One of his lawyers called me this morning to tell me about it."
"Just like that? Out of the blue?"
"Just like that."
I sat back against my chair, not sure just what my feelings were. "Mixed" would be as good a way as any to describe them, I guess. A Rembrandt portrait. Any red-blooded curator of Baroque art who says he wouldn't be salivating for it sight unseen would be lying through his teeth. I mean, after all, Rembrandt is—well, Rembrandt. The fact that SAM didn't own a single one of his paintings was something I regarded as almost a personal affront, but I'd long ago given up the idea of getting one any time soon. And now, suddenly, there it was, in my mind's eye, gilded seventeenth-century frame and all, hanging in the Late Renaissance and Baroque Gallery on the fourth floor, in pride of place on the west wall. I was dazzled.
At the same time, the mention of the donor's name had made me thoroughly leery. I'd never met the elderly René Vachey, but I knew who he was. A successful French art dealer as well as a collector, he was one of the art world's more eccentric characters (and take my word for it, that is saying something), unpredictable, controversial, notorious. To some, an unscrupulous and self-serving scoundrel; but to many others a welcome gadfly in a field cram-full of self-puffery and faddishness. I could see both points of view.
The most spectacular of his escapades had occurred about ten years earlier, when the morning shift at the Musée Barillot in Dijon had walked in to discover to their horror that six of the museum's most-prized possessions had vanished during the night, frames and all. Among them were paintings by Tintoretto, Murillo, and Goya.
The usual tumult followed. The police were called in and got to work grilling museum employees and other suspicious characters. Photographs and descriptions of the stolen works were given to Interpol. Accusations of lax security were flung at the museum director, who responded by wringing his hands and bemoaning the sad state to which French morality had degenerated. He also fired his security chief.
Then, exactly four weeks later, René Vachey opened a public exhibition of works from his own excellent collection, mounted in his own gallery, three blocks from the museum. This was something he did occasionally, but this time there was a difference. Featured proudly and prominently in their original frames were the six pictures missing from the Barillot.
More tumult. Vachey, one of Dijon's most prominent citizens, permitted himself to be arrested and charged in what was almost a public ceremony. Afterward, he held a news conference well-attended by the Parisian press corps (whom he had taken care to invite). Yes, he said, he had taken the pictures from the museum, or rather caused them to be taken; the responsibility was entirely his. But stolen them? No, he had not stolen them. To steal, he pointed out, was to take the property of another, was it not? But whose property were these paintings? Did the Musée Barillot own them? He thought not, and he thought he could prove he was right.
Now I ought to point out that we are not talking about timeless works of art here, despite the famous names. Artists are like anyone else; they have off-days. Usually they themselves destroy or paint over their less successful efforts, but often enough these works survive. And there are certain small European museums, and some American ones, too, that have capitalized on this, picking them up relatively cheaply and amassing collections rich in great names but lacking in great works. This is not my favorite approach to developing a museum, based as it is on the belief that the average museumgoer is too dumb to know or care what he or she is looking at as long as the label says Picasso or Matisse. Worse, that's precisely the kind of museumgoer it helps to create. ("Ooh, look, a genuine Picasso! Isn't that beautiful?")
Anyway, the Musée Barillot, I have to say, was just such a museum. In fairness, it could hardly have afforded a first-rate collection of paintings. Containing a modest collection willed to the city by a wealthy physician named (surprise) Barillot at the turn of the century, it had since received little support beyond that required for maintenance. It had, in fact, made almost no acquisitions since the late 1940s. Just how it had managed to acquire the pictures in question was something that was buried in the remote past. They had hung there as long as anybody could remember, that was all.
And it was just this point that had started the clever Vachey thinking. He did some research, tracing them back to their appearance in the country in about 1800 as Napoleonic loot from Italy, Germany, and Spain. With thousands of other plundered artworks they had been destined for the Louvre, but they were among those the experts pronounced unworthy of basking in la gloire de France and had found their way into the French art market. Eventually, one or two at a time, the museum in Dijon had picked them up in the early years of the twentieth century. They had done so legally, paying the going price, and they had the papers to prove it (although it had taken them a while to locate them in the dusty vaults of a bank in Beaune).
Vachey shrugged this off. How could paintings or anything else be purchased legally from sellers who had no right to them in the first place? But French law didn't see it that way, and a much-publicized court case ensued, with Vachey cheerfully questioning the French legal system's authority to rule in cases involving non-French property.
Yes, cheerfully. For the whole thing was a sensational stunt. There had never been a question of its being anything else. Certainly these second-rate products of first-rate artists had no financial or aesthetic appeal to Vachey. His own collection was infinitely more valuable than the Musée's. He had simply decided to call attention, somewhat ahead of its time, to the enormous and tangled question of Who Owns Art?—and perhaps to make some waves and ruffle a few feathers in the sober, snooty French art establishment along the way.
This he did brilliantly, for three well-publicized weeks, until the court began to make threatening noises. In the end, the paintings went back to the museum, as Vachey had always claimed—and I believed him—was his intention. He also paid the museum's legal expenses and voluntarily donated from his own collection, as a goodwill gesture, a fine Goya charcoal study that was worth more than all six "stolen" pictures put together.
