After his death in 1996 at the age of 90, the estate of the late architect William Draper was divided among his five children. The siblings drew lots for his antique furniture and his collection of more than 50 oil paintings and watercolors. His daughter Caroline McKay received ten canvases, among them a portrait by the European painter, Vari.
For many years away from her native Boston, where her father and mother had lived and died, the Vari was just “one of Dad’s paintings” to Caroline and seldom thought about separately. Vari was never a household word like Renoir or Picasso. Frederick Carl Frieseke— William Draper owned one of Frieseke’s women in a garden—was probably better known. But beginning in the 1980’s, Caroline and Charlie McKay would occasionally run across some mention of Van’s name in one of the art magazines to which they subscribed or picked up from time to time at the shop where Charlie, a Sunday painter, bought his supplies. They assumed the portrait might be valued in the upper five-figure range. Thus they were startled and just short of astonished to learn from a Sothebys appraiser they consulted that in today’s market a certified authentic Vari at auction might command $750,000 to one million. The McKays were comfortably off, in the upper middle to lower upper income bracket; Charlie, 70 and retired, had been a high-ranking diplomat, a minister-counselor, and Caroline still practiced her profession as a distinguished free-lance journalist who contributed articles on foreign policy to the Atlantic and other publications and was an occasional panelist on television talk shows. But such figures as Sothebys had quoted were eye-wideners even for them.
According to the bill of sale from a New York dealer no longer in existence, William Draper had paid $400 for the portrait in 1936.
Draper had had the foresight back then to recognize that Roosevelt’s New Deal combined with natural forces such as the coming war appearing little by little on the horizon, would revitalize the American economy, create employment—and raise prices. While prices were low was the time to buy fine art, and in the late 30’s and early 40’s, with savings, loans, and down payments, he had acquired most of his carefully and wisely selected collection.
All of the artists represented were first rate. A few, like Vari, Frieseke, and Edward Potthast—Caroline was also lucky enough to draw a Potthast beach scene in the family lottery—belonged among the top-ranking European painters and American Impressionists.
But the Vari was in a class by itself.
“What do you think?” Charlie asked.
“Good lord, I really don’t know,” Caroline said. “To be honest, as much as I admire its quality, I like the Potthast better. In fact I love it even though it may be much less valuable. It’s the one I want to live with. As for the others we can either make room for them or offer two or three to Meredith and Richard. Well then, here’s the answer to your question. I think we should consider putting the Vari up for auction.”
What they had to start with appeared pretty tangible: the painting itself that seemed to the McKays to radiate unique, exceptional quality. And a bill of sale. But a bill of sale from a defunct Manhattan art gallery. They would have to have more.
A long wait at a desk in the main reading room of the Library of Congress under filtered sunlight, mounting excitement until the large, expensively-produced, only existing catalogue raisonné of Vari’s works was brought to Charlie by a runner, excitement at the highest pitch as Charlie paged slowly, his turning hand trembling slightly, through color and black and white reproductions of the artist’s oils, gouaches, watercolors, pastels: exclusive of a few ink drawings and preliminary sketches, less than 150 works. And the downward swooping sensation of dismay in Charlie’s chest when he could not find Caroline’s portrait.
In his eagerness to get at the works themselves, Charlie had not read the introduction, the French text; there was an English translation available but he wanted the original. Now he had to read it. His command of the language was solid. He raced through the two-page, large-print summary history and critique, grasped at a straw and converted it immediately into a floating raft: “This catalogue does not claim absolute completeness. It is possible a few other works in private collections are not accounted for.”
“Vari” Who was he, was that his real name? Was it some diminutive or acronym and not a name at all? The only fact known for certain was that was how he signed his work. The author of the catalogue raisonné wrote that Vari’s origins were uncertain but were believed to be somewhere in Eastern Europe and that he was quite likely a Jew. The exact year of his birth was not known, but when he was working in Paris in the 30’s, a notable recluse with few if any real friends, he was believed to be more or less even with the century. The last known report about him came from a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau who said Vari had died there about 1944, exactly how the woman couldn’t be sure; her information was second-hand.
