THURSDAY: The Forgery

BY CHARLINE POIRIER

Copyright is held by the author.

THE NEON sign advertising the Drault Detective Agency shone in through the window, turning Wieser’s handkerchief and the white of his starched shirt, visible at the opening of his striped suit, phosphorescent blue. He wiped droplets of sweat from his forehead. Next to him, Albrach, Saarbrucken’s art dealer, sleeves rolled up, loose linen pants and sandals, legs crossed, fanned himself with a pamphlet.

Hiltrude finished typing up their account.

“Most unusual.” Her flawless forehead contracted.

Albrach took the authentication folder from his scuffed leather briefcase and showed Hiltrude the paper trail — certificates and copies of the artist’s receipts. “I did the sale by the book,” he asserted. He shot a nervous glance at Weiser, the region’s only art collector, and swallowed.

Weiser unwrapped the package he had carried in and exposed the painting. “My friend, Emil Spritz,” he said evenly, “spoke favourably of the style and technique at first. But then,” his voice rose and Albrach’s head bowed. “He told me it’s a forgery.” He puffed out his cheeks and his ears reddened. “Yes. Emil performed some sophisticated tests, I don’t even remember their names, but he found that it was not the work of one person, but many people had had a hand in this. A forgery!” His hands shook. “Frau Drault, I’ve been duped. I’m humiliated.” Through stiff lips, he declared, “I won’t let that criminal get away with it.” He banged the desk with a fist.

Albrach, trying to diffuse the tension, turned to Hiltrude. “The work’s from a local artist.” He pointed to her window. “Talented, yes, but not famous, not even a local success. That’s why his paintings are priced the way they are.” He recovered his salesman smile. “A larceny like this is clearly beyond us. We thought you might be able to investigate what happened.”

Hiltrude studied her screen. “Could you please wait for me downstairs?” Her hand went to her trackpad.

As soon as the door closed, she sat back in her chair, put her feet up on the desk, and allowed a large smile to expand over her face. Her first case! She had dreamt of this since childhood. She surveyed the office. Most of her savings had gone into the rental of this space in St. Johanner Market Square above the flower shop. She had moved in a laptop, and affixed the biggest sign her remaining funds permitted. And now this! Beyond her imagination! She could see her reputation swelling far beyond Saarbrücken. She would hunt down the forger and expose him. She stood, pulled on each side of her skirt, and headed down to meet the two men.

On the last step, she said, “Let’s pay a visit to that artist.”

 

***

Albrach led them into an alley lined with overflowing garbage cans, broken doors and chassis, rusted pipes and automotive parts. Weiser walked gingerly on the uneven pavement to avoid staining his shoes and the bottoms of his trousers. At the back, they made out the studio in the evening shadows, a low brick building defaced by tortured graffiti with a single widow, a cracked pane and peeling paint. At the sight, Weiser’s eyebrows went up and he quickly gathered his coat around him. Albrach, ahead of them, opened the door and stepped aside. A weak yellow light mixed with noxious chemicals escaped through the doorway. Weiser took his handkerchief to his nose. He entered. Hiltrude and Albrach followed.

At the far end of the studio, crouched under a bright spotlight stirring paints in a can, Franz Rothe looked up blandly. In his mid-30s, he wore paint-stained overhauls and a t-shirt with a gash at the neck. He removed his earbuds, wiped his fingers on a rag hanging from his belt, and held out a hand. Weiser waved his handkerchief in front of his face, and grimaced. Hiltrude took Rothe’s hand and shook it vigorously. Albrach nodded.

The art dealer took the parcel from Weiser. He planted his feet apart and theatrically brandished the painting in front of Rothe. He detailed the dispute, peeking now and then at Weiser who stood a few feet away, arms crossed. Reaching the end of his peroration, he fell silent and waited for Rothe to explain himself.

Rothe scratched his chin, frowned. “Where did you get this?” He said with a hint of fright in his voice.

“You brought it to my gallery yourself, don’t you pretend, now . . .” Albrach spat.

“Is this your work?” Hiltrude asked, her hand buried in her purse, seeking pen and paper.

