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I mainly write fiction as I like using my imagination and trying out different themes, plots and characters. I sometimes write non-fiction, or a combination of both. - C. A. Broadribb.


Unfinished art fraud novel by Donald Broadribb

Copyright © Donald Broadribb 2011


Chapter 1

When the doorbell rang for the 4th time that afternoon, I got up, a bit weary, from the couch and went to the front door. This would be the 8th interview of the day, and I was beginning to suspect that I was not going to make any progress at finding a suitable writing assistant. When I opened the door, my 1st feeling was that my suspicion was right.. The applicant was a young woman dressed in blue jeans and a yellow T-shirt – which gave me the uneasy feeling that she might be as colorblind as I myself, or, of course, that she might be as uninterested in making a good impression on a potential future employer as I would probably be if I were in her shoes. However that might be, before I had a chance to speak she said, “I've come about the job. You said that you want a writing assistant. I don't really know what that means, but I'm probably as qualified as anyone. Perhaps you would like to enlighten me as to what it is that you are in fact looking for?”

Well, at least she was forthright, unlike her 7 predecessors. Maybe I would have a little more luck with her. I invited her in, noticed that she did not bother to wipe her shoes on the mat despite the fact that it was a rainy day, and led her to my office. At least, I call it my office, though the only thing that gives it away is the computer with a chair in front of it. Of course there were a couple of other rather dingy chairs as well, which had been left behind when my 1st wife, Mary, took most of the rest of the furniture. Mary apparently didn't care for the slightly torn plastic seats and somewhat crooked backs which distinguished them from all the other chairs in my household. Come to think of it, it might just be possible that the girl who had come to apply for the job might have an impression of me not terribly dissimilar to my impression of her. Oh well, beggars can't be choosers I guess, and the most important thing was really whether she had any ability as a writing assistant.

We both sat down and I pulled my notebook to me and took up my pen, ready to take notes if any useful ones happened to pop into my mind. “You use a Parker,” she said. The startled me a bit. None of the previous applicants had shown any interest in how I take my notes, or with what.

“I like it,” I said. “Anyway, it might be best for you to tell me just what would make you suitable as my writing assistant.”

“It might be,” she acknowledged, “if I had the slightest idea what a writing assistant was supposed to be. Your newspaper ad wasn't entirely explicit about that – in fact it was more bewildering than informative, if employment ads could be said to be intended to express what it is you want to say. I'm not criticizing you, you understand, just telling you a bit of my uncertainty.”

“Noted,” I said. “Right. I am an investigative author and I need an assistant to keep notes for me, to take down observations as I make them, to type up on the computer the 1st draft of a report, story, or other materials which I intend to publish, as I dictate. To exercise editorial and secretarial skills in working with these materials, to travel with me when I am out to gathering information. And above all, to keep everything strictly confidential, by which I mean not revealing either verbatim, indirectly, or in any other way, information which I obtain and/or publish – to anyone, regardless of who that anyone might be, and this includes officials of any sort, governmental or private, police, court, legal or illegal, and/or any individual or individuals or group whatsoever at any time, present or future. Do you grasp what I mean?”

Express myself simply and clearly. In fact, I was intentionally trying to be somewhat obscure in what I said, since one of the purposes of my interview was to ascertain whether the applicant was quick enough and bright enough to follow convoluted statements and to grasp the fundamental point even though somewhat obscured by verbosity. In other words, could she make out what my principal point was, and by extension guess or make a good attempt to work out things that she overheard in the course of our work.

The new applicant – I suppose I should call her by her name – Sally – sat silently for a few moments, presumably contemplating what I said and wondering what to say in reply. Interestingly, she did not appear to show any nervousness. I had half expected her to get up and run, supposing that somehow I was a nut who tried to inveigle young women, or perhaps people in general, for purposes not quite rational into my home to do – who knows what? Undoubtedly something unsavory and most likely bent interests.

It turns out I was quite wrong. Sally looked up at me and said in a very calm voice, “I took the precaution to check on the Internet before I came, to find out what sort of person I would be meeting. Some of the descriptions of you in the discussion forums appear to of been quite accurate. Unconventional, highly eccentric, often very offputting, on the one hand – on the other hand, trustworthy, essentially friendly, generally reliable, and with an extremely good reputation among the intelligence services both private and official. The way you talk and the things you have said confirm that potted description pretty well I would think.”