The catalogue noted that one Gerard Augier had been Vari’s dealer in the 1930’s. That fact raised Charlie’s spirits quickly. The bill of sale from the Friedman Gallery in Manhattan, dated Sept. 10, 1936, noted that the portrait and two other works of Vari had been purchased from G. Augier, Paris that same year,
There it is Charlie said to himself with a rising inflection and a deep breath, but then, more soberly, though not quite enough by itself.
He left a research request at the library, which could not be answered immediately. Two days later the McKays received a phone call. Augier, deceased, had been succeeded by his daughter, also deceased. The gallery, on the rue de Seine, was presently under the direction of Prince Eduard Ossoliński.
“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Charlie said. “Positive answers to questions.”
“Well, names,” Caroline said.
“You start with names—which are far better than blanks,” Charlie said.
By phone, the McKays made an appointment with the curator of The Museum of Modern Art and took the Metroliner, and the painting, to New York. MOMA owned only a single Vari, an abstraction, which could not be usefully compared to their portrait. But the curator reacted very positively to the portrait itself.
“Unquestionably, in my eyes, the work of a highly accomplished painter,” he said. “And from what I remember of other Vari portraits in the one catalogue raisonné of his work, the same unique style speaks to me here. I’d say it was certainly a Vari—or a masterful forgery. However, I have no way of officially vouching for its authenticity. I can refer you to experts on European art in the 1920’s and 30’s and it might be useful to get their endorsements later, but for now I think they’d only be able to echo my tentative evaluation. What you really need is concrete evidence.”
No Friedman Gallery was listed in the current telephone directory. The McKays went to the 1936 address on Third Avenue. The building had been torn down not long after the Third Avenue EL was demolished in 1955, and there were no art galleries in the high-rise that replaced it.
The McKays had been going to Paris for many years. This year they had planned to revisit Turkey. Instead, that was a trip that would either be cancelled or added on later.
Before they left New York, Charlie booked two seats on an Air France flight to Paris scheduled to depart from Dulles one week later.
The McKays had an old Polish friend in Washington, born a count.
“Ossoliński! It’s been a while since I’ve heard that name. He has to be my age, 80 or older.” He laughed. “An old fop who was reliably reported to have worn a corset under his uniform! Very brave fellow though, in the defense against the Nazi invasion and then in Soviet camps. Fop he may be but I wouldn’t discount him. I would imagine he is shrewd about art and the kind of people who have the money to buy it.”
In the week remaining before their flight, Charlie continued his research. He didn’t trust himself to be able to explore the Internet thoroughly enough; skilled library researchers had been delighted to take on the job, through the Net and using every other resource available to them. And remarkably little had ever been published about the painter known as “Vari.” Any sort of book-length biography, none. Collected letters, none. What was available was a skimpy collection of newspaper and magazine articles in English, French, German, Italian, Swedish, and Japanese. Charlie paid for translations from the three languages he didn’t know, but the results were disappointing: mostly repetition of what he could read for himself in English, French, and German.
The articles focused almost entirely on Vari’s art—his abstractions, portraits, city street scenes: strange groups of figures isolated from one another. Of landscapes, seascapes there were none. Vari seemed never to have posed for another painter or to have done any self-portraits and obviously did not want his face recorded by any camera. There were only two known photographs of him. In one he has turned away quickly from the photographer so that his face barely shows and his head is a blur. In the other he is seated at a table outside the café La Coupole, scowling at the intruding camera. Seated beside him is the model Suzi Tarbé, perfectly cast as a gamine, a street-arab, a homeless outcast. She could not have been older than 18. He is thin, shabbily dressed, wearing a cloth cap. He is neither handsome nor ugly; his face is simply like a million other European, possibly Mediterranean, faces indistinguishable one from another. Except for his eyes, which seem as haunted as those of his last portraits. Vari was a man in hiding said one article. An alleged Paris acquaintance, now deceased, was quoted indirectly as saying that Vari had once mentioned a pogrom in which his parents and a brother had been murdered. Another article cast doubts on that story for reasons that were not clear and wondered if Vari might have murdered someone himself. What better way to shut off further questions than to claim to have fled a massacre?
Finally, in a 1982 article, the writer, an Austrian, had interviewed Suzi Tarbé who had posed often for Vari. She had a copy of the La Coupole photo with Vari and others of herself alone she said Vari had taken. The writer had interviewed the woman in a working-class café called Le Vieux Gascon across from the Canal St-Martin.