Rothe held the painting and brought it directly under the ceiling light. Angled it one way and the other. “This is very strange,” he said, then stiffened, blanched, and furiously rubbed his forearm.

“Ridiculous,” Albrach gesticulated widly. “You know it’s illegal, don’t you? You’re a disgrace to the art world and you’ve compromised my gallery. I will not stand for it.”

Rothe’s eyes fixated on the canvas, blinked. “I did bring the original to you. Yes,” he said. “But this isn’t it. I don’t understand.” His jaw hung. He returned the painting to Albrach.

The four remained still, silent, in a trance over the painting. Then Rothe stepped back and all eyes moved up to him. He shook a finger. “Wait a minute. This might be connected to another strange event that happened a while ago. Look around, all these canvasses are unfinished. All my finished work was stolen about a month ago, just after you bought this one. I filed a police report, you can check. Nine of my largest works  . . . vanished.”

“Don’t you . . .” The gallery owner stamped a foot. He yanked his briefcase open, rummaged through its compartments and retrieved a handful of papers. “I gave you a deposit, to help you out, buying more paint. Whatever. I want my money back, now.”

“But this isn’t the painting you paid for. I don’t know what happened to mine. It was in your care.”

Weiser’s nostrils flared, he glowered at Albrach. Albrach turned sheepishly to Hiltrude. “What do you think?”

“I have other work. Something else might interest you.” The artist waltzed through the studio, pointed at one painting and the other. “I can finish any one of them. In no time. Stay. I can sell you something else.”

Albrach curtly headed for the exit. Hiltrude, tapping her pen against her chin, said, “If, as he says, he delivered the original to the gallery, then it had to have been replaced either while it was there or during the transport to Weiser’s mansion.”

Not at all happy with this line of reasoning, Albrach stopped at the door and spun a 180 degrees. Pointing at Rothe, he said to Weiser beside him, “This man has lost all credibility. A pity. Come.” The gallery owner reached for Weiser’s arm, and the two proceeded out.

“If you really like this one,” Rothe called after them, “I’ll sign it as an original. If Picasso said he wouldn’t hesitate to sign a good forgery — which this is — I can do the same.”

But by then, his visitors were gone and his words were lost too.

***

They sat on the terrace of a café facing the Deutsch-Franzoesischer Garten. Albrach didn’t intend to return the €900 Weiser had negotiated for the painting. At least not right away. His rent was due and business hadn’t been so good. He leaned back, extended his legs, and lit a cigarette. “It’s fascinating, when you think about it,” he said, dropping a couple of sugar cubes into his espresso cup. “It reminds me of Kjell Nupen, the Norwegian painter. One day, he came upon some of his own work in the Kristianstad gallery. But the signed paintings, he had never seen before. They turned out to be forgeries. From an admirer. Those became valuable, you know. And, John Myatt, the British forger, has done pretty well too. Even from prison.” He shrugged.

Hiltrude, next to Weiser, stared at the painting between them. Her eyes came up and bore into Wieser’s. She licked her lips. “This could become famous, this painting you own. It might end up worth more than Rothe’s originals. I can see that.” She nodded. “Yes, I can see that.”

Weiser fiddled with his wedding ring. He was a wealthy man, someone who had influence and many enviable connections, yet, he had figured a long time ago that his name would never enter the annals of history or attain fame in, let alone beyond, Saarbrücken. The painting might change all that. He contemplated the Garden. The soft touch of the light from the Victorian lamp posts lent a magic to the leaves, the flowers, and the deep shadows, and mystery to the romantic footpaths. He took in a meditative breath.

But, at his core, he was very proud, and the benefits of fame were swamped by his humiliation. He said, “Even if you’re right about that, I cannot tolerate being swindled. I am a connoisseur of art, and I cannot stand a fake to hang on my walls.” His eyes darkened with a malevolent intensity. “I need that original. I’m a stubborn man, detective. Recover the original. Whatever the cost.”