This took me aback a bit, I admit. To look at, she did not give any hint of the thought processes going on inside her. In fact, of the 8 interviewees so far she looked the least likely candidate, to judge from her appearance. But then again, obviously to her eyes I looked the least likely person to successfully undertake the sort of undercover work I did. Touché!

“Okay,” I said. I motioned to the computer: “I'm willing to give you a trial. We haven't said anything about hours as yet, nor about pay, nor about your working conditions, or quite a few other matters which relate to the job. What I would like you to do now is to go over to the computer and to type up what you would consider to be an acceptable contract of employment of you by me. When you are finished, print out a copy. Make sure your full name, address, and telephone number, along with your e-mail address, are included. I will give you 3 hours to do this. At the end of that time, bring the printed copy to me. I will be sitting where I was when you 1st came. Naturally you can make copies of the proposed contract for yourself as you wish. Then bid me goodbye and go. I will send you a message tomorrow morning about 10 AM to give you my impressions of our interview and to invite you, if all goes well, to take up the job. You can then come in and we can discuss together whatever practical details may be required.”

Chapter 2

The following morning promptly at 9 o'clock Sally turned up for work. I took her into my private work room, which had originally been the children's playroom before my wife left me, and in which I kept all my documentation for my work. Virtually all of the documentation, of course, was in locked cases which required both a key and punching in a password. I opened the current case which had just reached me late the previous day, and took out 2 sheets of paper which were in it. I passed both of the papers over to Sally for her to read. One, on official looking letterhead, was a letter from the Metropolitan Museum Of Art's director, regarding the mysterious disappearance of a very valuable artwork. In it the director asked whether I would be willing to undertake an investigation into the matter, since all other methods (both official and irregular) had failed. The other paper was a copy of my reply by e-mail, confirming receipt of the directors letter and stating that I would be very willing to undertake the investigation and would be taking a plane to New York City on Monday.

“I see,” Sally commented. “So you mean you, or do mean both of us?, will be taking a flight to New York City later today.”

“Precisely,” I said. “After sending off the e-mail last night, I made reservations for the 2 of us on the Qantas flight which departs Perth at 3 PM today. I have also e-mailed the director of the Museum giving him the details of our flight and asking him to arrange lodgings for us, and to fix an appointment for us tomorrow morning (meeting Tuesday morning New York City time) for us to find out exactly what the situation is and to discuss what we will do. So your 1st immediate task is to go home, arrange the minimum luggage which you will require for a slightly prolonged stay in New York City and possibly elsewhere, and to meet me at the International airport at 2 PM this afternoon. Our tickets will be waiting for us at the Qantas desk. You do have a valid up-to-date passport I presume?”

She assured me that she did.

I regularly keep a travel kit for such purposes on hand, and had arranged for a taxi to take me to the International Airport supposed to arrive somewhat before 2 PM. As is my custom, I telephoned a friend of mine to babysit my house while I was gone, to take any telephone or e-mail messages which might arrive for me, and see to any local problems which might arise. John and his wife had had an arrangement with me for many years to do this sort of thing, and had always proved very reliable. They had their own key to the house and they had a credit line in my name at some of the local shops. The local Qantas manager was a good friend of mine and always took care to expedite last-minute requirements which from time to time I had. In other words, he understood the needs of my type of work and very willingly cooperated with them. As you might surmise, I had in the not too distant past done him some special services for which he was very grateful.

Traffic on Great Eastern Highway was reasonably light for a Monday afternoon, so that I arrived at the airport in good time. I had already arranged for a courier to take my travel kit to the airport and ensure that the formalities for it to accompany me on my flight were fulfilled. Sally arrived just as instructed, and although her luggage did not look particularly great, she assured me that it would do her for several weeks if necessary. I thought: well, we shall see!

The flight was very uneventful – not even a hint of a terrorist attack, though I hardly expected there would be since as far as I knew, no flight from Australia to the United States had never been subject to a terrorist attack and I could see no reason why there should ever be one when we got through customs in New York, we were met by a small delegation from the Metropolitan Museum Of Art: the director himself, and several guards. Evidently they were taking the matter very seriously. We were driven to the St. Regis hotel where two adjoining luxurious suites had been reserved for us.

