Two women’s lives collide when a priceless Russian artifact comes to light.
Tanya Kagan, a rising specialist in Russian art at a top New York auction house, is trying to entice Russia’s wealthy oligarchs to bid on the biggest sale of her career, the Order of Saint Catherine, while making sense of the sudden and unexplained departure of her husband.
In Imperial Wife, as questions arise over the provenance of the Order and auction fever kicks in, Reyn takes us into the world of Catherine the Great, the infamous eighteenth-century empress who may have owned the priceless artifact, and who it turns out faced many of the same issues Tanya wrestles with in her own life.
|Product dimensions:||5.70(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
IRINA REYN is the author of What Happened to Anna K: A Novel. She is also the editor of the anthology Living on the Edge of the World: New Jersey Writers Take on the Garden State. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in One Story, Tin House, Town & Country Travel, and Poets & Writers. She teaches fiction writing at the University of Pittsburgh.
Read an Excerpt
The Imperial Wife
By Irina Reyn
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 Irina Reyn
All rights reserved.
The Burliuk is a fake. To make sure, I flash the ultraviolet light closer to the surface. No doubt about it — the form's flat, the red way off. The image has no depth, and the tentative, choppy signature floats. These are not at all the artist's confident, swirling lines. The painting's canvas is made of Masonite, a material Burliuk would never have used in 1911. And most damning of all is the bucolic subject matter in keeping with his later, American period. Oh, well. Disappointing, but at least I made the catch before slotting the piece into the catalogue.
"It's a stunner, isn't it?" The consignor's voice slices through the dim light of the viewing room. "I fell in love as soon as I saw it."
"I can see why you were drawn to it." This was supposed to be my showstopper, my top star. A Russian-period Burliuk is rare, much less one from 1911. But I manage to maintain a cheerful demeanor.
I've got to hand it to the forger; apart from slapping the wrong date on the thing, he did a decent job. The reproduction has its own energy. The farm is vivid, the horse and ducks rendered in the playful vein of the master's later work as an immigrant living on Long Island. Of course by that point, Burliuk's most important Futurist work was long behind him, these lucrative if mediocre farm scenes probably aimed toward the tastes of American art collectors.
I imagine a struggling immigrant in Leipzig or Queens copying, line by line, the style of some blown-up original. The love and patience that requires, to apply one's hand over another's intention, to reach back hundreds of years in search of connection.
I'd prefer to stay in the dark forever. But the catalogue deadline is looming and I've still got nothing pressworthy. I flip the light switch.
"If you haven't guessed, the Russian market's sort of new to me. You know how it is. Never sure what you're getting half the time." The consignor, Mr. Brooks, is an unassuming-looking man with mild blue eyes, razor-thin eyebrows, and flushed cheeks. A gallery owner from Greenwich, another innocent American wading into the dangerous waters of Russian art, trusting the expertise of others, discounting all the danger signs. I'm tempted to shake him, to offer him the following advice: just stay away from the Russians!
But because he's considering consigning other, presumably authentic, pieces to Worthington's, specialists are never to sound the alarm right away. Instead, the matter must be handled with subtlety and delicacy, infusing a fruitless situation with a spark of hope so the relationship continues. One of the worst parts of my job is collusion in this limbo, like a doctor cheerfully recommending further testing when she knows the prognosis is no good.
"You're right to be wary," I say gently, warmly. "The market is flooded with fakes. In this case, it might be best to leave the painting in our care."
"Really? Why?" There it is again, a reed of distress in his voice. A part of him must know. The bony knobs of his knees are pressed together in tan plaid slacks.
I place the flashlight down on the coffee table where our past auction catalogues are fanned out. I'm reminded of the deadline again, the front page that would now have to feature the Goncharova Spanish dancer. That one was a coup, but it's no neoclassical-style, turn-of-the-century Fabergé hardstone inkwell like what Nadia Kudrina's got over at Christie's. And in this climate, in this depressed market, clients want rarity above all. The kind of property they can't get anywhere else. To guarantee the highest bids, it should be a work that's fresh to the market, rediscovered, that no one even knows exists.
"We may have a bit of a historical contradiction here. As a courtesy, we would be happy to bring in our restorer to look it over in greater detail."
"What do you mean by a contradiction?"
"It's the subject matter, that's all. Just raises a small question in my mind."
"Oh, no. Really?"
"It should take just a week or two. We'll get it back to you." I say this in a conclusive way. But always positive. This is just an obstacle to be surmounted.
Mr. Brooks rises off the couch, his hand resting protectively on the frame of the fake. I reach over to reassure him in some way, a pat on his shoulder, a handshake, some human interaction he may remember later in the depths of his distress. I know he's paid over two hundred thousand for it and he's not getting that money back. Just as my fingers settle on the wool shoulder of his jacket, I notice my assistant Regan in the door waving frantically to me.
"Excuse me, I'll be right back." The door claps shut and the light brightens. I breathe in, exhale.
