The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras
A Pot Thief Mystery
By J. Michael Orenduff
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 2009 J. Michael Orenduff
All rights reserved.
The two best things about being a shopkeeper are that your income isn't limited to some corporation's idea of what a salary should be, and you get to set your own hours.
The two worst things are that you don't have a salary to depend on every month, and ... Well, it doesn't really matter what the other worst thing is if there's no money coming in.
Which was my situation in April. My shop is in Albuquerque's Old Town, and the last time any money had passed over the counter was during the Christmas rush. Which was actually more of a Christmas mosey since December had seen no more than a dozen shoppers and only one buyer. He carried away a beautiful antique Santa Clara pot that had been on my shelves for a dozen years, and I felt a twinge of regret when I handed it to him.
Of course my remorse was salved somewhat when I saw Hubert Schuze in the "pay to the order of" line of a fifteen-thousand-dollar check.
The fifteen thousand had paid the light bill and kept food on the table and champagne in the fridge, but it was now nothing more than a fond memory. So I was happy to see a potential customer lingering by my door.
At least I hoped he was a customer. The way he was looking furtively up and down the street, he might have been a hold-up man.
Or maybe he just didn't want to be seen entering a disreputable establishment.
Not that I think of my business that way. It's not an opium den or a Frederick's of Hollywood, but I do have a bit of a reputation in some circles.
He eventually worked up the courage to step inside, whereupon he removed his fedora, introduced himself as Carl Wilkes and gave me a card that read New World Antiquities.
"Sounds like an oxymoron," I commented.
He offered a half smile. I offered him a cup of coffee and a warning about my brewing skill. It had been steeping for hours, but he drank it unflinchingly. No milk, no sugar.
Wilkes wore a dull green flannel shirt buttoned all the way up to his neck and tucked into taupe gabardine trousers. The hat was moleskin. He was so thin and his clothes so neatly pressed that he could have been wearing the outfit during the pressing.
"If you're looking for old pots," I said to him, "you've come to the right place."
"Are you perhaps familiar with this one?"
I looked at the photograph he handed me. "Yes, I know it. A beautiful piece, a thousand years old and almost perfect except for a small chip in the rim. If you want to see it, it's on display at the Valle del Rio Museum at the University of New Mexico."
"I've already seen it," he said. "What I want to do is buy it."
"Well, you could make them an offer I suppose, but I don't think it's for sale."
He shook his head slowly. "I've tried that. Museums seldom sell things from their collections. But you're in the business of selling pots, so perhaps I can buy it from you."
"If I owned it," I assured him with a smile, "I would sell it to you gladly."
He looked straight into my eyes. "Perhaps you could acquire it."
I stared at him across the counter while I thought about that remark. Small arroyos laced his tan skin, and his thick beard was trimmed close to his face. The leathery skin pegged him around fifty, but perhaps he was only thirty and had spent too much time in the New Mexico sun. His dark, deep-set eyes gave him a shifty look until the warmth showed in his smile.
After thinking about it for a few moments, I gave the only response that came to me. "How?"
"I imagine there are ways," he said, "but that's not my concern." He glanced out into the street and then continued. "If I bought one of the pots in here today, I wouldn't ask how or where you got it. And if I were to come back in a few days and find a new pot in your shop, I wouldn't ask how or where you got that one either."
"Call me Carl."
"Carl, are you trying to suborn a felony?"
The lines around his eyes lifted into another half smile. His eyes seemed liquid and lighter when he smiled. He said nothing.
"Suppose," I said, "I could somehow acquire the pot in question—legally of course—and offer it for sale. What price do you think it would fetch?"
"Twenty-five thousand dollars," he answered.
Now I was smiling, too.
In addition to selling traditional Native American pottery, I'm also a pot thief. I don't like the term, and I don't think it's a fair description, but that's what I am. At least that's what I've been since the 1980s when Congress passed the Archaeological Resources Protection Act extending the definition of thievery to cover buried pots on public lands. And who knows more about thievery than Congress?
Prior to that, it was legal to dig up old pots for fun and profit. Those of us who did the digging were called something a lot more exotic. We were known as "treasure hunters." It was an honest profession, even an honorable one. Most of what we know about the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome we owe to treasure hunters who unearthed their artifacts. If it were not for that most famous of treasure hunters, Howard Carter, Tut would still be under the desert sand, and his funereal loot would not be touring the world in all its splendor.
Selling old pots is quite lucrative providing you don't get caught digging them up, but that's only part of the appeal. The real reward is the thrill of the find, the sudden connection with the ancient past when you hold in your hands a pot that has lain unknown and untouched for a thousand years.
