When the senior curator at Washington's famed National Gallery finds a missing painting by the Renaissance master Caravaggio, he mounts a world-class exhibition—and plots a brilliant forgery scheme that will stun the art world.
“A thrilling chase.”—Publishers Weekly
But an artful deception suddenly becomes a portrait of blackmail and murder—as gallery owner and part-time sleuth Annabel Reed-Smith and her husband go searching for clues in the heady arena of international art and uncover a rare collection of unscrupulous characters that leads all the way to Italy.
“Highly recommended . . . One of [Margaret] Truman's best.”—Booklist
About the Author
She lives in Manhattan with her husband, Clifton Daniel, distinguished journalist, author, and editor. They have four sons and two grandchildren.
Read an Excerpt
Who was Mattia Preti anyway?
That was all Saltore had time to think about as he ran to keep ahead of the three men.
Breathing hard, he thought next: What had he done to deserve this? He’d asked only for what was fair. They’d told him to steal one painting, but he’d stolen three. Steal one, you get paid for one. Steal three, you get paid for three. Fair’s fair. Simple.
He’d been stealing for them for over two years. He was good at it. They always told him that. Mostly he stole cars to order, turning them over to his gang, run by local hoods and tithed to Luigi Sensi’s Naples empire, Camorra, which had customers waiting for the green Fiat or silver Lamborghini. Sometimes he stole silverware and cash from the homes of the rich on hilltops overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea or from guests at the seaside hotels built to accommodate the increasing flow of tourists into the arch of Italy’s boot.
But cars were his specialty. He’d never stolen art before because no one had told him to. He didn’t even like art.
Saltore pressed the paintings close to his chest, huffing harder now, and ran up a narrow winding street leading from the old section of Cosenza, across the Busento River, to the more modern city.
Who was Mattia Preti?
He’d never even heard of him. All he knew was that he was told to sneak into the monastic complex of San Francesco di Assisi and remove a painting by this guy Preti. But once he saw how easy it was to pull one from the wall, he wanted them all. More money for him. But the priest came by; Saltore wasn’t about to get into a confrontation with a priest. Bad enough at confession.
So he took off with the three paintings and dutifully delivered them to his brooding boss at the cafe, as usual. But when he balked at turning them over unless he received triple pay, his boss, whose reputation in southern Italy had not been built upon diplomatic negotiation, pulled a gun. That sent Giovanni Saltore running from the cafe, with his boss after him, joined by two colleagues who’d been sipping espresso at a nearby table. All this for three ugly paintings that were too old to be worth much, painted by some dead old guy.
Although young, Saltore was not in good shape. His legs went leaden, and each breath drove daggers into his lungs. They caught him when, not thinking, he found himself in a dead-end alley. The three men, guns in hands, walked slowly toward him, backing Saltore against the cement wall. They smiled and softly muttered insults: “Imbecille buon a nulla!” Useless imbecile. “Alienato!”
“Crazy? You want this junk?” Saltore shouted. He threw the three small paintings to the ground. “Take them. Not even pretty. No good colors. I don’t want them. You don’t owe me nothing. Niente!” Nothing.
His boss picked up the paintings, casually examined them, tucked them beneath his arm, and, as casually, turned and slowly walked away, leaving Saltore with a profound sense of relief. He grinned and raised his hands in a gesture that said all this was just an exercise, a silly mistake. “Scherzo, huh?” Just a joke.
He widened his arms and approached the youngest of his pursuers still in the alley. They’d gone to school together. “Hey, Gino, my friend,” Saltore said, flashing a broad smile and shaking his head at the silliness of it all. As he reached to embrace his schoolmate, both revolvers fired at once. Their bullets struck Saltore in the chest within inches of each other. He dropped to his knees. The smile was gone, his eyes were wide with disbelief. Still, he held his arms out. Why? the open arms asked.
He was answered with two more shots, this time to the head.
The last thought Giovanni Saltore had before crossing the threshold into that other, better life promised by his church was: Who the hell is Mattia Preti anyway?
On the day that Giovanni Saltore’s art education ended in an alley in Cosenza, Italy, Lord Adam Boulridge, descended from the Duchess of Monmouth, and whose castle on the Northumberland coast was in such disrepair that it was deemed unsafe for tourists and had been condemned, received a late-night visitor. He and his guest spent an hour looking at Lord Adam’s collection of paintings by British artists, including a stunning Gainsborough landscape, a departure from the painter’s more famous portraits; a Hogarth party scene dripping with social commentary; a tranquil Richard Wilson lakeside scene that had been badly damaged by one of hundreds of serious leaks in the castle’s roofs; and a George Romney portrait of a young lady, painted toward the end of the Raphael-inspired artist’s life, when his technique had clearly waned. Dozens of other paintings hung haphazardly on the castle’s cracked walls. Many were not lighted; Lord Adam trained a flashlight on them for his visitor’s benefit.