I asked the director to tell me the details of the missing artwork. It seems that it was a major painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, though its exact provenance was somewhat unclear. Because of the uncertainty of its provenance it had not yet been included in a public presentation of da Vinci's works. It had been kept deep in the bowels of the museum, in a securely locked room. I asked who would have known where it was. He shrugged his shoulders, “pretty much anyone on the staff,” he said. “Certainly anyone who works down in that area. But of course, most of them would not have the key. Still, maybe half a dozen or so. But I really don't believe any of them would or could have taken it. People with that sort of clearance are well vetted, and they have all been working here for quite a long time. Apart from that, the thief would have had to get past the general museum security system, and that would be very hard. We have had a handful of thefts in the past, but nothing of that importance.”

I thought for a few moments. “I'll need to start from the beginning,” I said. “So if you can take me to the strong room where the painting was being stored and let me examine it, maybe I could find a clue or 2.”

The director drove me and Sally to the museum and led us down a series of stairways, with plenty of twists and turns. On the one hand, it would've taken a very bold person who knew the route pretty well and knew exactly where that particular strong room was. On the other hand, so many people carrying paintings back and forth would make it pretty easy for the person with the Leonardo to slip by. Before I had a chance to ask, Sally jumped in with the obvious question “What would such a thing you do with the painting once he got it? I mean, he couldn't just take it into any old art shop and try to flog it could he? The painting would be pretty well known in art circles surely. There could hardly be that many• running about, surely, whether genuine or fake. And any art dealer would be terribly suspicious if someone brought such a painting in to him. I can't imagine any art dealing not being more than suspicious, and certainly would report the matter to the authorities.”

Sally obviously knew a little bit more about art than I would have supposed, but probably not more than any intelligent person. “Besides,” she added, “it would be easy to look up any purported Leonardo on the net, they've all been catalogued so fully. And for that matter, no doubt there are books with photographs of all the known and purported Leonardos, and I cannot imagine that anyone would fall for the line that they happened to find it by chance while they were clearing out their great grandfather's attic, or something that sort.” We all smiled at this obvious comment.

“What would it be worth on the market, say Sotheby's auction?” I asked the director.

“Possibly half a million to a million, if it were a pretty good fake, like a painting that could be attributed reasonably to one of Leonard's students and that could be authenticated somehow. Of course a genuine Leonardo could go as high as hundreds of millions, if there could be absolute certainty of its authenticity. There are 2 or 3 such uncertain paintings around or known to have existed, but this one is, as the young lady said, easy to find in the professional art catalogs and even a mediocre art dealer would have his suspicions raised the moment he saw it. No, a thief would not take it to an art dealer. He would pretty certainly have stolen it for some very wealthy person willing to pay an enormous price and to keep it secretly in his personal collection.”

“I suppose the 1st thing,” I said, “is to get to know a few more details about the stolen picture, things that would help identify it. For example, is there any identifying mark of any sort on the painting, more specifically on the back, that would identify that specific object? On the assumption that there are quite a few fake reproductions running about, painted by expert fakers, is there anything that would identify the specific painting as being the one which the Metropolitan Museum was holding in its collection? A label of some kind, an indelible mark on the back of the canvas, or anything else that could not be covered up or removed the alteration being obvious?And there are a couple other things too – what sort of tests had been conducted on this painting as an attempt to determine the provenance of the canvas itself? The material of which the canvas was made, radiocarbon dating of the manufacture of the canvas, anything which would indicate the specific location where the canvas was made? Then the paint of the picture itself: the chemicals used in the manufacture of the various colors, x-rays to indicate that the picture had been altered either by the painter or a later person, whether the painting had gone through stages before it reached its present appearance? Of course these are tests which would have been conducted in attempting to determine the authenticity of the painting, but the same tests could be used in order to determine that what might be claimed to be the painting stolen from the Museum was or was not a faked copy of the real picture of that was in the picture that was in the Museum. After all, with so many known faked copies of that particular painting, we must have some way of determining whether what we find really was the Museum's item. Undoubtedly you have a photograph of the item before it was stolen which shows in considerable detail all of the painting?”

“Yes, we do,” sighed the director. “It never occurred to me that it might be so difficult to know whether, if the picture did turn up somewhere, it was actually the one that was stolen.”

Sally chipped in, “I have been interested in Leonardo da Vinci's paintings for a good many years. I have quite a few reproductions on the walls of my house, most of them photographs of course, but one or 2 genuine faked paintings that were actually made by some fakers that I have met. I certainly would not be able to tell whether they were genuine or not, if the people who painted them had not proudly told me of their work…”

“I'll get the various Museum officials to find the documentation you asked about and give it to you. Sorry I cannot tell you the details myself, but running the museum is more than a full-time job in itself. Can you give me any idea how long it might take to find the painting, and around how much you will want for all your work?”

