Ultima, page 17
Ever since I’d started Gentileschi, I’d kept an eye on the industry magazines as well as the social pages, updating my index of who was buying what, and where. I’d seen Zulfugarly pictured a few times, though I hadn’t had the impression that art was really his thing. He was more the type to name his boats after women’s secondary sexual characteristics. He was certainly rich – a ‘kryshaliq’ oligarch from Azerbaijan, one of the generation who had made fortunes from transforming state assets into private capital.
‘Since when has he been a client?’
‘Apparently he’s setting up some kind of cultural foundation in the city. Wonderful, really, you know, giving something back to the Azeri people.’ Even Rupert had the decency to look shifty as he came out with that guff.
‘So if Zulfugarly’s interested, that could set up some pretty . . . competitive bids?’
‘I’ve put the word out. Discreetly of course. But we’ve already had enquiries from . . .’ With some difficulty, Rupert extracted his phone from his pocket and scrolled through a list of names. Many I knew already, but I had to gulp back my astonishment when I saw that the Folkwang in Essen was on the list. Li’s painting, hung next to the real thing . . .
‘And you have the photographs tomorrow, Angelica’s thing? She’s a real whizz on all that Facegram stuff.’
‘I’m looking forward to it.’
‘Wonderful, wonderful. Now, you must be hungry. They do a wicked rib of beef upstairs.’
Wicked? Oh, Rupert.
‘Would you mind if I had a cigarette first?’ I reached for the packet on the table and lit up, dipping my eyes as I guarded the flame of my lighter. When I looked up, Rupert was staring at me. I was still holding the lighter, a cheap orange plastic one from a newsagent. I’d always used them – I thought smart ones like da Silva’s Dupont were a bit naff. Rupert looked oddly startled. And then I remembered.
Dave and I, huddled outside the warehouse, my hand cupped around a quivering match. Rupert giving me a disapproving look for consorting with menials. The association between object, gesture, my face. Fuck.
Quickly, I stubbed it out.
‘On second thoughts, let’s go up. Filthy habit.’
Rupert blinked rapidly and looked blankly round the terrace.
‘Sorry, Elisabeth. Had a bit of déjà vu. Do finish it if you want to.’
‘No, please. I don’t really smoke, anyway. Let’s go up.’
If I’d ever had any desire to be famous, I might have enjoyed the next few days. During the quiet summer news cycle, the idea of a priceless masterpiece hanging unnoticed for years on a kitchen wall was thrilling. As ‘the girl who found the Gauguin’, Elisabeth Teerlinc was having her moment in the sun. She was interviewed for Sky News, made small talk in make-up artists’ chairs while her face was powdered and contoured, posed obligingly on the front steps of the House and at a charity luncheon at the White Cube Gallery for something called Artists for Unity. Gentileschi’s mailbox filled up with invitations to openings, parties, conferences. Elisabeth gave two interviews to Italian newspapers and one to Pravda, and she smiled and she smiled and she smiled.
Since Angelica Belvoir couldn’t be eliminated, I did my best to neutralise her by becoming her new best friend. At first, as we floated on a foam of amazing from drinks party to photo op to drinks party, I’d catch her glancing at me with a ripple of doubt crumpling those prettily vacant features. But confusion was no stranger to someone with Angelica’s IQ, and it was much less strenuous for her to believe that Elisabeth, who just happened to love all the same things she did, was exactly who she seemed to be. The more frequently Angelica saw ‘Elisabeth’, I figured, the less room there would be in her memory for Judith. I created an Instagram account, @gauguingirl, just so I could follow her, not letting a post pass without a ‘swoon’ or a ‘soooo adorable’. We made plans to party in Ibiza in the summer, after the sale; Angelica even suggested I meet up with her brother and his now wife next time I was in Manhattan. I wasn’t sure that Emily Post had much to say about the correct way to introduce yourself to someone when you’ve murdered one of their family members, but I wasn’t troubling about it. The vague plans I had turned over back in Calabria had begun to coalesce.
