WHERE HAVE YOU GONE?! …….. PIET MONDRIAN, chapter 3
I hadn't set the alarm the night before. There was nothing pressing on my agenda. It was like that during the months of July and August. The city went into hibernation it seemed. Just the opposite from the time that bears did it.
My eyes popped open and while I tried to make sense about everything around me, my tobacco timer issued an alert. I put my legs over the side of the bed and picked up the packet of shag and removed the rice papers and tore off a narrow strip and rolled it all into a pleasing cylinder. I fired up the lighter and took a long healthy drag and immediately began to cough my lungs out. Damn! When it subsided, I took another long drag and coughed some more. I headed for the john. Sassy, my two day a week secretary, once complained, testily, when I had excused myself by saying, "I have to use the john" that she preferred that I not use that expression by saying "I have a few very good friends named John!" I replied, "I have a few good friends named Lou!" She had peered back at me and when it registered that the English expression was "...going to the loo..." She humbly said, "Touché" and went back to her typing.
I sat on the pot and puffed away between hacking. I cough up phlegm which I spit into the sink next to me. It was a very nicely colored amber. Rich in hues of dark yellow with a golden sheen.
Once off the toilet, and still in my birthday suit, I put a pot of water on to boil. Then I headed for the shower. I needed two wake-up pills in the morning: cold/hot shower and the liquid black muck. Which one did the trick, I wasn't exactly sure, but the two together was like a shot in the heart of adrenalin and it got me going.
By the time I was out of the shower, the water was boiling. I folded a paper coffee filter and inserted it into the hour-glass shaped pot and added the grounds. Slowly I poured in the water. When it was brimming at the top---and as I watched the water transmogrify into the black elixir---I rolled another cigarette. I went through what had become the ritual coughing exercise and regurgitated more thick mucus.
The brewing process now complete, I selected a cup and poured the steamy liquid into it. Went back into the garden house and sat in my easy chair, picked up the book I had been reading the night before and ventured into the world that the writer had lured me into. Once the coffee was depleted, I dressed and was making my way for the door when the phone started to ring.
"Ah, Meneer Cord, I am so pleased I found you at home. This is Jan Jansen. I would like to talk with you further. When would that be convenient?"
I picked up my agenda that was sitting on the desk. I kept two agendas, the other was at the office. I always recorded the appointments I made in both. Sometimes I forgot, but, generally, my mental agenda was as good as that I had in writing. I had nothing scheduled for that afternoon nor the next day. Summertime and everything is quiet in the city. I said I was open for suggestions and we agreed on three that afternoon. He had my office address---it was on the calling card---but I defined the location a little better.
My first stop, after leaving my apartment, was a kiosk. Outside the shop was a wire carousel with four sides. It had several sleeves from top to bottom. Each one was stuffed with newspapers. It didn't matter where you went in Amsterdam, the newspaper/magazine kiosks stacked papers and magazines from all over Europe. I remembered being assigned to cities in America where you could only get an out-of-town newspaper (forget anything foreign) at one location in the city's downtown section.
I selected the International Herald Tribune. I referred to the Herald as my Bible; I read it every day. Unlike I did with the Bible. In fact, I have never read the Bible. When I was growing up under the watchful eyes of the Roman Catholic nuns, we were taught NOT to read the "good book." We were told that it was written in archaic English and there were different versions, Catholic and Protestant; not to mention those of the Eastern Orthodox churches. It was explained that we might be tempted to interpret what we read in a way not acceptable and/or "contradictory to the Church's teachings." There was always that. Years later, I would see the wisdom in this when I read about a fundamental sect in West Virginia that practiced a ritual where a member of the congregation danced with a rattle snake or copperhead and went into nearly a trance like state as they performed a whirling dervish dance; they believed that if your faith in Jesus was true, no harm would come to you. The sect had a much higher mortality rate than the average population.
Inside, Willem, the shop owner, reached behind himself and took down a packet of Van Nelle Export and then reached for the Italian rice papers. It was comforting, somehow, to go through these daily transactions in silence for Willem never spoke he only sat on a stool, almost Buddha like, with a cigar at the center of his mouth and held in place by his lips and took your money. It was always the case. And I thought that I would probably have trouble in recognizing him without the long brown object dangling from his oral appendage. The shop was no more than a cubbyhole. The sounds of American Jazz waft through the ether from an open door which lead to his back flat where he lived. Perhaps no words were exchanged so as not to interrupt the flow of the sounds. I paid for the paper and the rest and left.