“I expect to have insurance to pay For my work,” I said. “But there is no way whatsoever to tell you how long it is going to take, or whether I will be successful. Time will tell.”

The director left us and in a few minutes a Museum employee brought us the requested photograph. The picture it showed was a very well known one found in all the studies about Leonardo: the Madonna with Child and Flowers. It is supposed to have been one of Leonardo's 1st paintings and has had a very checkered history. It has been on exhibit in St. Petersburg, though its authenticity and provenance have often come into question. “I presume we might as well wonder about the Museum, and have a particularly close look at its Leonardos,” Sally said, “while we wait for all the various documents you asked for to be brought to us. But for the life of me, I don't see how on earth it would be possible to trace the stolen painting, especially in such a gigantic city is New York. I would think the thief would have left the city as soon as he possibly could and might be anywhere in the world by now.”

I nodded. There was a lot of truth in what she said. On the other hand, I have a lot of unsuspected contacts in the forger art world, and if indeed some very rich collector had commissioned one or more art thieves to get the painting, it seemed to me that very likely some of my contacts would have heard of it. But it did take a couple of hours for the Museum's various officials to collect and bring me such records as they had along the lines I had asked for. I was rather disappointed that some of the most elementary tests of its authenticity had not been carried out. A great deal of progress has been made in recent years in regard to testing the authenticity of paintings and canvases, but there was no evidence that the Museum had made use of them. So even if I were to succeed in tracing this particular stolen item, I would feel bound to have closer examination of the authenticity of the painting made.

Eventually Sally and I left the Museum and returned to our hotel. The Museum was kind enough to assign us a chauffeur driven car to get back to the hotel. It was one of those Spanish made cars marketed in America by General Motors under one of its own brand names, and not a particularly good one at that, to judge by the driver's attempt to make his way through the chaotic traffic so typical of Manhattan. The 1st thing I had in mind to do was to flop down on the bed for a well earned snooze. As for Sally, I couldn't say just what she did but I would not be terribly surprised if she had a bit of kip also.

Chapter 3

It is one thing to have a lot of contacts among the forger artists, it is something else to contact each of them. A few of them I had met in person previously in the course of my investigations, but most of them had not met me in any official way. After I woke up, I took out my little notepad and started to write down in it various of the names my memory reminded me of. Then I had to locate them, not so easy a task in metropolitan New York City with its plethora of telephone books. Gave Sally the 1st name to look up in the phone books, while I began on the 2nd name. The 1st name was Julius Summerhouse, nowhere to be found in the local phone books. He could be anywhere, of course, and not necessarily still in the United States. The 2nd name I had more luck with: Jim Barnsworthy. He had once become known for his forging of some of Grandma Moses' wintry scenes which for a time had been all the rage in America in the 1950s and 60s. After her death in 1961 a large handful of her paintings which had not yet been made public were found, and Jim – then a young artist in his early 20s – experimented with imitating her art and eventually became quite successful at it. But it was not until he started painting some Rousseaus that he reached his stride. I did not really think he would be capable of doing any purported Leonardos, but I knew he kept his ear to the ground and might have heard some gossip about someone looking for a Leonardo.

The subway system in New York is not the easiest to make your way about when you have only an address from a phone book, so I decided to use a taxi. I put on my everyday clothes so as not to frighten him into thinking I was on some sort of official mission. By pure luck he happened to be in when my taxi arrived at his address. I dismissed the taxi and rang the doorbell. I could hear considerable sounds of movement in the house and figured that Jim was quickly hiding or covering up such artwork as he was involved in at the moment. I waited around for about 5 min. and eventually my patience was rewarded. Jim came to the door and immediately recognized me. “Hi” he said. “I heard rumors that you were here in New York City, working for the Metropolitan Museum I gather. Presumably that has nothing to do with me. I haven't had anything to do with the Museum since my experimenting with Grandma Moses paintings. Anyhow, you may as well come in and make yourself comfortable. Would you like a cup of coffee, or maybe you would prefer beer?”

