The Collection by Lance Charnes is an art thriller and the 1st book in the DeWitt Agency Files series (Available November 14, 2016).
Four years ago, what Matt Friedrich learned at work put him in prison. Yesterday, it earned him a job. Tomorrow, it may kill him.
Matt learned all the angles at his old Los Angeles gallery: how to sell stolen art, how to “enhance” a painting’s history, how to help buyers hide their purchases from their spouses or the IRS. He made a load of money doing it—money he poured into the lawyer who worked a plea deal with the U.S. Attorney. Matt’s out on parole and hopelessly in debt with no way out … until a shadowy woman from his past recruits him to find a cache of stolen art that could be worth millions.
Now Matt’s in Milan, impersonating a rich collector looking for deals. He has twenty days to track down something that may not exist for a boss who knows a lot more than she’s telling. He’s saddled with a tough-talking partner who may be out to screw him and up against a shady gallerist whom Matt tried to send to prison. His parole officer doesn’t know he’s left the U.S. Worse yet, what Matt’s looking for may belong to the local branch of the Calabrian mafia.
Matt’s always been good at being bad. If he’s good enough now, he gets a big payday with the promise of more to come. But one slip in his cover, one wrong word from any of the sketchy characters surrounding him, could hand Matt a return trip to jail … or a long sleep in a shallow grave.
FOUR YEARS AGO
“Next is Lot 17, a landscape, Ferme près Ville D’Avray, by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot…”
This isn’t my first auction, just my first solo. I’ve been wingman/apprentice for Gar—my boss at Heibrück Pacific, the gallery I work at back home—at almost a dozen. But now the bidding’s started, I can’t shake the feeling I don’t belong here, that I’m an imposter, that I’ll screw this up and everyone will know and I’ll end up like Cary Grant in that auction scene in North by Northwest. I can talk the talk now. Can I pull this off?
I check the other eighty-some people in the salesroom. I don’t see anybody drooling over the canvas, but this isn’t that kind of crowd. The Swiss are that way; the Brits are like volcanoes compared to them.
“Monsieur?” Lisanne’s voice in my ear. She’s in the phone bank about thirty feet from me, but as far as she’s concerned, I’m some anonymous guy on another continent. “Lot 17 is here, the Corot. You’re interested in this, non?” Lee-zahne. Mmmm. Her English is very good, but she has the cutest accent and I keep thinking of Leslie Caron in An American in Paris instead of the tidy blonde in a blue blazer in the booth along the room’s right-hand wall.
“That’s right. Thanks for the warning.” I have a noise-canceling headset and mike attached to my phone. If I do this right, the only sound she’ll hear from my end is my voice.
The bid caller—fifties, charcoal suit, careful hair, an English accent layered over a German one—says, “Bidding begins at forty thousand francs. Do I have forty?”
Bidders run up the price to sixty pretty fast without my help. That’s about $67,000; the Swiss franc’s trading at .895 against the dollar today. Gar set the reserve, or acceptable minimum, at $90,000, or a bit over eighty thousand francs. My job’s to make sure the bidding goes as far above the reserve as possible. It’s called “shilling.” Which isn’t strictly legal, though “legal” can be a flexible concept in Switzerland.
After all, shilling’s small change when the Corot probably isn’t really a Corot.
“Seventy-five.” Lisanne’s still murmuring in my ear. “Sixty-one thousand euros.”
“Got it.” I’d asked her to quote in euros. She might guess I’m American, but I don’t need to confirm it.
The bidding’s turned into a three-way: Paddle 43 (older guy, balding, tweed jacket) and Paddle 59 (mid-thirties like me, slicked-back hair, black Hugo suit) in the room, and a phone bidder relayed by Gilbert, two call-takers down from Lisanne. I’ll let them have fun until they get tired.
The Georg Heinemann Kunst salesroom—just down the road from Christie’s in downtown Geneva—is roughly fifty by eighty. The fifteen-foot white ceiling bounces the indirect lighting. Instead of going for the fake-English-clubroom look, the designers went modern, with flat ipé paneling and brushed-aluminum hardware. The room’s set with ten rows of ten seats each, split by a central aisle. I’m in the next-to-last row so I can watch everyone else.
“Ninety. Seventy-three thousand euros.”
“Thanks, Lisanne. That’s a pretty name, by the way.”
“Merci, monsieur.” I can almost hear the blush.
We’re clear of the reserve. Gar’s got his money. Now the higher I can push the price, the more he’ll give me, and the smaller those debts I’m bleeding cash into will get. Also, I need to show Gar I can do this. This is where the money is.
Paddle 43 drops out. Time to go to work. “Lisanne? Ninety-five, please.”
The bid caller’s been saying, “The bid is ninety. Do I have ninety-five?” He sees Lisanne’s hand shoot up. “Ninety-five, a new bidder, on the phone. Do I have a hundred?”
The room pauses. There’s always a little pause when the number of digits changes. A couple other bidders near me look more interested now. I can hear mental calculators clicking, angles being measured, profit margins refigured.