There is a sense of nostalgia for an American living in Holland and, probably, for that matter, anywhere else in Europe. Shopping for food is reminiscent of life during the 50s---which began to disappear during the 60s---of shopping at various small shops for your meat---a different one for meat and pork; and still another for chicken, not to mention the cheese man, fish monger and green groceries. My shopping rounds often involved six, seven or more little shops. I knew all the proprietors, some better than others. Some enjoyed practicing their English on me; others spoke to me haltingly in the language. All were respectful for the business I brought to them.
On the Ten Katemarkt I found strawberries bright red as if kissed twice by the sun and smelling of a tart and sweet aroma. I bought two boxes.
Shopping was not a chore. Shopping was part of the act of creating. Creating a meal. My friends, who were also living alone, would excuse the fact of buying carry-out dinners or opening a can of Nasi Goreng by saying, "It's too much trouble to cook for one!" I had only one reply to that statement, "Bullshit!" Every night I prepared a meal fit for a king. And every night I ate like a king. A win-win situation in my view. Nor was it necessary to be elaborate or to use expensive ingredients. A farmer's meal properly prepared is as tasty as a four course four star restaurant's rendering.
Once back at the flat, I brewed another pot of coffee and cleaned, cut and sugared the strawberries and contemplated if I should serve them with whipped cream, yogurt or buy a few scoops of fresh Italian style ice cream. My, my, my, the simple problems of living. Once the coffee was ready, I filled a cup and went to my favorite easy chair, sat, and picked up the book again. It was getting interesting.
At 14:30, I sat the book aside, took the cup to the sink and washed it and put it into a rack and headed for the door.
This time, I took a different route to the city's center. I biked to Vondel Park, it took a little over two minutes. In every city I had lived in I gravitated towards the main park. Though, sometimes, it was a disappointment. New York's Central Park is big and spectacular in many ways. But, it lacks intimacy; and the "happenings" tend to only occur on weekends and holidays. Even, then, there is a natural segregation, the Puerto Ricans occupy one section; the Dominicans another; and the blacks, still another. Can't ever remember seeing any Chinese. Probably working. Vondel Park always had people. Young, old, male, female, black, white ... and all dressed in their own way. Musical sounds sprouted from all directions during the spring through to the fall period. It only took me six or seven minutes before I was exiting the park through the wrought iron gates at its entrance on the Amstelveenseweg.
I turned right and headed for the bridge that would take me over the Singel canal. There were two Singels in Amsterdam which was a mystery to me. There was a subtle difference though, but I hadn't really got my finger on what it was. I made a right on the Leidsekade and rode my bike to the end of the street and past the entrance to the Lido to where there was a nearly four meter high gate made of sturdy iron bars. I unlocked the gate, took my bike inside, closed the gate, and checked the mail box and extracted a few envelopes. Walked to my office, opened the door and went inside and sat at my desk. Today was one of Sassy's work days, but she had told me that this week she would do "Tuesday" on "Wednesday." I had replied that I could handle it. I was on mine own. So I looked through the mail and saw nothing that got my interest. There were bills, of course, but they never got my interest. I left them for Sassy.
At exactly three the bell rang. I got up and made my way to the gate. Meneer Jansen was standing on the other side of the iron bars looking both jaunt and dapper for a man of his age which I had yet to make a guess at. Age guessing wasn't one of my things. In fact, personally, I refrained from answering when I was asked my age. I could sum up the difference between a Dutch lady and an American one by saying the second question an American woman asked---after having learned your name---is "What's your sign?" It's the same for a Dutch lady. They split on the next question. With the American, it is "How much money do you make?" Of course, it is neither that blunt nor obvious but camouflaged thusly, "What kind of car do you drive?" or "What is your job?" The Dutch lady, at the third question, invariably wants to know, "How old are you?" Ain't nobody's business but my own....
"Indeed, a good day to you, Meneer Cord." I opened the gate and he followed me to the office.
"Ah, this is old Weteringschans prison and in use until only recently. How is it you have office space here, Meneer Cord?"
"I guess you would call me an anti-squatter. I understand that the city is developing plans on what to do with the structure. In the meantime, to prevent it from being squatted, they have rented out the sections. Even the old jail cells if you can believe that. I find it rather ironic that people are actually paying to stay in jail. But, it's cheap!"
"Indeed. Indeed. Most obfuscating...if I have used the correct English word."
"Bewildering?...unintelligible?...yeah, close enough. But before we get to the matter at hand, could I offer you coffee."