Da Silva would be in London for the auction, but I figured he would try to persuade me to return to Italy as soon as it was over. That still left a window. He was unfamiliar with the way the House worked – if I could invent a meeting, some documents that needed signing to transfer the fee to the Società Mutuale, its official destination, I reckoned I could give him the slip for four or five hours, long enough to get the Eurostar to Paris. No more – he could use his Guardia status to have me stopped at the border if he grew suspicious. But he didn’t know about the Van Dongen, safely waiting in the depository outside the city. That would be my security. I took myself to St Pancras and bought a one-way ticket for cash, first class, then used the left luggage service to store it in a nearby shop (380 metres away, according to the helpful website), to be recovered the day after the sale. I couldn’t risk da Silva finding it among my things if he went snooping. And then?
I didn’t think much about that, since as the date of the viewing drew closer, my thoughts returned obsessively to that slumping corpse in Albania, to Salvatore digging my grave. Mackenzie Pratt’s lipsticked mouth reared like the maw of a praying mantis through my dreams. But all I could do was carry on until the sale. As for Rupert, he was so busy rubbing his hands over all the lovely money coming the House’s way that he seemed to have forgotten his own twinge of doubt, though I made sure never to light a fag in his sightline again.
Yet I had been right in my instinctive fear of Mackenzie Pratt. Her first broadside came in the form of an opinion piece that appeared in the Guardian two days before the viewing. Pratt was described as a ‘distinguished international art critic’, and the substance of her piece was that the House had no business selling a painting ‘alleged’ to be by Gauguin, on the grounds that he was an exploitative racist colonialist who had abused young Polynesian women. Within about five seconds the online bottom-feeders were shrieking for the picture to be withdrawn. There were suggestions that the sale be boycotted, though as Charles Eagles pointed out to me over an affable old-fashioned in the Ivy Club that evening, this was hardly a worry, since the type of people who Twittered about the House being a disgusting bastion of elitist privilege couldn’t afford to buy anything there anyway. In Charles’s view, anything that generated controversy could only be good for the sale.
But Mackenzie’s plan to take Woman with a Fan II down didn’t stop at op-eds. Rupert called me as I was laying out wardrobe options for the viewing on my bed at Claridge’s.
‘Elisabeth? Sorry to disturb you, but can you come over to my office? Something rather serious, I’m afraid.’
I was trying to choose between a backless Tibi midi-dress and a full-on Roland Mouret gown, both ivory. The Mouret looked a bit bridal, perhaps. I forced myself to continue smoothing out its skirt as I spoke.
‘Whatever’s the matter? Is there a problem?’
‘You could say that. But I’d rather speak in person.’
‘So mysterious, Rupert,’ I flirted, but there was no warm glow in his voice as he told me he’d be at the House in fifteen minutes.
‘I had a call from Solomon Mathis first thing this morning.’
Mathis was serious, a curator at the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid, where he had held a major Gauguin retrospective two years ago.
‘He said he had been contacted by Mackenzie Pratt.’
The old cold fist around the heart.
‘Solomon told me she had been in touch not only with him but with several other experts. She said she wanted to warn them that your picture was a fake.’
Your picture. Not our picture any more. The missing consonant the first splash of a diving rat.
‘Quite. But she said she had seen you. At the Folkwang in Essen, photographing Woman with a Fan. In the company of a, um . . . Chinese colleague.’
‘You were quite aware that I had visited the Folkwang, it was in my original notes. Obviously seeing the only known version of the picture was a crucial part of my research. I think we both know what Miss Pratt is implying, Rupert.’
That China – specifically Beijing – was a major centre for talented art forgers. Spot on, Mackenzie.