The bid-caller’s podium is on the dais up front. Gar’s canvas is on an easel next to him. I glance at the image on the projection screen above the dais. The canvas is a pretty little thing—twenty by fifteen, a stone farmhouse, green-gray trees, a couple fat, white cows. Corot was a leading light in mid-nineteenth century landscape painting and a direct influence on the early Impressionists. This could be one of his, or maybe one of his better students did it. All I know is, those block letters C-O-R-O-T weren’t on the lower-left corner of the piece when it came through our gallery’s back door, and now they are, and the price difference between “circle of Corot” and “Corot” can be a couple extra decimal places.
A row up and across the aisle, I notice a woman noticing me. She’s a bit older than me—maybe forty—olive skin, dark eyes, plum jacket, standing collar. Perfect makeup. Our eyes catch for a moment. She slowly looks away and tilts up her chin, giving me a great profile and a good shot at her glossy black hair pulled into a tight bun. Very tasty.
“One hundred, in the room,” the bid caller says. Mr. 59 stows his paddle. “Do I have one hundred ten?”
We step up to one-twenty with the help of a new bidder, one of the maybe twenty women here besides Lisanne. Mr. 59 knocks her out with a jump bid—he raises by twice the new increment of ten thousand francs—to one-forty. He must like cows. Try that with me, dude. I wait for Lisanne to tell me what I already know, then I say, “One fifty, please.”
Mr. 59 hesitates, then bids one-sixty. His counter-bids are getting slower each time, which means we’re getting closer to his limit. Now I have to think harder. I’m here to push up the price, not buy this damn thing, which is the last thing I want to do.
“Monsieur? The bid is now one hundred sixty.”
“Thanks, Lisanne. Give me a moment.”
We’re seventy over the reserve, or a bit more than $78,000. I get fifteen percent of the excess, or $11,700 so far. I’ve got two more lots to shill after this, but they won’t get anything like this kind of money. My oldest student loan—the one coming due in three months—still has fourteen grand on it. Janine (my wife) just got another prescription she’ll try to ignore; it’s not a generic and it costs a fortune. I still have high-four figures to pay off on a credit card I didn’t know Janine had until the nasty letters started coming from the bank. I need Mr. 59 to go in for as much as I can get out of him.
“Monsieur?” Lisanne sounds concerned.
I ask Lisanne for another minute to run some numbers. I can probably chip Mr. 59 up to one-seventy; not the whole boat, but I have some savings. With my commission from this and whatever I get from the other two lots, I can pay off at least the student loan and get by unless something stupid happens, like my car breaks or Janine has to go back into care.
Drop now, my smarter side tells me. Don’t risk it.
I’ve got to make him think I’m ready to drop out. Waiting this long to bid is a big clue for him. Deep breath. “One sixty-five, please,” I tell her. A half-bid; another good distress signal.
The bid caller nods at Lisanne, then points to Mr. 59. “One hundred seventy-five to you, sir.”
Mr. 59 sits there, chewing his lip.
Come on, you bastard. Jump it. Show us how big your balls are. Do it.
“The bid is one hundred sixty-five thousand francs. Do I have one hundred seventy-five?”
I feel the first trickles of sweat roll down my flanks. I just bid $184,000 for a painting I don’t want and sure as hell can’t afford. Bid, goddamnit! Bid!
The bid caller has his little wooden mallet in his left hand. No no no give him time… “Fair warning. One hundred sixty-five thousand.”
I call myself idiot about a hundred times. It doesn’t help. I’ve given up on breathing.
The bid caller points one last time at Mr. 59. “Sir? Will you bid?”
Mr. 59’s shoulders inch up, like he’s taking the same big breath I took a couple minutes ago. His paddle slides up.
“One seventy-five in the room. Thank you, sir.”
That first hit of air feels like pure oxygen. I work at keeping my face and body completely still so the other people in the room don’t wonder why I’m having an orgasm.
“Yes, Lisanne? Where are we?”
“The bid is one hundred seventy-five. What do you want to do?”
I want to kiss you, is the first thing I think of. She probably won’t go for that. In my best disappointed voice, I say, “I’m sorry, that’s over my limit. I’ll have to pass.”
“Of course, monsieur. Perhaps next time.” She shakes her head at the bid caller.
The bid caller beams, raises his mallet. “Fair warning. One seventy-five, in the room. Do I have one eighty-five?”
Twok! He hammers down. “Lot 17 is sold for one hundred seventy-five thousand Swiss francs to Number 59. Thank you, sir.”
Mr. 59 just handed me $15,750. His contribution to my tax on silly rich people.
I feel eyes on me. The tasty brunette in the eighth row has hiked her thin, dramatic eyebrows. Her perfect white smile isn’t saying “hey, handsome”; it’s more like, “I know what you just did.” But I’m so stoked, I don’t stop to think about it.
When the crowd starts to applaud, it feels like it’s for me.
Copyright © 2016 Lance Charnes.
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Lance Charnes is an emergency manager and former Air Force intelligence officer. His upcoming art-crime novel The Collection (Available November 14, 2016) involves the search for a cache of stolen paintings that may be in the hands of the Calabrian mafia. His Facebook author page features spies, shipwrecks, art crime, and archaeology, among other things.