He motioned me in and led me to a very comfortably furnished living room which bore no signs of artistic industry whatsoever. I sat down with a large armchair. “Just a coffee, and maybe a cookie or two,” I said. “Yes, this does have to do with the Museum, but it doesn't involve you act all. Just an appeal to your memory: have you heard anything about someone trying to get hold of Leonardo da Vinci's painting called Madonna with Flowers and Child? It's been suggested that there are some well made copies floating around, and there might be a bit of a market for them if they could be located. Obviously the original, if in fact there ever was an original, would be better yet, but I suspect that is too much to hope for. There was a copy in the Metropolitan Museum, but it seems it was not a real original and they would like to get a genuine original if it were at all possible, though I hardly imagine that's possible, since I think the so-called original was actually just a forgery to begin with. Anyway, if a copy could be found that could be reasonably passed off as an original, I know of a buyer who could beat the Museum's finances in order to get it. Have you heard anything relevant?”

Jim was well aware of that I had often dealt with forgeries and copies in the past, and had no reason to think that I would be acting for a Museum. He sat down alongside me, lit a cigarette and smoked it for a while eyes closed to help his memory. “Can't say that I have; not too many people looking for Leonardos these days. Pretty much all the genuine Leonardos have been found by now Sally and I sat down are in the hands of their proper owners. A few fakes are still around obviously, but I haven't heard of that particular one being looked for. Hopeless, I think. How much would your potential buyer be willing to pay?”

“With all respect, Jim, I don't think you are up to doing a passable copy – Leonardo is a terribly tricky artist to imitate, to pass muster it would have to be done by a master craftsman already very familiar with Leonardo's ways and materials. Have you any idea of who might be able to do that?”

“Not really. Certainly not in America, anyway. You might do a bit better in Scandinavia.”

His suggestion of Scandinavia surprised me. “Not Italy?”

“Nah. They don't make the right chemicals needed to fake a Leonardo, in Italy. But some of the chemical factories in Scandinavia them, and there are some pretty good painters there who might be up to the job. Outside of that, I think it's hopeless.” When he said this, was he saying what he really thought, or had I somehow aroused his suspicion let you get on with your work,” I said. “Some of your more recent works have been really good – your Monet for example. The arts specialists are still arguing whether it's a genuine Monet or not.” He smiled broadly. “So you picked me as its painter did you? You have a remarkably good eye!”

“One or two of your specialties gave it away, but don't worry, your secret is safe with me. I don't betray my friends.”

“Can I call a taxi for you?” he asked.

“Thanks, that would be a great help,” I answered.

…Back at the hotel Sally and I sat down to work out what we should do next. I gave her a summary of my conversation with Jim and pondered my next step.

“What I don't understand,” Sally said, “is the bit about the chemicals. What have chemicals to do with any of this? Canvas is canvas and paint is paint, Leonardo painted the picture or he didn't.”

“There is a whole lot more in all this then you would think at first sight – excuse the pun – the art game is a very complicated one and it involves not only skill but a whole lot of materials. Campuses have been around for thousands of years. They are made in many many places by many many people. When an artist needs a canvas for a new picture there are two possibilities: one is to use an old canvas by painting over whatever picture was already on it. The other is to buy a new canvas. Usually the decision is to buy a new canvas, although there are many instances of artists painting over old pictures for one reason or another.

“A canvas used by Leonardo is different in its composition from one used by Monet. To the naked eye they might appear very similar, but since the two artists are far apart in time and place, a careful examination of their canvases will indicate a whole lot of differences in the material. Now suppose an artist working today wanted to paint a picture that he claims was actually painted by Leonardo – in other words, to forge a supposed Leonardo and pass it off as genuine. Canvas ages over the centuries so it is necessary to “age” the canvas which is used. About the only way this can be done is by using special chemicals that give the appearance of age to the canvas. It used to be that an artist had to work out for himself exactly how to do this. For example, Michelangelo wanted to make a sculpture that he claimed was an ancient Roman statue. He tried, unsuccessfully, to give his sculpture a very aged appearance, by burying it in certain types of soil and by other means. He had to give up the attempt.

“The modern artist would need to enlist the help of an expert chemist in collaboration with a canvas manufacturer to obtain something that might fool the typical art seller and art purchaser. When it's a matter of something like a genuine Leonardo, there are many specialists who make examination of artists canvases their job.

“To a certain extent the same is true of paints. Most professional artists mix their own paints in order to get the precise shades they want to use. If you go back several centuries you discover that it was common among the best artists to make their paint themselves. Leonardo was one of these. He was concerned about the ability of paint colors to resist fading or even changing their hue. He wasn't particularly successful in that particular attempt – for the most part Leonardo's pictures have not survived in especially good condition.”