Parisians entertained in cafés and restaurants, rarely at home, but they hung on to their rent-controlled apartments decade after decade. If Suzi Tarbé was still alive, in her 70’s, chances are she’d still be living somewhere near that café.
McKay had tried to trace the Austrian reporter but came to a dead end and decided an exact home address wasn’t necessary and that the reporter might not have kept a record of it anyway. McKay found no Suzi Tarbé in the Paris telephone directory on file in a Georgetown public library but if she lived with a spouse there wouldn’t be one.
“I made him famous, a nobody from nowhere,” Tarbé had claimed to the Austrian interviewer. “Three million francs for a portrait of me! But not a sou do I get!”
She didn’t know where Vari was from originally, didn’t know his full name, and wasn’t interested. McKay concluded she was simply an embittered old woman of limited intelligence. But she was capable of identifying the authenticity of her own portraits, of remembering details, the material in the red blouse she wore, what the necklace was made of.
The telling proof in the McKays’ minds: why would anyone bother to fake a Vari in the 1930’s when he was just beginning to be known and commanded only modest prices? You would have to claim that William Draper, Caroline’s father, a distinguished American architect, had lied about the year he’d acquired the painting and that the 1936 bill of sale was a forgery. Preposterous. Sothebys or Christies claiming that could be sued for defamation of character. They wouldn’t do it. But they could also respectfully decline to accept the painting on other grounds: insufficient amount of positive proof.
It was raining on the rue de Seine. Colliding umbrellas on the narrow pavement and dog poop to dodge made walking an awkward ballet, especially for Charlie McKay: Caroline was not so encumbered—carrying their rather large, flat, heavily wrapped package under his left arm.
“Here!” Charlie called, catching sight of the sign a moment before they were just below it, and they raised their umbrellas high enough above others in the throng of passers-by to be able to furl them and then slip sideways, dripping, through the street door Charlie opened.
In the front of the Galerie Ossoliński, surrounded by large works of some brilliant colorist, a quite beautiful young woman of about 30 in a chic black dress, having had a mere five seconds to size them up, confronted them with a tentative, questioning smile.
Charlie spoke in his assured, acceptable French.
“We’re the McKays. Prince Ossoliński is expecting us.”
The N in the prince’s Polish name was pronounced like the soft Spanish ñ in mañana and McKay, something of a perfectionist in these matters, got that right.
“Yes of course,” the young woman said. “You have brought the—Vari. I did not expect you quite so soon. Perhaps I misunderstood the hour. I am Irena de Béranger, Prince Ossoliński’s granddaughter. “
“We may be a bit early, It isn’t far to walk.”
Charlie had said four o’clock. Indeed, it was only 3:40 now, clear evidence of Charlie’s excitement which he saw no reason to hide. It was hardly expected of the potential seller to be laid back, too calm. And anyone who had a genuine Vari would know its value and not let over-eagerness lead them to let it go for less.
Except at a vernissage or preview, or a formal opening of an exhibit, art galleries are rarely crowded places; the entrance of even a single visitor creates a stir. Audible in rear offices. Prince Ossoliński appeared in a black penumbra, a tall figure in chiaroscuro for a moment, who then strode forward vigorously in spite of his 80 years, his great beaked Bourbon nose, though he was unrelated to that family, pointing the way.
“Monsieur McKay! Madame!” he said. From then on he spoke in English, as then did Irena de Béranger.
“You have met my granddaughter?” the prince asked rhetorically. “She sees now, with better eyes than mine. I am going to leave you in her capable hands.”
“And we are most anxious to examine the painting you have brought,” said Irena de Béranger.
The word “examine” registered sharply in Charlie’s brain, as had her initial hesitation before pronouncing Van’s name and now calling what he had only “the painting you have brought.”
In an unused side gallery Charlie unwrapped the painting and positioned it carefully on a wooden easel.
It was a three-quarter profile of a young woman in a red blouse. Twentieth-century Expressionism with sources in antiquity. Flattened perspective, curled finger of one hand held just below the chin, a classic pose said to indicate thoughts of death. Not a beauty; the size of the nose is somewhat exaggerated, the oval of the face a little larger than life, but the artist had captured a haunting quality in the model’s eyes and mouth that transcended perfection of feature, made it irrelevant. At most, her stillness had a kind of hesitant serenity. Deeper into her expression was naked, aching vulnerability.