Regan is waiting down the hall, in the corner of the floor carved out for the Russian art department. Because our specialty is still relatively new, our area's an afterthought. We're an island surrounded by East Asian and Middle Eastern, a row of desks squeezed between mahogany bookshelves and a cemetery of broken ergonomic chairs. My friends always expect the Worthington's offices to look like coolly curated galleries or at least the blankness of a modernist museum. How lucky you are to work there, they tell me. If they only knew! The space is a disheveled jumble of extension cords and books and articles and spreadsheets. On top of one of the bookshelves sits a ransacked box of chocolates next to a wilting bouquet of yellow roses. Most of the specialists' desks are littered with electrolyte water bottles, teacups, or clear nail polish. Like everything else at an auction house, beauty here tends to be for public consumption only.
"Good timing. What's up?"
"Someone's in the paper," Regan sings, holding up the Financial Times "Diary of a Somebody" column. In red ink, she has circled the pull quote:
Between a looming Russian art auction, a fund-raiser at Sergei Brin's, and her husband's best-selling novel, Worthington's Russian Art specialist Tanya Kagan Vandermotter hobnobs with the most important businesspeople of the world. But despite all the fabulous parties, she is "just a simple girl from Moscow" whose dream is to see more Russian masterworks returned to their place of origin.
"Booya. Read it and weep, Nadia Kudrina. This is coming in at the perfect time."
I wave it away, but I'm secretly pleased. "Let me see that."
Most of it is embarrassing me as I read it in print but I'm tempted to walk it straight up to Dean. See, you can't cut the Russian department now! I turn on the computer to find an in-box flooded with congratulations and e-mails with subject lines like "Hey, Simple Girl from Moscow!"
I call my parents to celebrate. They're thrilled.
"'Diary of a Somebody' must mean you are a Somebody," my mother says. My father promises to find a copy of the paper in New Jersey. If he has to cancel a client for a trip to Barnes & Noble, so be it.
I think about calling Carl, then I picture his pained face, the one he's been wearing lately. The flutter of his eyelashes as he levels his gaze on me, trying to puzzle out my motivations. The way he asks "Is that you?" when I step through the door in the evening, as if connecting the possibility of a stranger with the person invading his space. The oblique angle of him through mirrors. But I dial his number anyway. The phone goes to his voice mail and I leave a message seeping with exclamation points.
"Let's all have dinner tonight!" Then I hang up.
When the Financial Times first called about doing the column, I'd wanted no part of it. Those columns made me squeamish for their subjects. They portrayed art experts as jet-setting glamour-pusses that engineer million-dollar deals at Art Basel by day but fly back to their London town houses just in time to bake their children perfect biscotti from scratch. Who say things like, "Heli-skiing really helps me unwind." Beautiful specialists in modernist homes with handsome, curly-haired Mediterranean husbands or WASPy blondes in organic caftans and chunky jewelry. Always photographed in black against a somber background or their noses dipped into the rim of a wineglass. The idea of being in those pages among that company was laughable. A Russian immigrant whose parents live in a two-bedroom house in New Jersey? Who has no idea what heli-skiing is or how rugby is even played, a million miles away from penthouses in the Time Warner Center and weekend jaunts to places like Mustique? Who was promoted only because her former assistant, Nadia Kudrina, decamped to Christie's? Who was nobody when she first met Carl Vandermotter?
But the company insisted I do the feature. The Financial Times was an opportunity for Worthington's to stand out among our competitors, my boss Marjorie informed me. This was our PR opportunity, a chance to finally conquer a Sotheby's whose board was being challenged. But I could read between the lines — the future of the Russian department is on the line. Why pump money into Russian art at a time like this? Why not look toward China or the safest place of all: contemporary? Most galleries in the world support the contemporary market — Warhol, Koons, and Hirst are always a safer bet than Burliuk and Goncharova.
"Why don't you want to do it? Isn't your husband's last name on that wing in Beth Israel? I'm sure your in-laws would expect it," Marjorie said, catching me between meetings. She probably assumed she was being tactful the way she was laying it on about Carl's family. "And didn't he write a best-selling book? Think of it as extra publicity for him."
"It was at the bottom of the list for two weeks," I protested, wary of both topics. I was not about to explain to my boss that the Vandermotters are cheap. That their money is tied up in trusts and real estate, doled out to us in tiny increments, that my husband did nothing to help the publisher earn out his advance and makes less money at his new job than Regan, that for most of his twenties and early thirties, he'd been a graduate student. That we live in a one-bedroom railroad apartment that hasn't been renovated since 1977. But the idea of them reading the piece and sharing it with their friends was a good point. With the Vandermotters, what you projected to the world was everything.
There I stood before that slumping, bearded reporter, a young man wearing a T-shirt that superimposed the phrase RAW BROOKLYN over a picture of a bleeding steak. He seemed shocked by his modest surroundings, as if he had trekked all the way uptown for a subject more identifiably ethnic, someone glitzier, out of a New Russian reality show. He was clearly expecting gold fountains, jeweled tubs, bedsteads lined with Swarovski crystal, a balcony onto Central Park.