"Oh, how good of you. But I would prefer tea if you have it."
"Not a problem. My secretary is English. I have English breakfast tea, Earl Grey, green..."
"The Earl Grey would be splendid. Dunk ya wel."
I went into the small pantry and turned on the water tap and filled a pot to boil and put the pan on an electric hot plate. Should I have tea, too? Hmmm. My mother sometimes served me tea that was diluted with milk and sugar. I was never crazy about it. Sassy sometimes tried to get me to try it...but...I got out my coffee pot, a filter and put it all together and went back to Meneer Jansen.
"I am impressed with your art work, Meneer Cord, that you have hanging. You seem to have an appreciation for the American POP School. Both the Johns and Lichtenstein are exquisite examples of their zeefdruk...how do you say in English?"
"Yes. That's it. Silkscreens...the colors in the Johns are riveting, such intense reds and yellows, not to mention, the blue hues; for that matter the same is true with the Lichtenstein. He makes cows look so, so...dramatic. Don't you think?"
"Yes, I couldn't agree more. However, I had a girlfriend, a short time back, that loathed the Johns. Couldn't understand what I saw in it. Couldn't believe the amount I had paid."
"She sounds to me to have been naïve as to what art is."
"Well, she felt it was me who was naïve. She had graduated from the Gerrit Rietveld Art Academy. Oddly enough, instead of being a 'young revolutionary' out to change the boundaries of art, she was a traditionalist who appreciated illustrators more than the avant garde."
"Most unusual. Most unusual. But shall we get down to business as they say in American' films? I have considered your cartje or should I say price list?"
"'Rate Card" would probably be more accurate."
"It certainly indicates that your services may require more of my resources than I had expected to expend. However, admittedly, what I had expected was that I had no idea what to expect. Perhaps I---"
"Excuse me for interrupting, but why don't we do it this way...Tell me about the theft, the painting and we can go from there. You can think about it while I get the tea."
Once I was back with the two cups and a plate of cookies, Sassy thought of everything except my waist line, I told Meneer Jansen that he could proceed. "Well, Meneer Cord, several months ago I bought an oil painting signed with the name 'Piet Mondrian.' Are you acquainted with his work?"
"Yes, of course. I remember the first time I saw one of his linear abstracts. I was, well, blown away. I mean, it was hanging in an important art museum. It surprised me that it was considered art. Though, at that time, I had no idea on how to define the term. I was probably 20 or so, at the time. It was a revelation to see more examples from Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum' collection...But, wait a minute, you said this was about a painting you bought for a 'little over 850 guilders' if my memory of our discussion, of last night, serves me correctly. I am sure that any one of his works would bring hundreds of thousands of guilders if not millions---"
"Again, most astute of you. And, yes, his linear abstracts have been sold in the low millions. But my painting is from another period. The one just prior to his forage into the avant garde. There is a period of his that is referred to as his 'luminosity' or 'naturalistic' period. About 1901, he diverted from the traditional styles of the 19th century into a style and technique which could be described as his own. His work, then, was still representational. He did landscapes and seascapes and an occasional portrait. Around 1907, or so, he began to summer in Zeeland and worked alongside of Jan Toorop, a rising star, you might say, who was painting in the style of the pointillist at that time. They did what has become known as open air paintings. Before, an artist would draw a scene, at the site, and write in the color scheme on the drawing and do the actual oil work at his studio. Toorop and Mondrian were doing quick and sketchy oils at the scene itself. Revolutionary at the time. During this period, Mondrian became more concerned with form. Actually, several of the paintings from this time are now called 'night paintings' because it is night that we see in the pictures. They are dark. But, I digress...I bought, at auction, a painting that was done either in 1909 or 1910 if I trace his evolution of his style correctly---"
"Hold on a minute...The questions that come immediately to my mind is that such a painting would still be worth a lot of money and, second, how could the auction house have missed a Mondrian?"
"Yes. Yes. It is probably worth a few hundred thousand guilders. The period is not yet that well known even by aficionados of his linear abstracts. But mark my words, the day is coming. As to being overlooked by the auction house, they deemed it not an original."
"Well, there you go. They are the experts!"
"Meneer Cord, with all due respect, I consider myself to be an 'expert.' And, may I be honest with you? Experts can be wrong. And, even worse, they are often wrong. Even myself. Perhaps I can offer an example..." He paused for a moment, then continued, "We are sitting in an office that had been the administration wing of Amsterdam's old jail. Do you know who was incarcerated here?"
"Never mind. Who did they have behind the bars...and, sorry to have interrupted."
"Yes. You Americans like making jokes. It is refreshing. The man's name was Han van Meegeren. Does that name mean anything to you?"
"Not any more than Butch Cassidy's meant to you."
"Yes, I see...Van Meegeren was a minor Dutch painter prior to World War II. He was most famous for a drawing he had done of Princess Juliana's pet fawn, named 'Hertje,' in the early 20s. Copies were made and they sold in the thousands. You can still find framed examples at flea markets. It is what we would call a 'sweet rendering.' Certainly not a work of art. And this seemed to be what troubled Van Meegeren. The museum curators ignored his 'serious' work. He continued to paint and, finally, began to deal in art. In the late 30s he presented to the Dutch art world an unknown work by Johannes Vermeer. I am sure you know of his paintings..." I nodded my head and he continued, "He said it was from an earlier period from the master of Delft. An expert named Bredius was quick to substantiate the discovery and proclaimed to the world that he'd found this new Vermeer. Bredius was getting old and probably wanted to cap his career with some major discovery...and this was, indeed, a major discovery.
"Other discoveries followed. A total of eight, in fact, came to the light of day. There were many curators that had questions, but they were silenced by Bredius. In the meantime, Van Meegeren was selling the work. One was sold in 1941 for 1,600,000 guilders; and another, in 1944, for 1,650,000 guilders. Princely sums at the time. Van Meegeren bought a Herenhuis, a mansion, on the Keizersgracht. He threw elaborate parties. But his downfall came from an unanticipated direction.
"In every war the conquering army loots what riches they find. The Nazis were no exception. Of course, in the way of wealth such as heirlooms, object d'art, jewels, art and what have you these items were quickly hidden away as soon as the country was occupied. The Nazis stole what they could and bought what they couldn't steal. Hermann Göring, one of Hitler's henchman, was building a museum in Germany. It would be stocked with art from all over Europe. A dealer offered him a Vermeer.
"Who knows what Göring knew about painting, but he must have liked what he saw when he first viewed the Vermeer. We collectors are strange people. We are motivated to collect for as many different reasons as there are collectors. You see something and sometimes it is what is called 'love at first sight.' You want it! It is going to be the high mark of your collecting. It is going to be the making of you as a 'known collector.' Even a man like Göring was probably gullible in this respect. You finally find this great work of art. You want it. You know it is real because you want it to be real...But, I digress.
"Within weeks of the war's end, in May of 1945, an Amsterdam detective knocked on Van Meegeren's door with a warrant for his arrest. It charged him with collaboration with the Third Reich. He was accused of 'plundering patrimony' of the Dutch state for his own monetary benefit by selling a Vermeer to Reichsmarshall Hermann Göring.
"At the police station, he was questioned relentlessly and, finally, he said he had not sold a national treasure. He had sold a forgery. And what crime was there in selling a bad painting to the Nazis. At first, his assertion was scoffed at. One expert claimed only a genius could have made such convincing Vermeers. Of course, that was not really accurate. Van Meegerens 'genius' had been to paint a series of unknown Vermeers in a style that was also unknown of the master. And, because of the war, there were not any Vermeers available to put alongside his versions. He said he had been paid about eight million guilders for eight paintings over a five year period. He was not believed. A very good story, it was assumed, that would allow him to escape the harsh punishment of being a traitor to his country.
"The detective, who later admitted that he had grown fond of Van Meegeren over their many interview sessions, came up with an idea and an offer. He asked him to paint one more Vermeer. He supplied Van Meegeren with all the material he asked for. And Van Meegeren painted what you might call an 'authentic forgery.' It was convincing and he was allowed to plead guilty to having sold art works 'bearing spurious signatures of famous artists;' and sentenced to one year, in jail, in 1947. He was dead within a year."
"That's some story. But it raises a lot of questions. What is a masterpiece...for that matter, what is a work of art? Is it the signature of an acknowledged master? Just the name? What?"
"Meneer Cord, let me ask you a question. Do you have an art file?"
"I'm not sure. What exactly is an art file?"
"You have hanging on these walls a Johns, Lichtenstein, a Jim Dine and, I just noticed when you went to fetch the tea, behind me hangs an Andy Warhol. Yes, they are all prints and signed and numbered, as well, but one day you may need to sell them. And I have no doubt that the potential amount will be far in access of what you paid. However, at that time, you will be asked what is their provenance. Do you know the term?"
"I think it means the 'history of ownership.'"
"Yes. Yes, indeed. Where did you buy these pieces?"
"The Johns, Lichtenstein and Warhol came from the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York. The Dine from the Frumkin Gallery in Chicago."
"When a work of art is put into an auction, if it is an important piece or that by an artist that is considered a master, the catalog list the history of ownership since the time it left the artist's atelier. You should have an art file with the receipts for each of these pieces from the galleries you bought them from. That file will make a difference in the price someone will pay. When you cannot present such documentation, to an auction house---if they deem the piece to be important---they will do the research for you. At some point, they will make a determination. That determination may be arbitrary. The more documentation the better."
"So how does all this apply to your supposed Mondrian?"
"I have no provenance. I bought it from a liquidation auction house. There was no name in the catalog after the lot number. That is the auction house way of saying that they doubt the signature to be true---"
"But you didn't agree---"
"But, I didn't and I don't agree. It looks...or I should say, it looked good! I knew of this period of Mondrian, but I was not all that well versed, so to speak. The estimate was 200 to 300 guilders. When the auctioneer called for the first bid of 200 guilders, half the room raised their hand. He quickly switched to increasing the next bids by increments of 50 guilders each. And by the time he got to 500 guilders there were only a few of us still interested. At 700, there were only two of us. I won at 800. The rest of the cost was the auction house' commission."
"So, no provenance. What did you get for your money?"
"A chance! The chance of finding an unknown great work of art. I know what I see before me. I know that without looking at the name in the lower right hand corner. I also know that none of that is going to convince the powers-that-be. The museum curators; the important auction houses."
"And how do you plan on establishing or proving it is a Mondrian?"
"At first, I thought that would be easy. I have kept up with what you might call the methods and methodology of forgers. Some are sloppy amateurs who prey on the unknowing collectors and, again, the gullible ones. Others are clever people. Over the last few years, an area of science has developed in which scientific analysis can be made using sophisticated machinery. I took the Mondrian immediately to the Kunstlaboratorium here in the city. I had them analyze the paint and x-ray the canvas. A week or so later, I was called into their office. I was told that the first spectroscopic reading showed that the paint has 19th century pigmentation. They said they did the test a couple more times and finally found a trace of something that should not be present at the time it was made. They said that along with the fact that they considered the oil to be 'too soft,' considering its age, that it was a forgery. They gave me the x-rays without comment."
"Well, there you go, once again. The experts have spoken."
"Yes, but no. If you want to find something wrong with something you usually can---"
"But what would their motivation be?"
"That is a question I cannot answer. It could be several. They fear making a mistake. They misread the data. Maybe I looked to them to be an old man who could not possibly tell a Mondrian from a Jan Sluijters...he was---"
"I know who he was...I like his nudes! Did the x-ray show anything."
"Ah, thank you, Meneer Cord, I forgot to mention that. There was a portrait of a man beneath the oil. Since it was an x-ray, the black space was the white parts of the face and the white spaces would be where his hair and, in this case, his beard would be. I have found reproductions of self-portrait charcoals Mondrian did of himself in 1909. Perfect likeness! I do not doubt the authenticity of the work!"
"Okay, I believe you are sincere. But why would anyone have stolen it? Who would have a motive? Basically, from everything you have told me, it is not worth the effort to steal it."
"Oh, I know who stole it. I know the culprits."
"Did you tell the police all this?"
"Oh, yes, but I am sure they did nothing. After all, they don't consider the painting to have a value---as they see it---to be worth stealing. Such naives!"
"Well, yes, there is that. I'm interested. But, I think we have reached a stage where we should talk about my fee to represent you. If we can agree to that, we can discuss the rest."
"Ah, yes, the fee. Meneer Cord, I am prepared to offer you a 800 guilder limit. That was the hammer price I paid for it."
"Meneer Jansen, that will not buy you much time."
"It is the extreme limit to my budget. I am on a fixed income. Can you at least give it a go? As the English are wont to say".
I let a couple beats go by. Things were slow. I wasn't broke, but my capital was low...well, very low. The money wasn't much, but it would be money in the bank. I opened my desk drawer and took out two copies of a contract written in both Dutch and English. I filled in the date and handed both to him pointing to the line on which to sign his name. Once he had recorded it on both copies, I reached over, took both in hand, and added my own "John Hancock." I handed one back and put the other aside and said, "Okay...Tell me who stole it."