“It was painted sometime in 1936 or earlier,” Charlie said, “because by sheer luck and a good eye, in the fall of that year Caroline’s father bought it at the Friedman Gallery in Manhattan for $400. The documentary evidence on record is that Varis were selling for that price that year, between $300 and $600 depending on size, a good price for a fairly young painter during the Depression. He’d been recognized and appreciated by critics in Paris and New York but he didn’t have the mystique and fame of Picasso, Braque, and a few others. But he did have a name. Then in the 80’s his reputation really began to grow.
“Apart from the technique, the elimination of brushstrokes into that ivory finish, the last of many layers of paint, and the colors, that expression! And that unique Vari style of enlarged distortion,” Charlie said. “You take one look at it and immediately it says “Vari” and nobody else, the identifying quality the works of all the great painters have. Then consider the year, 1936. The model has maybe a French name, maybe not. Suzi Tarbé. Maybe it was something else first. We don’t really know where she’s from, but Hitler was in power in Germany and Stalin had launched his great terror in the Soviet Union. Millions would be murdered; all of Europe except a few neutral countries would be enslaved. This girl, this model, perhaps a mistress of Vari’s, was on the edge of all that. Maybe already in it somewhere or in some way. That could be what Vari is telling us. So many of his last portraits have the same quality. Of course I’ve poured over the one catalogue raisonné and studied the examples in the Museum of Modern Art and the Musée d’Orsay.”
Abruptly, if all four of the people confronting this painting had allowed themselves to be, for a few moments, silent admirers of great art, they were that no longer. They could not afford the luxury of sheer appreciation, they had to evaluate this relatively small, flat object constructed of wood, canvas, oil paint, and glaze as something that might or might not be of great value. Worth many hundreds of thousands to more than a million. Dollars. Or virtually nothing. At most a few thousand as the work of some unknown member of “the school of Vari” or as a skillful forgery which might have an appeal for some collectors.
Virtually the last words Charlie McKay had spoken were “catalogue raisonné and now Irena de Béranger repeated them and said, “But as you know this work is not shown in that book, nor mentioned.” In his letter to Prince Ossoliński Charlie had enclosed a photograph of the painting.
“The author admits his compilation is incomplete,” he said.
“Might be incomplete,” Irena said.
Charlie did not acknowledge this distinction but he recognized it, and knew he had better assume he was dealing with an expert of extreme shrewdness.
“Vari’s life is a mystery,” he said instead. “Half of what is said about him is contradicted by the other half. But the clear fact is Vari used this same model several times in similar poses.”
Irena had no comment on that.
“As a practical matter,” she asked Caroline, “your father of course kept the bill of sale from the New York gallery?”
“We have it with us,” Caroline said. “And it notes that the portrait and two other paintings of Vari were purchased from Gerard Augier.”
“Even Augier’s successor, his daughter, is deceased too as you undoubtedly know,” Irena said. “Her husband may still be alive but the business was hers, he had nothing to do with it. There were no children. And the heirs of the Friedman Gallery in Manhattan? Does it still exist even under another name?”
“The building was torn down in the 1950’s,” Charlie said. “I don’t know of any successor.”
“Friedman heirs?” Irena repeated.
“There must be some,” Charlie said. “We haven’t found it necessary to try to contact them.”
Irena de Béranger looked at Caroline, then Charlie.
“I regret to tell you,” she said. “I have been unable to find any record of sales to the Friedman Gallery in New York. Augier’s daughter knew nothing about art, even less about her business. Her records were in a chaotic state as Prince Ossoliński soon discovered.”
“A nest of mares,” said the prince, his thin-lipped smile automatic and wide, empty of any real emotional content.
“William Draper, Caroline’s father, told one of his children Friedman had three Varis for sale in 1936,” Charlie said.
“I am not saying no record of sales from Augier to Monsieur Friedman existed,” Irena said. “Only that we have been unable to find them. What were the other two paintings Friedman had? Do you know?”
