Rich DiSilvio

The PHANTOM FORGER

Bernard Higley gasped as a large flake of paint peeled off of Antonello da Messina’s long-lost masterpiece, the Messina Madonna. He had merely wiped the canvas with a fine linen cloth to remove what appeared to be a smudge, but a small chunk of oil paint peeled away and fell to the floor. He moved closer, in shock, as his eyes widened.

Bernard had been enthralled to acquire the prized find, being that it was last recorded as being seen in 1608. As curator of the Cloisters museum in upper Manhattan, Bernard Higley was making preparations for a huge promotional campaign to herald the historic find, along with presenting three other recent acquisitions dating from the Renaissance era. But the Messina Madonna was the focal point, and Bernard had intentions of premièring the work early next year, in February of 1979, the five-hundredth anniversary of Messina’s death.

As Bernard stepped even closer, he could feel his heart erratically accelerating as beads of sweat formed along his receding hairline. “Dear Lord! This can’t be!” he frantically whimpered. He turned and ran past the stacks of paintings and priceless artifacts in the museum’s storage chamber to the phone, and placed a call to the only person he could entrust to help him, Armand Arnolfini.

Thirty minutes later, at 6:52 AM, Armand entered the medieval complex. The Cloisters museum was an historic assemblage of five ancient French cloisters that had been dismantled and shipped to New York in the 1930s to be reconstructed, along with their exquisite gardens. The munificent gift was by John D. Rockefeller Jr., who had also purchased the scenic property across the Hudson River to ensure it stayed undeveloped, as not to destroy the Cloisters’ bucolic ambience. Armand walked past a series of Gothic archways, ancient tapestries and wood-carved bas-reliefs, then descended to the lowest level.

Bernard ran to greet him, as he gushed, “Armand! I’m so happy you could make it, especially at this early hour and on such short notice. I do apologize, but this is a most urgent and distressing matter.”

“I sensed that on the phone, Bernie,” Armand said as he yawned and massaged his sleepy eyes.

Armand Arnolfini was six-foot-two with jet-black wavy hair, finely chiseled features, and a muscular body from his three years of playing professional fútbol when he lived in Italy eight years ago. “What’s the problem?”

Bernard swallowed hard. “I recently purchased a Messina, the Messina Madonna. And—“

The ‘Messina Madonna!?’” Armand blurted, surprised, and now awake.

Armand was not a typical private detective, as he previously worked for the FBI heading their Art Crimes division, which unfortunately disbanded due to America’s lack of interest in the field. And that his father had been the curator of the Uffizi Gallery for twenty-two years and a professor of art history for many years thereafter, Armand was an expert in his own right, so he knew well the history and significance of Messina’s long-lost portrait.

Antonello da Messina might not have risen to the high echelon of fame as da Vinci or Michelangelo, but it was Messina, who, being twenty-two years older than Leonardo, introduced the art of oil painting in Italy, having learned the technique from the alleged inventor himself; the Flemish master Jan van Eyck. As such, Messina had played a pivotal role in enlightening and inspiring the budding crop of painters in Italy who would propel the Italian Renaissance to the apex of creativity.

Meanwhile, Bernard hesitated in his response, “Well, uh, yes, it’s the one and only Messina Madonna, Armand. However—”

“That’s fantastic, Bernie! You must be overjoyed to acqu—“

“Hold on!” Bernard interjected. “I must tell you what happened.”

As Armand’s elation turned quizzical, Bernard continued, “I was simply wiping a smudge off the canvas when a chunk of paint peeled off.”

Armand’s concern transformed into a smile. “You had me worried, Bernie. We both know plenty of restorers who can repair it.”

Bernard grimaced. “Armand, yes, it can be repaired, but that would only hide its dishonorable sins. What has been revealed through the portal that chip presented is most disturbing.”

Armand squinted. “Are you saying there’s another painting underneath?”

“Yes, but it’s not an earlier painting, Armand. That would have been a relief, as it could explain it being a previous work by Messina that the master decided was substandard, and thus painted over it.”

Armand rubbed his chin. “So you’re saying there is a newer work underneath. How can that be? Are you sure?”

“Come, see for yourself.”