From beginning to end, he had clearly considered the whole affair an enormous lark. Whether you conclude his basic motives were altruistic or self-serving depends on who you talk to. There was little doubt that he accomplished something useful by focusing attention on an important issue. On the other hand, he also became for a while the world's most celebrated art dealer, which couldn't have been bad for business. But whichever way you felt about that, the fact remained that he did it by burglarizing a museum, and anytime you load pictures in and out of trucks you subject them to frightening risks, especially when you do it through windows—in a hurry and on the sly. I've already said that these weren't among the Western world's great masterpieces, but Tintorettos are Tintorettos, and as far as art people are concerned, you don't mess with them to prove a point.
He'd also caused an art museum, and by extension, art museums in general, to look foolish, and that was what was worrying Tony and me right now.
So that was the man who wanted to give us a Rembrandt. Who knew what he was up to this time? The only thing I was sure of was that any gift horse from René Vachey required a long, hard look in the mouth.
"This picture," I said to Tony, "what does it look like?"
The salads had come. Tony began on his. "I told you," he said. "It's a portrait. Oil on canvas."
That struck me as a rather laconic description from a man who can get every bit as overheated about old paintings as I can.
"But what kind of a portrait? Of whom? Group or single subject? What kind of condition is it in? How much restoration has there been?"
Tony hunched his shoulders and chewed, the implication being that his mouth was too full of arugula and fennel to reply at the moment.
I leaned forward, eyes narrowed. "You haven't actually seen it, have you?"
"Well, not exactly—"
"Well, no, nobody has."
"Not even photographs?"
"So we don't really know for sure it's what he says it is."
Tony swallowed and put down his fork. "Hell, we don't know for sure it exists. This could be some hoax, some game he's playing. It probably is."
I sat back and looked at him, thoroughly deflated. "So why are we even talking about it? Why are we bothering?"
"Because," Tony said, "he just might be on the level. What do you want me to do, tell him we're not interested? Tell him to go find some other museum for his lousy Rembrandt? Tell him to go ahead and give it to the Met?"
"No, I guess not."
"Of course not. How'd you feel if the next time you walked into the Met, your Rembrandt was hanging on their wall?"
I laughed. "Not good."
"Well, neither would I. So let's not jump to conclusions."
"Agreed. But something's clearly fishy here, Tony. Look, why would Vachey donate anything to us? Why not some other museum? Why not the Met? That'd give him a bigger public arena, if that's what he's after. Or why not a French museum, where at least he'd come away with some tax benefits?"
"Makes you wonder, doesn't it," Tony agreed.
"We've never had any kind of association with him, have we?"
"Well, in a way, yes. You know who Ferdinand Oscar de Quincy was?"
It wasn't a name you'd be likely to forget once you'd heard it. "Sure, he had your job back in the fifties."
"That's right. Well, before that, in the forties he was with MFA & A. You remember what that is, don't you?"
I nodded. MFA & A—Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives— was the U.S. Army unit that, with major British assistance, had tracked down so much of the stupendous German art plunder of World War II and gotten it back to the museums and individuals it had been taken from. It had been the biggest and most successful recovery of stolen art in history, a well-deserved feather in the cap of the U.S. military. Afterward, most of MFA & A's experts, like Rorimer of the Met, and like de Quincy of SAM, had returned to the museum world from which they'd been recruited.
"Anyhow," Tony said, "according to Vachey, de Quincy was personally responsible for getting a dozen of his paintings back to him, and he swore then that he'd repay him someday by giving something worthwhile to de Quincy's museum." He shrugged. "That's us."
"What took him so long? It's been almost fifty years. De Quincy's been gone for forty."
"You've got me. According to his attorney, Vachey's getting on in years, he's getting sentimental. Wants to set his accounts in order before he passes on. He's taking care of old obligations, settling debts, redoing his will, all that kind of thing."
I picked abstractedly at the salad. What I'd heard so far was not abundantly convincing. From what I knew of Vachey, I didn't think he was the sentimental type, or at least not sentimental enough to give away something worth millions just to discharge a half-century-old obligation. There was surely something peculiar going on here, something we hadn't been told.
"Tony, let's assume the painting does exist. Let's assume it's really a Rembrandt. How positive are we that he's got legal ownership? How did he come by it? What does the provenance look like?"
Now provenances are tricky things. A provenance is the pedigree of a painting, the record of its ownership from the time it left the artist's hands. Since paintings change hands often, works as old as the ones we were talking about tend to have long provenances. Often they have gaps; for one reason or another, pictures disappear for a while and then turn up again, often fifty or a hundred years later. When this happens, there are always questions. How, after all, can people be absolutely certain that a long-lost Titian that is discovered in the living room of an Atlanta townhouse is the very same picture last seen or heard of in 1908 when it disappeared from the wall of a church in Pisa? (Answer: they can't, not absolutely.)
Excerpted from Old Scores by Aaron Elkins. Copyright © 1993 Aaron Elkins. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted March 24, 2012
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