“One was a nude,” Caroline said. “I don’t know what the third was. My father wanted the nude too but he couldn’t afford both. He was a struggling young architect then. He had to make a choice and the nude was larger, $200 more expensive, a lot of money during the Depression. As it was he had to get a loan from his parents. He chose the portrait. It was the very first painting of his collection and by far the most valuable.”
“Did you find the nude in the catalogue raisonné?” Irena asked Charlie.
“There are a half dozen nudes,” Charlie said. “Regrettably, as of early this year William Draper hasn’t been alive to identify the one he saw.”
“You see the difficulty,” Irena de Béranger said.
She smiled unexpectedly. It seemed to McKay an extraordinary lovely smile, open and guileless, which made him suspect it all the more.
“May I speak French now?” she asked. “For me, speaking English seriously is after a time fatiguing and I wish not to be unclear.”
“Bien sûr,” Charlie said.
“It is not necessary to be entirely pessimistic,” she said then in French. “It is a lovely portrait painted with great skill and brio. Originality? I hope so. Haunting, as you say. That alone must be considered a promising beginning. I would like others to see it. Tomorrow evening in fact my husband and I have arranged a small gathering at our apartment to which you are cordially invited. At that time perhaps we can arrange to show the painting to others, at your convenience.”
The McKay’s room at their hotel was equipped with a combination-lock wall safe large enough to hold the carefully re-wrapped painting if tilted at a diagonal.
After a nap and a bath the rain had stopped and they strolled slowly under a dry, tempestuous sky along the main gravel allée of the Tuilleries, crowded at seven in the evening but long and wide enough to accommodate every stroller comfortably. The McKay’s paused before the marble statue of a naked man in a twisted attitude of extreme anguish: Where in God’s name did I put my clothes! they called it, and the mood that set up of mild, giddy hysteria after a stressful day reminded Charlie of Prince Ossoliński’s “nest of mares” and that triggered off Foreign Service recollections of other odd English in various places, mostly on menus: “Bowels in Cream” and “A Piece of Meat” at a really fine little Polish place in Tel Aviv; “Hole With Vinegar”; they never did figure that one out, at the Café Gijon in Madrid, they were in a hurry to catch a train.
They crossed the rue de Rivoli to the arcaded side. The English bookstore was still open.
“Buy some paperback while I sneak a look at an English language dictionary,” Charlie said.
Mares nest (1619). 1. A false discovery, illusion or deliberate hoax. 2. A place, condition or situation of great disorder or confusion. A “mare’s nest of spurious ambiguities to bewilder the simple-minded”— S.H. Sledd
Charlie showed the definition to Caroline.
“Weird,” she said. “Clue, omen, prophecy? What made you think to look it up?”
“Curiosity, remembering the way the prince turned the words around. You hear something all your life, take it for granted, and I’d never looked it up before. Then I got to thinking, mares don’t really have nests, do they?”
“Beats me. I was never that interested in horses. Maybe when they’re giving birth, I don’t know, but how would that turn into that first odd meaning?”
“It’s been a strange day,” Charlie said.
It was time to walk still a rather long way, through the gardens of the Palais Royale, then beside the Bibliotéque Nationale along the rue Vivienne to an eight o’clock reservation at the restaurant Vaudeville across from the Bourse.
“”We don’t know where she’s from,” I’m quoting you,” Caroline said. “I expected you to add: “but we know where we might find her.”“
“I edited myself half a beat ahead,” Charlie said. “Why should we give Irena de Béranger any kind of advantage?”
“What can she do? Do away with the old woman before we can get to her?”
“Let’s just say greed is what drives the world in the 1990’s.”
“When didn’t it?”
“Never I suppose. But I wouldn’t put anything past anyone. These insane prices. The artist barely ekes out a living in his lifetime and then enormously rich men spend fortunes for a single work. A great game for a handful of billionaires that has nothing to do with art. Sixty years ago your father could afford to own a Vari but we can’t. We can’t afford the insurance.”
“We aren’t affording it.”
“Well you know why. Like your father never calling attention to it, we thought nobody knows we have it. Now they do.”