Carter said it best when, after years of searching, he got his first glimpse of Tutankhamen: "The youthful Pharaoh was before us at last. An obscure and ephemeral ruler had reentered the world of history."
Although I've never dug up anything as significant as an Egyptian pharaoh, I have brought some beautiful pottery back into the world of history and profited handsomely from doing so. But the pots I sell to wealthy collectors are excavated from the ground, not stolen from museums.
I don't apologize for digging them up. They belong to whoever finds them, and I refuse to let Congress make me out a thief. It's more than just being denied the fruit of my labor as a digger, more than merely losing the benefits of my talent for reading the land and knowing where to look for artifacts. Sure I like the money, and there's nothing else I want to do to earn a living. But what's just as important—maybe even more so—is the spiritual connection I feel with those ancient potters. It's like reaching back through time. When I finally feel the cool smooth clay beneath the sand, I'm touching the hand of the potter.
I know why she was there, because I found my way to that same sheltered dune using knowledge of the land she possessed a thousand years before I was born. I'm holding the pot she took with her to carry water or gather juniper berries. When I find that pot, I find her, someone like me who knew the feel of wet clay between her fingers.
Taking a pot from a museum wouldn't give me that same thrill. I knew that. Someone else had already experienced the moment of unearthing. The pot in the Valle del Rio Museum was no virgin.
So what if the thrill wouldn't be there. Twenty-five thousand dollars can be thrilling in its own way, especially since it was April and I had neglected to set aside from last year's adjusted gross income the thirty-one percent now due to the Internal Revenue Service.
I also owed a penalty because my quarterly estimated tax payments weren't large enough, which is a ridiculous rule because it's impossible to estimate my income. I admit it's petty, but I was feeling frustrated and maybe a little sorry for myself. The same government that wants to ban me from making a living also wanted me to know in advance that I'd have a fifteen-thousand-dollar sale at Christmas and send them the tax before I collected the money.
But there's no arguing with Uncle Sam. I owed the tax and I owed the penalty. The twentyfive thousand Wilkes was proffering would more than cover both.
When he asked me to think about it, I said I would. He told me he would be in the Hyatt for the next two days and invited me to visit him after I had thought it over. What he didn't know was I had already thought it over.
I wish I hadn't.
Thinking about the museum wasn't getting me anywhere. I even went so far as striking the pose—elbow resting on the knee, wrist curled back under the chin. But that made me think of Rodin, not pots.
So I gave up and walked down the street, across the plaza and over to Dos Hermanas Tortillería where my best friend Susannah and I can be found almost every evening unwinding from work with our mutual friend Margarita, the delightful daughter of Jose Cuervo.
Susannah's in her late twenties and unwinds easily from working the lunch shift at La Placita, which starts about ten in the morning for table set-up and menu review and ends about three when the dining room has been restored to some semblance of order. I'm forty-something and don't unwind as easily as I used to even though the only thing I was unwinding from was sitting behind the counter thinking about Wilkes and the museum.
We use the cocktail hour to talk about Susannah's bumpy road to love, her studies, my illegal treasure hunting and anything else that needs talking about. She was telling me about her day.
"Food coloring!" she almost shouted, her big eyes wide with disbelief. "Can you believe it?"
"Well," I replied, "you did say he was from Texas, and—"
"It was a rhetorical question, Hubert. And even Texans should know that blue corn tortillas come from blue corn. What kind of a restaurant uses food coloring anyway?"
I assumed that was another rhetorical question, so I just licked the last grains of salt off the rim of my glass and waved for a refill while Susannah continued to berate the customer who had asked her if blue corn tortillas had food coloring in them. I won't bother you with the whole story, but in the end he had cleaned his plate and she had put him in his place by pointing out that there was no blue residue anywhere to be found.
After she told me about the other interesting diners she had served that day, our second round arrived, and it was my turn. I told her about Wilkes' visit, and she asked if I intended to steal the pot.
"I'm not a thief."
"You steal pots."
"Well, technically. But that's just the government's view. In my mind, it's not stealing because the pots I dig up don't belong to anyone."
"Maybe the government's view is the one that counts. After all, they're the ones with the police."
"Good point," I conceded, "but there are few police wandering around the desert looking for treasure hunters. And even after you dig something up, who's going to call the police to report it?"
"Whereas a pot missing from the Museum would definitely be reported."
"Especially this one. It's one of only two intact Mogollon water jugs ever found."
"So that's why Wilkes is willing to pay twenty-five thousand for it?"
"Yeah, and it's obviously worth more than that. He probably has a collector he can sell it to, and I assume he plans a hefty markup."