Bernard escorted Armand to the Cloisters’ subterranean conservation and storage chamber, with its modern nineteen-seventies tiled floor, muted-white walls, and where the air temperature and humidity was precisely controlled. Walking past a string of artifacts and tapestries from the medieval to Renaissance eras, they arrived at the Messina Madonna, which was sitting on a large oak easel.

Armand’s eyes widened as he took a double-step to inspect it closer. “Good God!” His head swung toward Bernard. “A newer work, indeed!” He turned back to the painting and its disturbing aperture that Bernard had enlarged, thus revealing a large fragment of the unwelcome image underneath. “It appears to be a portion of a crucifixion. And, yes, by a modern surrealist.”

“Exactly, Armand. Not being well versed in modern art, I am at a loss as to whom this mysterious artist might be. But more importantly, whom this repugnant forger of Renaissance masters must be, who didn’t even have the decency to use a blank canvas. It’s just an added slap in the face.”

Armand leaned forward and peered behind the painting. He scratched the back of the canvas and smelled it, then looked back at Bernard. “It even looks and smells old.”

“Yes, the forger somehow did a fine job of making the canvas appear old all right. Enough to fool my staff and I.”

Armand gazed back at the aperture, and at the bright-colored paint beneath the dark-varnished veneer of the faux Renaissance oils. Pensively, he paused for a moment, then said, “I wonder if it’s possible that the painting underneath is a masterwork by Magritte or Dali. The style fits.”

Bernard shook his throbbing head. “Why on earth would someone cover a new masterwork with a fake old one?”

“One never knows what is and isn’t possible, Bernie. My father had told me that during World War Two some museum officials had several of their masterpieces painted over with works by unknown artists to prevent Nazi thieves from stealing their priceless assets.”

“Then I could only hope that what lies beneath this Messina is a Magritte or Dali, Armand. Only then could I recoup my financial blunder. I spent two hundred and fifty thousand dollars for this piece.”

Armand cringed. “Ouch!”

“Ouch, indeed,” Bernard uttered dejectedly. “We anticipated a Messina revival. But now those hopes are dashed. However, Jim Matteson, my restorer, is on his way here now to strip it completely. Then we shall have a better idea of what we’re dealing with.”

Three hours later, Jim had stripped the canvas of the faux Messina, revealing a startling vision of a crucifixion. The surreal vision was unlike anything Bernard or Armand had ever seen.

Armand stepped closer to inspect the unknown artist’s brushstrokes and technique. “At first glance, Bernie, I thought it might be a Dali, since the famous old Spaniard painted a series of religious works back in the fifties. But the technique is different.”

Bernard grimaced. “Well, you would certainly know better than I, Armand. Modern art is not my area of expertise.”

“Nor is it mine, Bernie, as most of my experience and training had come from my father when I lived in Florence and visited him at the Uffizi. But I have always been drawn to the surrealists and have examined many works over the years, so I can say quite confidently that this crucifixion is not by Dali. But since Dali is still alive, perhaps we could ask him if he knows who this surrealist artist might be.”

“I must say,” Bernard said as his eyes scanned the canvas, “despite not being acquainted with surrealism, this rendition is quite stunning.”

Armand gazed back at the tall, elongated canvas, which stood four-feet tall and two-feet wide. “It is rather dramatic, and akin to Dali’s great masterwork of the same subject, even if Dali’s technical prowess is superior.” Armand studied the work for several moments, then added, “However, this composition conveys some very profound spiritual concepts that other crucifixions don’t.”

As they both stared at the mysterious work, they realized that the painting at first shocked the viewer with an unnatural sense of melodrama, yet the fantastical vision was clearly not intended to be a realistic portrayal of Jesus at Golgotha. Rather it was deeply symbolic with religious import.

The gargantuan cross, which towers over two other crucifixions of condemned souls, stood in a fog-laden valley, as the dark, cloudy sky parted to shed light on Jesus. Moreover, Jesus’ colossal cross stood perfectly straight and true—unlike those of the two mortals beside him—and towered majestically above mankind, symbolically residing in the heavens, while mankind resided in the lower earthly realm, with craggy rocks and rough terrain; symbolic of the travails that mankind must endure in a precarious world.