Charlie halved a lobe of veal kidney with his knife but left it on the plate momentarily. “Why should I trust Irena de Béranger? She auctions off our Vari for three-quarters of a million, what’s her fee? Twenty percent? A hundred and fifty thou. Wow. Satisfying? Not if she can get half of three-quarters of a million, splitting with another dealer posing as the seller after palming it off to him for a low price, she allegedly skeptical, he allegedly naïve, willing to take a small risk. So she can look us in the eye afterward. Augier and then his daughter were Vari’s dealers, now, possibly, Prince Ossoliński. Nobody else in Paris except the author of that catalogue raisonné she knows and nobody with that level of expertise in New York that I’m aware of. If she discredits it, Sothebys or Christies won’t touch it. She’ll offer us a couple of thousand and we’re supposed to think we’re lucky to get it. Take it or leave it. What was that quote in the dictionary definition of a mare’s nest? “. . .spurious ambiguities.”“
He forked up his piece of kidney.
“But if Suzi Tarbe says it’s authentic?” Caroline said.
“Then maybe we’ve got something.”
The café Vieux Gascon dated from the 20’s. There was nothing particularly distinctive about the decor, no notable Art Deco touches that the McKays could see but it had that indefinable appealing Parisian, or simply French, quality compounded of the manner in which its elements were put together: zinc bar, tables, chairs, light fixtures, mirrors, coat racks, posters; the late middle-aged couple on the working side of the bar, the neighborhood customers on the other, all French. Rare foreign tourists, misdirected, lost, would only enter the place by chance, maybe to ask directions or to get out of the rain. And on the morning following the McKays’ encounter with Prince Ossoliński and Irena de Béranger, it was raining again.
Suzi Tarbé? Yes, the couple behind the bar knew her, and one of the customers, a chain-smoking old jade about Tarbé’s age. Monsieur le Patron rolled his eyes and rotated a forefinger an inch away from one gray, grizzled temple.
“Fou. Crazy. Living with the nuns in some home.”
His wife knew the name of the place. The patron looked up the address in the annuaire. Near the Place Leon Blum in the 11th.
“Did she have a married name?” Charlie asked.
There was some discussion about this. Evidently she’d lived with several men, whether officially or not seemed to be open to question.
“Tarbe,” the patron said authoritatively. She was known by that name.
The McKays took the metro, changed trains once and when they climbed up to the street the rain had stopped.
The nursing home was as drab and mournful a place as the McKays had expected. The nun at the front desk and the one who escorted them up a flight of stairs and down a long corridor were businesslike but accommodating enough even when Charlie admitted they were not friends, had never met Madame Tarbé, what in fact their mission was.
But the escorting nun warned them, “She may refuse to speak to you. She may say obscene things.”
She halted near the entrance to a ward where there was a bench.
“I suggest you unwrap the painting here so that you can surprise her with it immediately, perhaps jog her memory.”
That done, Caroline held the folded wrapping paper, cord and oilskin sack and with the nun leading the way walked behind Charlie as they entered the ward. Protruding from Caroline’s shoulder bag was the slender microphone of a tape recorder.
Suzi Tarbé, in nightclothes and slippers in a chair beside her slatted bed watching one of several television screens with hostile eyes, was a horror, a wreck of a human being.
“Madame Tarbé!” the nun said forcefully. “These fine people from the United States want to show you a beautiful picture of yourself.”
Taking his cue from the nun, Charlie asked quickly, raising his voice a bit, “How old were you when Vari painted you here?”
Suzi Tarbé stared at the portrait.
“That is not me!” she screamed. “I was more beautiful than that dirty little Jew ever painted me!”
She collected enough saliva in her mouth to spit at the canvas but Charlie pulled it away in time.
Thin-lipped, grim, the nun shook her head.
“It is hopeless to expect anything better now, anything at all,” she said. “I am sorry.”
As they walked to the metro station Charlie said, “I don’t want it now. I never want to look at it again.”
Caroline said nothing then nor in the roaring subway car but at a café near their hotel where they sipped coffee, she said, “It’s not really her, is it? It’s Vari’s work. She was an object, a form, 60 years ago, a human form yes but for Vari, planes, curves, angles that he could distort, exaggerate, to create his unique style, and a work of art, a painting, not a photograph.”
“Planes, curves, form, and presumably a soul. Isn’t it the soul we thought we’ve always seen? And it was never there, not the one we imagined.”