She took a sip of her margarita and gave me her Mona Lisa smile. "I bet I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that if you had dug up that pot, it would be yours. So if you take it from the Museum, it will be like you dug it up and the Museum just served as the middleman. Am I right?"
She knows me better than I know myself.
"Something like that," I admitted. "I haven't thought it completely through. I do know this, though. If another pot hunter had found it, I certainly wouldn't entertain the idea of breaking into his house to steal it."
"Honor among thieves?"
I scowled. I think of myself as a decent person. If I see money fall from someone's pocket, I chase them down and return it. I've never seen a pot fall out of anyone's pocket, but if one did and I found it, I would return it. Of course, it would probably be just a handful of shards after the fall, but I wouldn't even steal another man's shards. But when I dig up a thousand-year-old pot, its rightful owner is long gone and obviously failed to bequeath it in his will. So I don't feel guilty about making it my own.
"Seriously," she continued, "I know you're a man of principle, but is a museum different from someone's house?"
"Maybe. It was the unholy trinity of professional archaeologists, museums and political correctness activists that got pot digging outlawed. And I'll tell you what I think of museums. They're places where—"
"Pots go to die," she said before I could.
"I guess I've told you that before?"
"Well, it's true. What I object to is museums taking things out of circulation. Courtiers buried pharaohs with riches while the peasants lived like slaves. Today we put our valuables into museums instead of graves, but that helps the common man about as much as the gold in Tut's sarcophagus helped the Egyptian peasants. Buying and selling, goods changing hands, that's what makes an economy work."
"Spoken like a true shopkeeper."
"And proud of it. If Congress had given tax breaks to treasure hunters instead of criminalizing them, they could have added a few more percentage points to the gross national product, not to mention increasing what we know about the peoples of the past."
"That's why we have archaeologists."
"Right. Concentrating on one square meter on the edge of an artifact-rich site, their little brushes shifting a teaspoon of sand a day while some graduate student writes every move down in a spiral notebook."
I fumbled around for an analogy. "It's like the department of agriculture placing a fertile field off limits except to a handful of agronomists who are experimenting with micro lettuce while hungry people are barred from planting food crops."
"You're not exactly starving."
I shrugged. I felt better getting it off my chest. She caught the attention of our server, the lithesome Angie, and ordered a third round.
"Don't you have class tonight?"
Susannah is a perpetual part-time student at the University of New Mexico.
"It's a guest lecture on Frederic Remington. You can't face something like that on only two margaritas."
I drained my glass and asked why a psychology major would attend a lecture on Remington.
"Honestly, Hubie, sometimes I think you don't listen to me. I dropped psychology last semester. I'm majoring in art history now."
"Sorry. It slipped my mind, but now I remember."
Angie refilled our glasses, and Susannah asked her to bring more tortilla chips and salsa.
"The chips and salsa soak up the tequila. I'll be fine by seven."
"That's an interesting theory. Why did you choose art history?"
"The same reason I chose psychology—to meet guys. But all the guys you meet in psychology are psychotic. That's why they study psychology in the first place, to find out what's wrong with them. Did you know that?"
"Yes, I know that. In fact, I think I'm the one who told you that. Remember? When you told me you were going to switch to psychology? But you went ahead anyway, didn't you?"
"Geez, you sound like my mother."
"Sorry. I don't mean to be critical."
"Anyway, you're an artist. You should appreciate my new major."
"I'm not an artist. I'm a ceramicist. I make clay pots."
"Quick," I said, "name ten famous artists right off the top of your head."
"Let's see," she said and ticked them off on her fingers, "there's Michelangelo, Leonardo, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh, Matisse, Gauguin, Picasso, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Andy Warhol."
"See? Not a potter in the bunch."
"Well, maybe you'll be the first one to become famous."
"I don't think so. Even if pots were art, I just make copies."
"But you do like art history."
"I do. And I admire you for exploring your intellectual horizons."
"I'm not exploring my intellectual horizons. I'm trying to meet a good man. To which I should say good luck or fat chance or something."
"Well, you're unlikely to meet one in art history. Most art historians are women, and the men—"
"I know. They're all gay."
"Well, maybe not all."
"The few I know are. And you're right—almost all art history students are women."
"If you knew that, why did you choose art history?"
"I know it now. I didn't know it then."
I leaned back in my chair and gave her an appraising look. "You know what I think? I think you did know it. I think you really are academically inclined, but you like to pretend you're in school just to meet men."
"Now you're going back to psychology. Let's order another margarita." (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras by J. Michael Orenduff. Copyright © 2009 J. Michael Orenduff. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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