‘Leaving aside Miss Pratt’s appallingly unprofessional meddling – she’s a collector, not an expert – I brought the picture to you in good faith. I gave you my reasons for believing that it was a genuine Gauguin and left it to you and the House’s experts to ascertain whether or not I was correct. The assertion of its authenticity is yours, not mine.’
‘Of course, of course, Elisabeth, I didn’t mean—’
I cut him off.
‘Miss Pratt has made her ideological objections to Gauguin public. So if you seriously believe her disgraceful allegations carry more weight than the opinion of your own professionals, you have only one option. Withdraw the picture.’
‘I never suggested—’
‘Just withdraw it. My reputation as a dealer is hardly as serious as the House’s, but I nonetheless have to consider it. I’m sure my client would agree that if there is the slightest doubt as to the validity of the picture’s status, it ought to be removed from the sale immediately.’
I was certain Rupert had no intention of following my suggestion. There was simply too much potential money involved, not to mention the public loss of face for the House. My willingness to step back from the sale could only cement his resolve. I softened my tone.
‘Look. This Pratt woman is on a witch-hunt. Is that what the House is coming to? Judging works by the private lives of their artists? I know she has her Utrillo in the show. He’s an important artist for you. So fine – she’s entitled to her point of view. But just because she’s got a bee in her bonnet about Gauguin being a reprobate – he was a drunk, he had syphilis, his wife was thirteen, whatever . . . The picture is the picture.’
‘She’ll be attending the view tonight,’ he replied thoughtfully.
‘All the better. Everyone’s a grown-up here. She’s not talking about withdrawing her piece, is she? I think we can see where her principles end. So if you don’t want to remove Woman with a Fan II, just don’t.’
In the end, I went for the Mouret. Demure, unimpeachable. I planned to arrive at the view on the dot of six, hoping to get my first look at the Gauguin since I had been in London, but before I left, I called da Silva in Rome. I had kept up our custom of a daily conversation, not to mention a regular check of his emails to Raznatovic, though there had been no updates on ‘the asset’ lately. I had mailed him a link to Mackenzie Pratt’s anti-Gauguin diatribe in the newspaper.
‘So everything’s OK?’ he asked. ‘The sale’s still going ahead?’
Even knowing how little he actually cared about me, it was somehow galling to be reminded that the sale was all he did care about.
‘Why shouldn’t it?’
‘And you, you are OK?’
‘Why shouldn’t I be?’
‘I wish I could be with you this evening.’
‘As I said, it’s all fine. It’ll sell. We have nothing to worry about.’
Pandora Smith greeted me eagerly in the lobby. She was looking much better than when I’d last seen her, though her black sheath dress was spoiled by an awkward fumble of thick tights under its fitted skirt.
‘It’s lovely to see you. And I hope you’ll be pleased with the hang.’
The Gauguin had been given a whole wall in the gallery space off the lobby. The mount had been backed in a deep green felt, which emphasised the richness of its shadows.
‘Perfect choice. Well done.’
Stepping back, as though to study the effect, I let my eyes hover over that bottom left corner. I couldn’t see anything wrong with the brushwork, but then I was no Gauguin expert. Pandora was already hard at work, pointing out aspects of the piece to an older Australian couple.
‘It’s a superlative example of his late style,’ she was saying. ‘The fluidity of the brushwork really makes it extraordinary. We can feel his liberation.’ The couple nodded seriously, earnestly glancing between their catalogues and the picture. Bless her.
‘Ah saw you.’ The voice came from somewhere behind my elbow. I took several beats to turn around and look down at Mackenzie Pratt.
‘I’m sorry, I don’t believe we’ve been introduced?’ I said coldly.
‘In Essen. With your Chinese friend?’
‘Of course. You must be Mackenzie. How do you do? I’m Elisabeth. I read your little piece. Quite . . . stimulating.’
‘Do you know what he did to those girls?’ she spat. ‘The ones he painted? He infected them with syphilis! They were thirteen, fourteen. Did you know that? Syphilis!’
The Australian couple moved quietly away.