Following this hour of art appreciation, they retired to Lord Adam’s study to negotiate the terms. Lord Adam would take a two-week holiday. In his absence, his visitor would return to the castle and remove the most valuable of the paintings. Upon his return, Lord Adam would be appropriately aghast at the brazen theft of British treasures and would promptly report it to Lloyd’s of London, which had insured the paintings for all these many years, or, as some Englishmen put it, donkey’s years.
Also on the day Giovanni Saltore lost his life, Jacques Saison put the finishing touches on a copy of Vermeer’s The Concert, the original having been stolen years before from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Saison had been provided with excellent color slides of the painting by his client, of whom he had not, of course, asked questions. Once he’d been given the “commission,” Saison had scoured Paris for just the right old painting, not for the painting itself, but for the canvas that would approximate the age of canvases used in Vermeer’s time. He’d found an especially smooth one consisting of twenty-six threads per centimeter to the warp and twenty-four to the weft. Not perfect, but close enough.
Within days he’d painstakingly stripped the original painting from the canvas, and, using a variety of chemical substances, further brought the canvas to its necessary “age.” He then smoothed it, using a pumice-stone, which also served to soften the threads to better accept his, Saison’s, “version” of The Concert. Finally, after experimenting for days to obtain precisely the right proportions, he worked a mixture of rabbit glue, gypsum, and anhydride into the canvas with a paintbrush. Now, a month later, he stepped back to admire his “Vermeer.” Perfect.
That came as no surprise to Jacques Saison. He belonged, after all, to an elite fraternity. The world’s finest art forgers were not organized into a guild, but they might well have been. Famous in a small circle, infamous in the larger one of art police.
What a shame, he sometimes thought when drinking, that he could use his prodigious talent only to copy the works of others. Try as he had since his early days as a student, he’d never been able to come up with an idea of something worthwhile to paint on his own.
But painting on someone else’s own, so to speak, paid well.
Cindy Whitlock and her husband, Harry, proudly hung the print of Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s A Stand of Cypresses in an Italian Park above the couch in their den. They’d chosen this particular print at the flea market because its sepia tones would go nicely with the orange-and-white zebra pattern of the couch. They’d paid thirty dollars for it. They could have opted for Rembrandt, Degas, or some pretty landscapes by Thomas Cole, all prints reproduced illegally in New York City and sold by flea-market vendors across the country.
Giovanni Saltore, even if new to the group, wasn’t the only art collector to die that day.
While his wife and two daughters prepared dinner in the kitchen of their opulent home outside of Tokyo, wealthy Japanese businessman Yakoto Kayami, dressed in a pure white kimono of Samurai style and sitting on a small white carpet, his legs bound with rope, removed white tissue paper from a short sword on the floor in front of him, lifted the sword so that its point faced his large belly, and fell forward onto it. Better to die than to face the shame of it having recently been revealed to him that his extensive art collection, considered one of Japan’s finest, consisted mostly of masterpieces forged and stolen.
NEW YORK—A WEEK LATER
The International Arrivals Building at Kennedy Airport was busy. This Friday afternoon, among hundreds of passengers deplaning from the Alitalia flight from Rome was Carlo Giliberti, Italy’s cultural attaché to the Italian Embassy in Washington, D.C. His trolley was laden with luggage, including an oversized black-leather portfolio. He chatted amiably with the Customs inspector.
Nearby, a short young woman with a large bosom, wearing jeans and a T-shirt with a mildly obscene message on it, and sporting multiple earrings, was taken aside and searched by a female inspector in a private room reserved for such activity. An instant breast reduction occurred when three small plastic bags of marijuana were removed from her bra.
Carlo Giliberti reached the taxi line and gave the driver the address of an art gallery in New York’s Soho district, where he soon delivered three unframed paintings by the seventeenth-century Italian artist from Taverna, Mattia Preti, that had been concealed between worthless papers in his portfolio. He thanked the gallery owner for the envelope filled with cash, took another cab to LaGuardia, and boarded a Delta shuttle flight to Washington.
All in all, just another week in the swirling world of international art.