“Because it was transformed by Vari into his soul,” Caroline said. “What does anyone know about the lives and characters of hundreds of models in famous paintings? So many posed as saints, Madonnas? In real life they might have been terrible people.”
“Yes, but in those cases I don’t know. I can give them the benefit of the doubt.”
“However horribly she put it, what she said authenticates the painting,” Caroline said.
Charlie sighed deeply. “I’ll always wonder, did Suzi Tarbé denounce Vari to the French police when they were rounding up Jews for the Nazis? Was he in hiding and she knew where? What I have a great longing to do right now is exchange the portrait for a Vari abstraction.”
“Not much chance of that is there?”
Charlie didn’t bother to reply.
“What if we had an abstraction? Then what? Keep it?”
“Hang it in our living room and entail it jointly to Meredith and Richard,” Charlie said. “Their tastes are different from ours and different from each other’s. After our deaths let them auction it off and split the proceeds.”
“Why couldn’t they do the same thing with the portrait?”
“The painting is yours, Caroline. You inherited it. Any decision is yours to make.”
“It’s ours,” Caroline said. “And now I feel tainted, not so much by that poisonous, crazed old woman who probably never had much of a brain, only a face and body once, but by the greed you talked about, that goes with all this. Why is Irena de Béranger any greedier than we are?”
Charlie looked at her over the tops of his glasses.
“You have a point, I suppose.”
“So we tempt our kids to be greedy.”
“They’re capable of doing something really useful with all the money they might get.”
“And we’re not? What did we plan to do with it if we got it? We’ve never really thought about it. You’re 70, I’m 65. Do we want to build a bigger house? We’re happy with the house we have, the way it is and where it is. A beach house? Not our thing and beach houses are so often ecological foolishness anyway. We’ve got enough health insurance. We’ve got enough to travel where we want to go. Turn around and buy other great art? Well we might do that I suppose. But we don’t need three-quarters of a million that badly and neither do the kids. We’ve got enough, more than enough, for us, and they’re doing fine. This scrabbling around trying to convince Irena de Béranger, especially after today, do we really want to keep doing this?”
“We wanted to prove it is what it is,” Charlie said. “That’s been the challenge and it’s been fun up ‘til now.”
“But sugar plums danced in our heads too. The lure of fortune for its own sake. The thrill of it even at our age. Just like the kid money pushers on Wall Street. The high flyers. The day traders. Look, Suzi Tarbé didn’t put a curse on that portrait. I don’t believe in curses. Art is eternal. It will always be a fine Vari. But if you really can’t stand the thought of it hanging in our house we can put it out on permanent loan to The National Gallery or The Museum of Modern Art. Visitors will only see Vari’s genius. They’ll only see Vari’s haunted soul.”
Caroline looked out the café window at the hurrying crowds, at the slender, fine-boned French, and Charlie looked at her.
They had gone separately to Europe in the 50’s for the adventure of it and to work there, Charlie as a diplomat, Caroline to report on some of the events of a momentous era. Their first joint venture was to go into Hungary together for a short while during the revolution of 1956. Eventually, they would live and work in eight cities in seven countries across Europe and the Mid-East to South Asia. Separately and together they had tried to shape meaningful lives. Like Malraux they had been engagé—committed intellectuals. They revered Camus; Caroline would weep when they heard of his accidental death in 1960. If there were famous figures in public service who would disillusion them in later years, lesser-known individuals they had worked with had set a standard they could always admire and to which they could always aspire. Now, in their seventh and eighth decades, they were a summation of themselves. But whatever that was, what they were, and neither would put a name to it, now was no time to change.
“While it’s in one of those galleries,” Caroline said, “art historians can evaluate it objectively. If they say it’s genuine, as we’re convinced it is, we can always put it up for auction later and turn the proceeds over to AIDS research. In the meantime, some inner city kid on a field trip might look at it and be inspired to become a painter.”
“Listen to us,” Charlie said. “Minor league Mellons.”
“Well why not,” Caroline said. “So I guess we’d better phone Irena to regret her land invitation.”
From their hotel they walked to the Orangerie to look at the Monets. It began to rain again and in the crowds along the quays they had to fence a bit with open umbrellas, but for Charlie McKay walking was easier, unencumbered by any package.