"Is this your primary residence then?" He looked confused as he scanned our galley kitchen with its pans dangling on hooks above the stove, our bathroom with its chipped black-and-white tile, our walls cluttered with photographs, posters, and the odd expensive gift from clients, our mid-century reproductions and flea market finds. He kept checking his phone as if to make sure he had the right address. Why am I interviewing this lady again? I saw it in his eyes.
"I'm just a simple girl from Moscow," I explained, but then it occurred to me that I could be misquoted into a version of all the other insufferable "somebodies" in these pages ("I am so used to having a trainer that the machines daunt me. It's as though my whole morning is devoted to trying to work out how to program the StairMaster"). I started again.
The real secret to being the best specialist in an auction house is understanding the psychology of your clients, I told him. You have to know how to entice reluctant bidders to get into the game, intuit who says he wants privacy but doesn't mean it, whose privacy is so crucial that his very life depends on it. It's a skill divorced from art expertise. Your job as a specialist is to know without being told, to penetrate the brains of busy people and extract their deepest desires.
I watched him take notes between sips of black coffee, enjoying the texture of the words on my tongue. When my husband came home, the reporter practically fell on him, insisted on watching him type some sentences on a computer. From the fascinated way the guy skimmed Carl's books and notebooks, it seemed like he was a frustrated writer who would have preferred to do the feature on Carl, not me. And who could blame him? Who cared about a Russian art specialist when there was a best-selling writer in the house? The reporter asked many questions about Carl's "process," then moved on to America's strained relationship with Russia, grilled him on whether the next Cold War was brewing.
"Why don't you talk a bit more with my wife? Isn't she the subject of your profile?" Carl asked him, pulling apart a nectarine.
The reporter was so pushy about wanting to peruse a marked-up draft of my husband's manuscript of Young Catherine, that it was Carl who finally had to kick him out. We were both relieved when he was gone.
"Asshole," Carl said, disappearing into the alcove that we had turned into his office.
"Just give me some good news, please," I say to Regan now. "I need it."
A coven of assistants and interns gaggle, a whole group of recent college graduates I can't tell apart. Working at Worthington's is like being at a place like Smith College in the 1950s, all that hair and cashmere and hyacinth scent and girls fantasizing for their true lives to begin. Regan was such a relief because she didn't fit this profile. I liked her aggressive resilience, her Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures, the tattoos she didn't bother to hide, her unconventional style: a blazer over a 1950s-style dress, oversized costume clips in her ears, her hair swept into a French twist. Why did I need another competitive oligarch's daughter or fragile flower working for me? At a place like Worthington's, with the kind of clients we work with, you need someone on your side.
Regan can't hide her grin. "Natasha at the Hermitage called. Guess what they're busy authenticating? The Order ... wait for it ... that belonged to Catherine the Great. The consignor says it's ours if we want it."
I can't help myself: "Holy shit."
"Can you believe it? I can't believe it," Regan says.
"Can we get it into the catalogue?"
Regan squints, a grimace of disapproval. "She says authenticity would be contingent on this one Catherine historian. He's famously slow with his written evaluations. But he's cautiously optimistic."
"I think we have enough for now. Let's move forward." I lower my voice. "We might not have another opportunity. You know the situation."
"Yeah, but won't it take some time? What kind of assurances can we make?"
I talk it over with Regan, calculating what we'd need to do — photograph, draw up copy, get it shipped here in time for the preview. "But it looks pretty much okay to Natasha, doesn't it?"
"She counted the stones with the old weight and cut and compared it to the court records."
"And the box?"
"They think it's original. Their gut impression is it's right. But this guy is the final word on Catherine relics." Regan eyes me skeptically.
"Great. Let's do it. It's our top star. It's huge."
"Really? Are you sure? We've got the Goncharova."
"Are you kidding? This is much better. This is also a good news story." I ignore Regan's caution. It's a moment every specialist dreams of, a moment that occurs only once or twice in a career. We're all archive rats who dream of uniting a work of art with its provenance and this is one hell of a provenance because it belonged to Her. I felt it when I first laid eyes on a digital image of the medal, this radiating milky heat, as if Catherine herself were sending me a private message across the ocean. So her Order exists after all, not buried with the royal dead as the research implied. I perform a little dance on my toes.
One of the girls unearths a lukewarm bottle of prosecco from her desk, another offers to fetch Marjorie, but the panicked face of Mr. Reed William Brooks peers out from the square window of the viewing room.
"Uh-oh," I say. "Better get back in there."
There's a round of protests from the girls. It's practically the weekend! Even Regan says, "Come on, how often does this happen?"
"You know what? We should celebrate with real champagne. Where's the one Medovsky sent over?" I'll bring Mr. Brooks a glass too, it's the least I can do. I give him a signal to wait just one tiny moment.
While the foil is unpeeled, while one of the ladies struggles with dislodging the cork, pointing it toward the books and away from the canvases and sculptures, I call Carl again.
Excerpted from The Imperial Wife by Irina Reyn. Copyright © 2016 Irina Reyn. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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