Hiltrude ran a finger over her bottom lip. “I don’t know much about art, and I certainly wouldn’t be able to tell an original from a forgery. If there is one, I would assume the other stolen paintings have been copied too, which makes it even more difficult.” She glanced nervously at Albrach whose lips were parting, but Weiser went on.

“It would be good to know who’s responsible. Yet, hanging the original next to the copy would memorialize the story of the forgery and prove I am not a fool. I like that.” He waved a whole hand in front of Albrach, as if to erase him, and faced Hiltrude. “Make the best of a bad situation, that’s what’s gotten me where I am. I can always call on experts to authenticate, don’t worry about that, young lady. Find the painting.”

***

Once the incident caught the wave of social media, a great hype developed around the missing works. Their disappearance fuelled rumors worldwide in the art community as copies surfaced. Photos were posted on #Rotheforgeries the moment new paintings were spotted, and a location map was updated on Rothe’s website. Professor Klum, a prominent art historian, presented a meticulous study of some of the found copies at a conference in Munich and pronounced the Rothe forgeries a strong socio-political statement about the place and power of art in our contemporary world. He closed his presentation by concluding that art history was undergoing a radical shift.

“I see these forgeries as performance art of the highest artistic caliber. They take us from the Middle Ages where we’ve been until now into modernity.”

The gallery where the forgery was first discovered became a tourist destination. Strangers strolled in front of Weiser’s château and took pictures. They tracked down Rothe’s studio, like they did with other hidden historical gems of Saarbrücken.

***

Hiltrude travelled to Berlin, Paris, London, New York, Tokyo, Shanghai, and Buenos Aires on the trail of copies. One day, an art dealer in Hong Kong told her he had heard that the painting she was looking for was about to be auctioned at Christie’s in London.

She alerted Weiser and Spritz.

At the auction, whispers of surprise travelled through the audience like a long asthmatic breath and a sudden tension electrified the room the moment the painting appeared on stage. From across the room, Spritz gave his friend a discreet nod. Weiser shivered with anticipation, squeezed Hiltrude’s wrist, and tightened his hold on his bidding card.

The auctioneer told the story that had made the painting legendary. The bids began at £25,000. The interactions were ruthless. Many of the bidders grouped on a platform to the left of the stage were agents on the phone with absent, usually anonymous, parties. To add to the growing anxiety, a live feed of online bids brought chaos to the process. Manifold gestures of hands, wavings of numbered cards and noddings, steadily increased the painting’s value until the tenders hit £750,000. At that milestone, there were fewer raised hands and nods, as many hopes of owning the painting were crushed. But Weiser shook his head savagely. A bidding war ensued amongst the survivors and later intensified between Weiser and an unknown Chinese collector. With his characteristic persistence, however, Weiser prevailed and left the auction house triumphantly with the painting for which he had paid £1,200,000.

***

A month later in Saarbrücken, Hiltrude and Weiser watched the sun set in the corner of his garden, a generous payment for her services on the marble tabletop between them.

“I failed you in the end,” Hiltrude said. She picked up the envelope and peeked into it.

“Absurd. You found the original for my private collection and it sits beside the forgery in the living room. I’m ecstatic.” He lifted his wine glass. “I heard, by the way, Rothe’s moved to New York. He ended up, with all this nonsense, doing pretty well.” He tugged a sleeve down over a hand. “Now he’s living in a penthouse studio in Manhattan with a view of Central Park. Every time one of his originals shows up, it shakes up the world.” He snorted. “No one’ll be able to go to our local gallery and buy a Rothe any longer. That’s all history.”

The sun died a red and ochre death on the horizon. “This whole affair will no doubt make our Saarbrücken a little famous.” With pride, he regarded the city he loved extending down the hill to the right of his garden, beyond Hiltrude.

“But you hired me to find out who forged the paintings and why. I could never answer that.”

“Maybe it was performance art, just as Professor Klum claimed. I guess, we’ll never know,” Weiser observed philosophically.

Meanwhile, Albrach sat on that penthouse roof in New York, his raised martini glass reflected in Rothe’s dark sunglasses.

“Cheers,” he said.

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