Moreover, the convict that Jesus had absolved of sin was placed at his front, in partial light, while the other eternally damned soul resided at Jesus’ back, in the shadows. What remained quite clear, however, was that the intense focal point of the divine drama was unquestionably Jesus. Hence, amid the dark and turbulent veil of clouds, which fittingly bemoaned the fateful event, God the Father’s divine light miraculously parted the heavens to warmly embrace His son.

“A stunning work, indeed,” Bernard said. “It’s a Divine Crucifixion in every sense. But not knowing who this mysterious artist is, or was, leaves me in a most precarious position, Armand.”

Armand turned and surveyed the room. “You said you purchased three other works recently. Were they from the same seller?”

“Yes, I bought them from Michel Tucci. He is an Italian fellow, fairly well known in the industry. How could he not be, he’s ninety years old.”

“Ninety!?” Armand nearly choked. “He’s almost as old as Messina.”

Bernard chuckled, then smirked. “Yes, Michel has been around for almost a century, but in retrospect, he hasn’t sold that many paintings. And all of those transactions were in Europe. Nevertheless, he established a good reputation, so we felt confident in our purchase, especially since all the exposed rears of the canvases were tested as being authentic in age. Quite distressing, however, is that I tried calling Mr. Tucci, but his landlord answered. He said Michel had unexpectedly moved, without saying a word or leaving a forwarding address. He’s vanished.”

Armand squinted. “Hmm, I never heard of this Michel Tucci. But my father knows many contacts throughout Europe, so I’m confident he or someone he knows must have crossed paths with Signore Tucci.”

“My thoughts, exactly, Armand.”

“But first, we should inspect those three other acquisitions of yours, as I suspect they might be forgeries, as well.”

Barnard recoiled with a shiver. “Good grief! I certainly hope not. A quarter of a million dollars lost thus far is more than enough for my weak heart to endure.”

“Well, it’s best if you face the grim reality now, Bernie, so we can make plans as to how to solve this mysterious crime.”

Bernard instructed his technician to X-ray the three remaining pieces, being that the machine had been broken for two months and was recently repaired. Bernard and Armand both held their breath as the machine snapped the three films and the technician developed the X-rays. To Bernard’s poor-old-heart’s despair, all three indicated that surreal images existed underneath. Bernard then instructed Jim to strip the canvases by removing the top veneer of paint. However, as Jim stripped the last painting, Bernard and Armand shrieked, “Eureka!” and “Bingo!” respectively, when it revealed a very special clue. It was signed!

 Armand smiled. “Well, Bernie, at least now we know the name of our mysterious modern artist.”

Bernard shrugged. “Yes, but who the hell is Paolo Santanello?”

“Don’t know. Never heard of him. I’ll have to make some inquires. But it still doesn’t explain who the nefarious forger is.” Armand shook his head, baffled. “And why did the forger use Santanello’s works of art to paint his fakes?” Armand crossed his muscular arms as he pondered the enigma further. “Perhaps he’s a rival or an enemy of Paolo’s. Or possibly he simply purchased these unknown paintings and decided to use them for his criminal charade.” He shook his head. “None of this makes much sense.”

Bernard paused in thought, then said, “I just wonder if Michel Tucci knew if these were fakes, or if he was hoodwinked by the forger, as well?”

“Yes, there are several possible explanations, Bernie, but there’s only one way to find out. It’s time for me to seriously start my investigation.”

Bernard sighed with a modicum of relief, knowing well Armand Arnolfini’s impressive record for success. “So, what will be your first course of action?”

“I plan on catching a flight to Florence, Italy, to visit my dad. I sense this Michel Tucci fellow returned home and, as mentioned, my father has many connections in Italy and throughout Europe. What’s more, the timing is right, as I’m overdue to see my Pa anyhow. Like Signore Tucci, he, too, is an old man. So, two birds, one stone, as they say.”

 

Before catching his flight, Armand thumbed through his Rolodex and managed to contact Salvador Dali. He hoped the old master might know who Paolo Santanello might be, perhaps being a minor surrealist from the early years of the genre’s birth. But the great Dali had no recollection of an artist by that name.

Armand then caught his flight on Alitalia and landed in Florence. He hopped on a rented Vespa and traveled over the Ponte Vecchio, past the Pitti Palace, and turned down the excruciatingly narrow Via Toscanella, where he arrived at his father’s midsized but exquisite apartment. His father, Sergio, took almost two minutes to answer the door, but when he did, father and son embraced, warmly, lovingly.

“So good to see you, my son,” Sergio said with a gracious smile that stretched across his wrinkled yet still handsome face. “What brings you home to Florence, work or pleasure?”

Armand smiled, with a touch of regret. “Well, both, Papa. But to be honest, work has lured me back, this time to a mysterious art crime, a forgery. Rather, four forgeries: one of the Renaissance master Messina, and three lesser-known artists from the same era, including Domenico Alfani, Antonio Boselli and Domenico Panetti.”

Sergio’s eighty-year-old eyes ignited with a sparkle, one not seen in many years. “Ah! How I miss being engaged in the passionate world of art, even if dealing with forgeries.” He scratched his well-groomed head of gray hair with his wrinkled hand, which was adorned with a stunning Cellini-like golden ring, then slipped on his immaculately tailored, designer dinner jacket. “But I wonder why this forger chooses relatively obscure Renaissance artists. Surely they don’t fetch anywhere near the price of a Raphael or a Titian, and the painstaking work that goes into these works is extremely intricate and time-consuming.”

Armand walked over to the refrigerator and pulled out a Peroni. He extended it to his dad, who refused, and he popped off the top. He took a swig and savored the smooth barley malt flavor as it titillated his palate. With a swish of his tongue and a pucker of his lips, he swallowed, then said, “Good question, Pa. But I’m more interested in finding out who this forger is, because there’s an additional mystery to this case; namely, all his forgeries are painted over the works of the same surrealist artist, a guy named Paolo Santanello. Have you ever heard of him? Or an art dealer named Michel Tucci?”

Sergio squinted as his mind took several attempts to start up, like an old gas-powered generator being started with a pull-string. After a few blinks his eyes began to glow. “Yes, yes! I vaguely recall a Signore Tucci. He was a small-time dealer of lesser-known artists, like the ones you mentioned, but nothing in particular or nefarious stands out about him. And this Santanello fella doesn’t ring a bell, Armand. I’m sorry.” He paused and rubbed his temple as a distant memory began to materialize in the dark and dusty abyss of his antiquated mind. He gazed at the wall, then up at the ceiling. His eyes oscillated, looking everywhere, yet nowhere in particular.

Armand put his bottle of beer down. “What is it, Pop?”

Sergio’s wandering eyes suddenly stopped, then gazed at his son. “Ah! Yes, of course. I do recall a strange occurrence, it happened many years ago. I believe it was nineteen fifty-four, or was it five? Hmm, no, I think it was—”

“Never mind the date, Pop, what was it you remember?”

Sergio was bumped out of his data-seeking rut like a needle skipping on an LP, and he got back on track. He blinked hard and nodded with a smile of gratification, happy to have remembered something from his distant past. The biggest bane of his life was the slow and humiliating loss of his precious knowledge and memories. He grasped the lapel of his stylish jacket and boldly declared, “Clara, Clara Vandermeer.”

Armand’s lips twisted with an awkward smile. “Yes, that’s just splendid, Pa. That’s a very nice name. But what about Clara Vandermeer?”

Sergio teasingly paused, then with a proud smile, said, “Clara happens to be the curator of the Groeninge museum in Bruges, Belgium. It houses a fine selection of Northern Renaissance masters and several surreal works, including one by René Magritte.” As Armand’s eyes widened, Sergio added, “However, Clara had experienced some sort of incident when she started her surrealist collection, but I can’t for the life of me recall what it was. Nevertheless, with her keen knowledge of Renaissance and modern surrealist works, I imagine she could be very helpful in your quest.”

“Indeed she can!” Armand said with a warm grin. “I knew I could count on you, Papa. Grazie!”

Prego,” Sergio replied. Yet his prideful face soon withered. “Does that mean you’re leaving me already?”

Armand grasped his bottle of Peroni and took a short sip, his smile morphing into a solemn portrait of regret. “Well, I’ll spend two days here with you, Pa, but unfortunately work beckons me, as it did you for so many years. I’m sure you can understand the magnetism of doing something you love.”