‘It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? How ready we are to judge the artist rather than the art? Utrillo, for example, a chronic alcoholic. Didn’t he get into trouble for exposing himself to schoolgirls? And yet the work . . .’ I droned on, long enough for the room to fill with chattering visitors, trapping Pratt in the pretence that this was a civilised exchange of views. I couldn’t see her eyes behind the perpetual sunglasses, but as I showed no sign of letting up she began to flap the wide sleeves of her Etro kimono like a frustrated penguin.
It was Angelica, phone at the ready. ‘Can we do a few pictures, darling?’
I gave her a little wave and an eye roll that went above Mackenzie’s bobbed head.
‘So lovely to have met you at last, Mackenzie. Good luck at the sale!’
The space was crowded by then, and I didn’t see Mackenzie for the rest of the evening. Rupert puffed up to me as I was fetching my coat.
‘Everything OK, Elisabeth? I saw you speaking to Mackenzie?’
‘The thing is – this is rather awkward. That chap over there? Willy Novak.’
He indicated a skinny old party in tight purple jeans, a careful shock of white hair arranged over his forehead.
‘He’s hosting a pre-sale dinner for us down in Sussex next week. We were very much hoping you’d attend. The thing is, apparently he’s asked the Pratt woman.’
‘I don’t think that’s a problem, Rupert. I can handle her.’
It was still early when I stepped out onto Prince Street, and though the evening was typical for a London June – grey and raw – I thought I’d walk back to the hotel. I’d reached St James’s Street, moving rather slowly on my heels, when Charles Eagles jogged up behind me.
‘Elisabeth? Where are you off to?’
‘Feel like grabbing a bite? Chuc’s in Dover Street?’
I turned to look at him. He was ridiculously handsome. And it would be so easy. Not quite professional perhaps, but then no one would have to know. That huge empty bed in my hotel room . . . It would be so good, to be nowhere but the present for a few minutes, to scour myself out on his body. I hesitated.
‘No thanks. School night and all.’
He gave me a boyish shrug. ‘Oh well. Annabel’s for me, then. Another time?’
‘Maybe. Goodnight, Charles.’
He crossed the road with a jaunty bounce in his step. He wasn’t hurting. I had other things to think about anyway. Not da Silva, who had said he wished he could be with me. No. I had to think about just how I was going to handle Mackenzie Pratt.
Who wasn’t letting up in her campaign against Woman with a Fan II. The next morning’s Mail had an item on the gossip page about our encounter at the view. ‘Glamorou
So, as planned, Rupert and I caught a train to Arundel from Victoria five days later. I’d packed my snazzy new Bottega Veneta turquoise suitcase with overnight things and a sequinned Emilia Wickstead gown I’d ordered from Pont Street, a liquid flash of a dress that was so wrong for the country I knew it would look just perfect. It gave me a certain pleasure to watch Rupert hoiking the case into the rack of the first-class carriage. Willy Novak, Rupert explained, was a contemporary collector who let his house, Lancing Park, for events. The aim of dinner was to schmooze some of the House’s major clients, as well as attract the attention of ‘influencers’.
‘Whatever they think they are,’ Rupert added with disgust.
‘What kind of people are the clients?’
‘Oh, financial chaps mostly. Hedge funds. You know.’
I gave him a sympathetic look. ‘Yes, I know.’
We were met at the station by a white soft-top Rolls-Royce that transported us with absurd solemnity along the narrow, bramble-thick lanes to Lancing Park. After being so long in Calabria I had forgotten just how green England was in summer, the tumult of leaf tones from cyan to viridian, but even had I been inclined to draw Rupert’s attention to the beauty of the flora, he was engaged in polite conversation with the third passenger, who to our intense mutual displeasure naturally turned out to be Mackenzie Pratt.
‘Remind me, honey,’ she growled as we drove off. ‘Who was your little Chinese friend?’
by L. S. Hilton have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes