WHERE HAVE YOU GONE?! …….. PIET MONDRIAN, chapter 8
The night before I had set the alarm. Admittedly, not too early, and when it went off at 8:30 I was already awake. My biological alarm clock was as reliable as mechanical one.
I got out of bed and went through the rituals that comprised my entry into a new morn.
I was out the door by 10:30.
When I got on my bike, I had a thought ... why not check out the auction house first. So, at the Jan Pieter Heijestraat I went in the opposite direction than I normally did when on the way to the office.
De Zon, the auction house, was located on the Singel in what was formerly a hidden church. Dutch tolerance was something that was centuries old. It started long before the hippy era. My theory as to how it came about was that as Europe grew and developed---both elements could be directly traced to the expansion of the Roman Empire---people seeking independence and "freedom" gyrated to the ends-of-the-earth. Or more accurately, to the end of the European continent.
People desiring independence and freedom tend to grant to others the right to these expressions. When the Christian Reform movement began in the 16th century Catholic Churches were desecrated; iconic art work was mutilated or destroyed. But, when the dust had settled, the new Christian church, that took the place of the one that had been dominated by Rome, allowed Catholics to continue to practice their dogmatic practices. However, their services were confined to rooms, of all sizes, and most especially built and designed for the purpose of worship. The entrance to the building De Zon occupied was generic to the neighborhood as of that time it had been built. As you entered, the building appeared to be of standard size to the adjacent buildings. But, at the back of the entrance foyer, it expanded greatly.
In the foyer there was a glassed-off space. At the center, was a window that opened to the foyer. I made my way towards it. There sat a very large lady who flashed me a smile that lit up the enclosure. She had very pleasing facial features when taken-in independently, but they didn't really all come together. However, with the smile you didn't linger over it. She asked me in Dutch if she could help me? I replied in Dutch that I didn't speak much of the lingo and could we do it all in English? "Natuurlijk. How can I help you?"
I explained about Jan Jansen's purchase of a painting and gave her the date of the auction---and the lot number---and went on to explain that I was now working for him and trying to establish the provenance, etc, etc. She listened patiently before saying, "Meneer Jansen has asked us for this same information. Meneer Jansen is a loyal client and for many years. I, personally, called the seller to ask if I could give out the information. He said he would prefer that I did not."
I said I understood. But something had come up since the time that Meneer Jansen had made the request. The painting had been stolen. "Oh! That is most distressing...." she paused, then added, "But I can't see how it changes the situation."
She had me there. The she said, "This is all so strange. We had an unusual incident just recently. It may have had something to do with this very lot number. I arrived..." she paused for a few beats before saying, "...it was about three weeks ago, the main entrance door was unlocked..."she pointed towards the door I had entered by, "...and so was this rooms door unlocked. A few file drawers were open part way. One was open as far as the drawer would extend. It was the drawer that held the information as to whom the lots, at that particular auction Meneer Jansen had referred to. We were mystified. More so because of the unlocked doors. It appears that someone had keys to this building. But how did they get them?"
"Maybe someone who works here or has worked here in the past."
"Meneer Cord, this is a family business. Neither possibility is possible."
"Did you call the police? "
"Yes, of course. But nothing had been stolen that we could determine. And they said there had been no forced entry. The police, like you, suggested an 'inside job,' isn't that what they say in the movies? An 'inside job?'" I said it was. I thanked her for her time, handed her my card and added, "Call me if you think of anything else." And as I walked out of the place it occurred to me that the more I was learning about this case the more I thought it had the makings of a script for a "B" movie. Hey, some of those "budget" films turned out okay, like "Casablanca." Well, I could always hope. Where was Bogart when I needed him? Dead, of course. Lung cancer, as I remembered, which reminded me that I needed a cigarette. Once outside, I took out the packet of Van Nelle Export. In some way, I think I enjoyed the rolling as much as the smoking. Each cylinder was perfect and firm to the touch. I pinched off the tobacco extending from each end, inserted the "stick"---Susan, an old girlfriend, use to refer to cigarettes as "cancer sticks"---into my mouth. "Flicked my Bic" and lit up. Actually, it wasn't really a cheap throw-away lighter, but a gold plated Dunhill that I had once splurged on after being well compensated for a rather nasty case.
As I puffed away, I thought, now I have a new mystery. Why did someone want information about Lot number 2472? After all, Lot number 2472 was a painting that had sold for a mere pittance as far as paintings were concerned. Its authenticity has been questioned. Did this break-in somehow relate to the Mondrian being stolen? The timing was right. The unforced entry---unforced?---had taken place about three weeks prior which would mean about one week before the painting went missing. It fit! But what was it. I still had a little time before my meeting with the print dealer. I rode my bike to the office.
I took the mail from the post box at the gate. I sifted through the five or six envelopes as I walked to the office door. Nothing got my attention. Or, perhaps, better put, there was nothing that I wanted to get my attention. Unlike many bill collectors in the states, which printed on the envelope "Second Notice" or the more riveting, "Final Notice," their Dutch counterpart did not use such blatant methods. But, it was probably only a matter of time. Both the best and the worst of America eventually made its way across the Atlantic; and the Dutch were generally at the forefront of introducing whatever it was to Europe.
I check the answering machine, but the promises of riches---that Sassy had predicted to motivate my purchase of said machine---did not avail themselves.
I made coffee. The magic potion that promised me alertness beyond the call to duty. Or something like that.
I sipped at it as I thought, again, about the break-in at De Zon---No, non break-in would be more accurate---and its implications---if any---to this whole affair which was...What?
I was getting close to my appointment time. I got up, left the office and locked the door. Hopped on my bike and pedaled to the Tuinstraat. A fifteen minute trip. That was another positive point about the city of Amsterdam, no trip was a long journey. When I was working Chicago, I had occasion to visit the suburb Skokie. There was a sign as you entered the geographical divide at...was it Dempster Avenue...that said, "The World's Largest Village." Nah, not by a long shot. The world's largest village was Amsterdam.
The address on the Tuinstraat turned out to be what looked like an old school. The city was undergoing a regeneration which had been put into motion sometime during the 60s. The demographics of several neighborhoods were changing or had already been drastically altered. The Jordaan was a perfect example. It had been, for centuries, the home for those who worked for the bourgeois who lived on the grand canals like the Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Singel. Gradually, the working element of the Jordaan was either dying out or moving on. The young professionals were moving in. But most did not have families yet. As a result of all the various factors involved, schools had fewer and fewer students. Most were now closed or in the process of closing. Artists had been the first to take advantage of the empty spaces left behind so I guess it was natural for a print dealer to follow their lead though he professed to be uninterested in the 20th century.
There was a series of bells at the entrance to the building that looked like it was built during the late 19th century. I found his name and pressed the button. There was no voice box nor did a buzzer sound. I prepared for a wait. Thought of rolling a cigarette, then thought better of it. Presently, I heard a key in the lock on the other side of the door. It swung open and before me stood a Dutchman who was about my same height. That was refreshing. I wouldn't have to always be looking up. The other thing, that got my attention, was that he could have been Vincent van Gogh's twin. Kid you not. Same nose and the same piercing eyes that you see in Van Gogh's self portraits. Penetrating, to say the least. He even had a goatee like the master. "Meneer Cord?" He said.
"That's me!" As I stepped through the doorway, I said, "Thanks for seeing me."
"Most certainly, but I assure you it is my pleasure. Please follow me. I am on the second floor."
Damn. That meant he was three flight of stairs up. In Europe, a building's "first" floor was its "ground floor." Thus, to us backward Americans, the "second" floor was the "third" floor. And to make it more of a plight---if that was possible---the ceilings were high. The ground floor looked to be nearly five meters high. By the time we reached his open door I was puffing like I had just run the 100 yard dash in under 10 seconds. Of course, I was now beginning to think that I could no longer run a 100 yards, meters or what have you at all. Not in under ten seconds or ten hours. Blame it on the goddamn cigarettes...but, hey, I love to smoke.
The room obviously had been a classroom. It was large enough to probably seat 30 to 60 kids depending on their ages. Wetering had built shelves that began at about ten centimeters off the floor and continued with shelves at regular intervals to about 30 centimeters below the ceiling. Paper and more paper was stacked on each shelve.
"Meneer Cord, could I offer you coffee?"
"Pardon? I do not understand."
"Sorry, it is an American expression, if you can call it that. Anyway, it means, 'Sure.'" He nodded at me and before going to wherever it was he had to go for the coffee and said, "While I am making it, you can study De Hooghe's "Paye qui Tombe." He lead me to a chest high table with its top slanted at perhaps a 30 degree angle. He left me there and I stood staring at the black and white print. It showed what looked like a circus tent. At the center, there was a thick rope like tightrope walkers use, but this one had lots of slack. I heard rustling behind me and turned to see Wetering clearing papers from a small round table with two chairs placed around it. He walked over to me.
"'Whoever falls off pays,' I think I translated it incorrectly when I talked to you, yesterday, on the telephone...See this man who has lost his balance? He's is The Young Pretender, Charles Edward was his proper name. This man is the Emperor awaiting his turn to try and balance and dance along the rope. The musicians are the French and Holland. A student could write their thesis on this print with all the symbolic messages embedded within it. And this is also a very fine impression as you can see. The dating is vague, however. Sometime during the 1690s is my guess. A worthy addition to any concerted collection. I am sure that you will agree with that."
"Oh, most certainly." I wasn't sure what more I could say. I was tempted to ask the price, but thought better of it. Even if it was "reasonable priced," for what it was, I was sure I couldn't afford it. "It is definitely something I would like to think about. I do have a question though, you mentioned that the date is uncertain. How do you know it is not a copy?"
His immediate expression seemed to indicate that he was taken back by the question, but then he quickly recovered and said, "Meneer Cord, all prints are copies. As you Americans say, 'That's the whole idea.' That is why we talk about states. Alterations have been made to the original plate. There may be five, six or more states before the engraver or etcher is satisfied. For important artists, like De Hooghe, raison catalogues exist which detail the variations of the states. His personal output was an almost unbelievable 3,500 examples. As to how many copies of the final state were made of any one print, I can only make an educated guess. It would be different for any of the 3,500." Lecture over, he stared at me, I guess waiting for some sort of acknowledgement that I understood. I rewarded him with, "I see." But it hadn't answered my question which prevented me from taking the conversation to where I wanted to take it.
"Could it not be a forgery?" I asked.
"Forgery? Meneer Cord, I do not deal in forgeries---"
"Sorry, I did not mean to imply that you did. It's just that, you know, experts sometime make mistakes. I was talking to someone a few days ago about forged paintings---" But before I could finish he cut me off with, "Paintings, drawings, water colors, they are all a different story from the print. It is not necessary to 'forge' or even copy a print. They are all copies as I have already explained to you. I can show you Rembrandt etchings that come from his original plates. Of course they lack definitions because the plates become worn. People still have these plates and continue to do restrikes. Is it an original Rembrandt or not? Yes, it is and no it is not. Often, who did the 'pull' is as important as the artist's name---"
"Pull?" I questioned.
"An engraver or etcher may do the actual drawing on the copper or zinc plate, but he may have a print maker do the printing or pull."
I had nothing more original to say then, once again, "I see."
But I didn't see how I was going to get to the subject of the Mondrian. This was more difficult than it had been with Van den Valk. I decided to do something that private eyes---according to my friend Augie---did not do: Be honest! "I do appreciate everything you have told me. But I should be honest with you---" What the hell, why not? Nothing else was working. "I---how should I say this---misrepresented myself on the telephone yesterday. I wanted to talk to you about a Piet Mondrian---"
"Piet Mondrian? He did not make prints. That's not completely accurate ... I do seem to recall---" I cut him off. When you cut to the chase, you want to get on with it!
"I am not talking about his print making or his lack of print making. It concerns with an oil from---"
"Meneer Cord, you need not say more. I can see of no way that I might be of assistance---"
"Well, Jan Jansen---"
"Jan Jansen!" Both his facial expression and the level of his voice could have been a playback of what I had experienced from Van den Valk. "What does he have to do with this?" He didn't look to happy when he said it either.
"Ah, well, you see, he bought an oil painting some months ago with Piet Mondrian's name on it ... and, it, well, has come up missing. He says someone entered his home and made off with it. He says you may know something about it."
"Me? Nonsense! I have no interest in Mondrian. I have no interest in Jan Jansen. He is a irascible old pompous fuddy-duddy. I nod to him at kijkdag, but only out of politeness. I feel no warmth towards the man. I certainly have no knowledge concerning his painting. Why he would connect me to it, it is beyond me. And where did he get a Mondrian. He does not have the money for a Mondrian."
"Yeah, I see. Well, it isn't one of the man's linear abstracts that I understand bring the big bucks, as we American's say, it is from his earlier period---"
"The luminosity period?"
"Exactly. He bought it at---"
"Right, again. Last---"
"It was around the holidays. I remember seeing a painting at that auction house from this very period. But the word was out that it was a phony---"
"That's what I have been told----"
"And now that I think about it, a colleague of mine who does deal in oils, but earlier ones from the 19th century, told me that he had been told by...I think he said, Jan Jansen, that it was a phony. My friend was asking if I thought Jansen was creditable on the subject? I told him I had no idea."
"He said that Jan Jansen has said it was no good? Then why in the hell did he buy it?"
"Meneer Cord, do you have any knowledge of the auction circuit?" I shook my head and said, "None."
"It is a world on to itself. Anything of value passes through an auction house at some time. There are people looking for gold hidden beneath a badly tarnished metal cup; people looking for cabinets with hidden drawers; there are those that buy quickly and badly painted oils because the backside of the canvas looks like it could be from the 17th or 18th century. At that time, people would have their prized paintings painted over to hide the fact from foreign invaders. Then there are people waiting for that wonderful moment when they stand before a painting, let us say, by a great artist that they have spent a life time adoring; and one that is undocumented---for whatever reason---and say to themselves, Eureka! But, of course, there is always the obstacle that someone else or several someone elses will also covet the work. So it is not uncommon for dealers and quasi-dealers to put-out-the-word that it is not by the master's hand. In this case, as I recall, De Zon did not list Mondrian's name after the lot number. That means they questioned its authenticity. Now I assume Jansen was just trying to hold the price down to keep out the speculators who do take chances. This sounds like a ploy such a person like him would employe. And I would say he did and was successful since you tell me he bought the painting. And there is no more I can tell you!"
It was time to go. I thanked Wetering and apologized for my deception. I told him that he did trigger an interest in me by showing the De Hooghe engraving. I hastened to add that I really did have examples of prints by William Hogarth.