Sally thought about this. “In that case then people trying to forge one of his pictures, I mean one of his purported pictures, would have a really hard time of it. And I've heard that he often didn't finish his own pictures anyway – don't they say that he often just did the outlines for his pictures of him and then had one or more of his students finish them for him?”

“Yes.”

“Then we are really on a sort of wild goose chase, it seems to me.”

Chapter 4

I wondered. Sally might be right. This wasn't the most difficult job I'd ever undertaken but it came close to it. My search for undercover forgers was just a preliminary, information gathering exercise, in order to find out exactly what I had to deal with. On the one hand, of course it very well might be that someone had commissioned a thief to steal the painting – possibly even bribed one of the Museum's officials to make off with it and send it on for a big hefty price. Such things are by no means totally unknown, and if the bribe is big enough pretty nearly any person can be bribed, even someone reputed to be extremely honest. On the other hand, there was another possibility as well. It was quite possible that some expert forger wanted to get hold of that particular painting specifically in order to examine it very closely in order to determine exactly what was necessary to make a painting accepted by at least a large part of the art profession as an authentic Leonardo. Having worked that out and tried painting a few sample artworks in the Leonardo style, having them examined by a few friendly art professionals whose judgment was widely respected, the forger would then arrange to have the stolen painting returned to the Museum, possibly but not necessarily having first made a few copies of it to sell. Knowing that the art world was sharply divided about the authenticity of the Museum's painting, this expert forger would then be able from time to time to “discover” three or four other as yet unknown or uncertain Leonardos. Not too many, and not too frequently, since that would begin to raise even more suspicions about exactly how to determine the authenticity of a genuine Leonardo.

I asked Sally to try out an experiment. Would she kindly purchase a set of professional artists oil paints and also a very high quality canvas, one that is not too modern in design but very conventional, in fact old fashioned. She would also need to purchase a good sturdy easel one that is easy for her to manipulate and use. She would also need a set of brushes, of quite a few widths.

“What is all that for?” she asked.

“I want you to try your hand at copying a few pictures. Not major fancy ones of great renown, but some of the typical pictures that you find in a usual Museum, good but not expensive types of pictures. This was the way that old-time painters learned their art, for example William Blake took lessons in painting but he simply could not get along with the other students. So his Master sent him off to art galleries to copy famous paintings he saw there as carefully as he possibly could. After many sessions of doing this, Blake was considered an expert enough to work entirely on his own. Following that, Blake went on to become one of the most talented and famous artists of his time, and his artwork is still considered as hallmarks of a genuine master artist, and particularly one of the most creative.”

Sally laughed heartily. “You cannot possibly be so deluded as to imagine that I could become a renowned expert artist. That is just too absurd for words.”

“A renowned expert artist? I'm not that much of a fool! But you do need to become familiar with the methods of professional artists – not the methods of art critics, that is a totally different craft — but accustomed to the methods used by professional artists to create their art works. Accustomed enough that you can tell the difference between a professional artwork and the work of an amateur. There have been some amateurs who have taught themselves to be genuine artists – Rousseau for example. I don't expect you to get up to his level, but at least to become well immersed in the way art works are produced. The materials I'm asking you to buy are extremely expensive, don't be amazed if the total cost gets into the thousands. I will take care of that. As to where you should go to get these materials, I suggest you go back to the fellow we interviewed, the Grandma Moses artist, and to get some recommendations from him. Tell him what your purpose is and make sure he realizes that you are deadly serious. Explained to him that economy is not one of your criteria, you don't want just any old art supplier, especially not any that advertise• on the Internet, that essentially you want a dealer that he himself would go to if he were seriously involved in a major project. Okay?

Sally was rather dubious. She obviously could not see that I was all that serious and suspected that I had some secret motive. Well, it was true that I did, but nothing like whatever she imagined. So I explained to her that I was initiating her into the investigative arts, in order to train her to be a valuable assistant for me, since this particular task of finding the Museum's stolen painting was going to take a great deal of hard work. Part of that training would be to get the Grandma Moses forger Jim to accept and believe the truth – that I really took his denial of being involved in the theft as true.

After Sally left on her quest I took up the phone and put in a call to a guy I knew in Switzerland. His specialty lay in keeping his ear open for any and all rumors of contraband, including illicit offers of selling or buying illegal items. He was very highly regarded by the Swiss police, and – more importantly, the Swiss government's undercover espionage agencies. As far as the public was concerned, he simply ran a bookshop on Bahnhofstrasse in Zürich, specializing in modern literature. He had become a close friend of mine some fifteen years ago when I was investigating the Swiss Bank accounts of some major drug dealers in Peru, and he was one of the very few who knew how to break into the secret files of various Swiss banks.

Once I got him on the phone, which took some doing because of the difference in time zones between New York and Zürich, I told him I was about to take a flight to Zürich and wanted to have a serious conversation with him regarding a case I was working on. He very warmly invited me to his house on the coming weekend, where we could talk at length over a few beers, have dinner with him and his family, and take on his eldest daughter at the ping-pong table. Naturally I agreed enthusiastically.

The principal problem was what to do with Sally while I was away. I decided to wait until she reported back from a mission I had just sent her on and tell her to get started on the painting project. I said I knew she would need some guidance, and I suggested the Grandma Moses’ forger Jim.

She wasn't all that overjoyed at my proposition, but I told her I would pay her an extra thousand a week, and I reminded her of her agreement to undertake special projects for me, which she had signed in her contract. You might suppose that I would expect her to have serious doubts about my promising her so much extra money, but I was well aware that she had on her own checked on my financial resources and backers.

As far as you my readers are concerned, you will simply have to accept my preposterous statements until the great reveal-all in the last chapter, assuming that I am silly enough to write à la Agatha Christie with her Hercule Poirot or Rex Stout with his Archie Goodwin. That remains to be seen.

I arranged with the airlines for my trip to Zürich, and decided to spend the next day or two while I waited for the plane trip by taking in a couple of Broadway shows. These included the first Broadway production of Agatha Christie's play “The Mouse Trap” which was nearly as good as the London production which had been running for so many years and had been the only place where her play could be viewed.

The flight to Zürich was not as pleasant as I had expected. There was a lot of turbulence, and even before I got onto the plane there had been a bit of a scare over a possible terrorist attack and this delayed takeoff by about two hours. Obviously this scare had been a hoax. I was met at Zürich airport by my friend, whom for the purpose of this story I will call John.

John drove me quite a long distance out of the city of Zürich to the small city of Winterthur where he had a nice house. When we had gone into the house, I met his wife Anna and his three children Robert, Mary, and Josephine (everyone actually called her Jo). We were quite a bit later than expected, so within few minutes we sat down to dinner. It was, (surprise! surprise!), cheese fondue.

After that we sat down in a very comfortable living room and John and I chatted for several hours. I told him my dilemma, namely, to find a person who might have hired a thief – or possibly a museum official – to steal the Leonardo (?) painting. We discussed quite a number of possibilities. Among them, one I had not thought of before: that another museum might itself have arranged the theft. Why it would do so was unclear, though John suggested that there might be a museum which had a known fake copy and wanted to replace it with what it thought might be a genuine original.

I had a sudden thought. Could it conceivably be that the Metropolitan Museum itself “stole” the painting, because somehow it had discovered that the painting was definitely not an original, the millions that they had paid for it were lost? By not disclosing this, they could claim the insurance of the painting. Or could they? Insurance fraud, by no means unheard of.

It's true, sometimes stolen artworks are found and returned to their owners. But by far the majority are not.

John suggested yet another idea: was it conceivable that during the attempt to clean and restore the painting the picture was badly damaged? So badly damaged, that it could hardly be shown again? If it genuinely was a real Leonardo, heaven knows what atrocities had occurred to it in the many attempts to restore it over the centuries. Was the Metropolitan Museum ever in the habit of outsourcing the cleaning and restoration of its paintings? No doubt they would deny it, but that didn't mean it would never happen.

Then still another thought occurred to me: perhaps the painting was not missing at all. Perhaps it had simply been mislaid. How thoroughly had they checked for that in the Museum? During the brief tour of the Museum I saw that quite a few paintings were being worked on – cleaned, repaired, examined. Was it not possible that the Leonardo had been returned to the wrong storage spot? as far as I could see, there was no special indication on the back of those paintings that were being worked on to indicate which storage spots they were to be kept in. If the painting had been being worked on for quite some time, might it not have been simply misplaced rather than stolen?

John said they he would try the first obvious probability: that the painting had been stolen on the request of some very rich person, for a substantial fee. Since the painting was not on display at the time it was stolen this would mean that at least to a certain extent it was an inside job. The thief would have had to know where the painting was being kept. He said that he would mobilize his network of informants to find out if anyone at all had expressed an interest in acquiring that painting, or was rumored to be interested in expanding their collection.

Chapter 5

The following morning I left John and his family to return to New York City, confident that he had far more likelihood of locating a potential suspect then I did, what with all the resources at his command.

Having arrived in New York, I called Jim and arranged to speak with him and Sally together the following day. I wanted to see how Sally's progress had been going, and to consider with them the other suggestions John and I had thought up. I decided to offer Jim a part of the reward money in return for his help.

When I reached Jim's house I discovered that he and Sally had made a nice little arrangement. She had moved in and they were now sharing a bedroom. For all intents and purposes, they were acting as a de facto couple. Well, that did not bother me – as long as we were based in New York. I decided to say nothing about it until and if we returned to Australia.

Naturally they wanted to know everything that had gone on in Zürich and I gave them a fairly complete summary. After I had finished, and Jim had rounded up a cup of tea for each of us, he commented:

“I've thought up yet another possibility for us to consider – in addition to your and your friend's ideas in Zürich. One of the big problems about that particular painting is the uncertainty whether it is genuine or fake, or of course that it was partially by Leonardo and then completed by one or more of his students, which was often the case with his paintings. Anyway, my idea is this: suppose for the sake of argument that the painting is a fake. If it is, then obviously it is a very good one or else the experts would not be divided about it. Now suppose the person who painted it were to examine the experts' discussions and pinpoint exactly which aspects of the painting aroused suspicion. Then suppose that that painter did a lot of practice in order to eliminate his faults in imitating Leonardo, and decided to have another go at fixing up the painting. So one way or another he got hold of the painting and it is now in his workroom undergoing his own form of restoration, in other words he is retouching or otherwise correcting those aspects of the painting which led some experts to think it a fraud.”

I thought for a few moments. “If that should prove to be the situation, then we could expect that painter either to return the painting secretly to the Metropolitan Museum, or else to somehow anonymously put it on the market as a newly found genuine Leonardo. That would make the search for whoever stole the previous form of the painting from the Museum pointless; unless of course the Museum did successfully get a payout from its insurance.”

Sally pointed out that if that were the case, we should not expect to re-find the painting in either its earlier incarnation or in modified form for quite some time. If the painting was done so well previously, then the correction of its mistakes would take a long time with a very great deal of care to ensure that none of the “experts” realized that it was the old painting in a new guise.

This made good sense. We discussed the idea in detail, and then decided to ask my Zürich friend to add to his researches any indication of anyone wanting to sell the “genuine, original” Leonardo painting which had just been found; and also to alert the Museum of the possibility of the painting turning up again in its stock.

For lunch we sent out to Pizza Hut for three pizzas, and as we ate Sally told us of her experiments in copying paintings from art museums, which was the task I had given her before I left for Zürich. She along with Jim had set out an exhibit of the paintings she had done, covering the living room walls. We looked at them carefully one by one. A couple of the Rousseaus had come out very well. One of the Jackson Pollocks was passable, though it could never be mistaken for a genuine Pollock by anyone familiar with his work. “In order to do a ‘genuine’ Pollock you have to get into that painter's mind and feeling world. That is true of any great artist of course, keeping in mind that no great artist is 100% consistent. With Pollack, you have to keep in mind his changing moods but you also have to enter the part of his mind that deals with the connotations of all the individual colors – and there are thousands of colors – precisely what emotional feeling each brings up. And you also have to pay very careful attention to the emotional significance of the juxtaposition of each color with each other color, and obviously the position of any particular bit of color on the canvas: what is to the left of or to the right of, above or below, and the whole emotional statement which the painting makes.” Jim said.

“No painter could think through all of that before painting,” Sally objected.

“The painter doesn't have to,” I pointed out. “Jackson Pollock just paints. His body-mind expresses itself all in an instant, a sort of Zen action. It is only the other person, the viewer, who has a different body-mind makeup, who has to take time to understand.”

“Your Cézannes though are remarkably good, they would fool the average viewer and even the person who is very familiar with Impressionism, though not the professional Cézanne specialist.” Jim added.

I summed up: “A remarkably good beginning, all in all. Keep this up and you may very well become a good painting copyist or even a good painting forger.”

Ends