Sergio glanced at his prized collection of high-quality giclee reproductions, featuring several masterpieces from the Renaissance and Baroque eras, then back at his ambitious son. “Very true, my boy, very true. Who am I to clip your wings when I soared with the greatest names in Renaissance art for so many years at the Uffizi Gallery, and had the good fortune of teaching that wealth of knowledge and culture to several younger generations?”

Armand lovingly wrapped his arm around his father and walked him up the spiral staircase to the top floor of the apartment. There they gazed out of a large picture window, as their line of sight traveled across the Arno River to see the splendid vista of the city of Florence, the cultural epicenter of the Renaissance with the majestic Il Duomo, along with the Uffizi Gallery and art academy where Sergio took much pride in Florence’s rich past, a lifetime spent preserving a critical milestone of Western civilization.

 Moments later they strolled down to the kitchen, where, together, they cooked a savory meal of hot antipasto, raviolis, and eggplant rollatini. They reminisced about their early days, when Armand lived in Florence, from his birth to the time he played for AC Milan, as well as sharing loving memories of Armand’s dear mother, who had died of polio when Armand was only thirteen. Afterwards, they capped the night off with cappuccino and homemade tiramisu, Armand’s favorite dessert, and bid each other good night.

 

Two days later, Armand arrived at the Groeninge museum in Bruges.

Clara approached him, wearing a stylish full-length dress and her gray hair pulled back in a bun. Her physique and skin didn’t betray the fact that she was seventy-eight years old, as she said, “Welcome, Signore Arnolfini. Your father apprised me of your desire to speak with me, yet did not mention the topic of your interest. How can I help you?”

Armand’s eyes, however, were drawn to the painting behind her, as he cordially shook her hand and said, “Excuse me, Mrs. Vandermeer, but I must see your Portrait of Margareta van Eyck.”

Clara smiled; being used to men being drawn away by Jan van Eyck’s masterful works. She had long ago resigned herself to taking second fiddle, as she graciously turned and pointed to the larger painting beside the famous portrait. “And that’s van Eyck’s second largest surviving panel, after his illustrious Ghent Altarpiece. It is the Virgin and Child with Saints Donatian and George and—”

“They’re both magnificent!” Armand interjected, as he stepped closer, his eyes devouring them as if the tiramisu he had eaten two nights before. “I’ve always had an affinity for Jan van Eyck’s work. Perhaps it’s because my great, great ancestor was immortalized in his most famous painting.”

Clara’s head recoiled. “You’re not saying you’re related to Giovanni Arnolfini, are you? Certainly you jest.”

“Why do you say that?”

Clara looked at Armand with reproachful eyes. “Because I had asked your father about that many years ago, and he said you were not related.”

Armand chuckled. “Yes, my father can be very critical, as I’m sure you’re well aware. It’s his highly perceptive yet merciless eye as an art critic that had jaded him to van Eyck’s masterpiece.”

Clara squinted. “What‘s not to like?”

“Well, he whole-heartedly admires van Eyck’s technical prowess, being perhaps the greatest technician in the Renaissance. Moreover, Jan’s attention to detail and his precision of painting inert objects was second to none. However, my father abhorred many of van Eyck’s figures, and of Giovanni in particular. He said our great ancestor did not look like a rigid corpse, or an ugly porcelain doll, and took it as a personal affront to our great Arnolfini name.”

Clara’s lips parted with a reflective smile. “That does sound like you father. Sergio was always a most brilliant and knowledgeable man, but aesthetics dominated his every-waking decision.”

Armand nodded. “Yes, but while I can be just as critical, I can also overlook such human flaws to recognize a masterpiece in overall execution. The composition and technique of the Arnolfini Portrait is absolutely stunning, especially considering it was painted in fourteen thirty-four, some eighteen years before da Vinci was even born.”

“You are absolutely correct, Signore Arnolfini. But I’m sure you did not come all the way to Belgium just to tell me of your famous relation to a Flemish masterpiece.”

Armand chuckled. “No, not at all. I’ve come on business. I’m investigating a case for Bernard Higley at the Cloisters museum.” As Clara nodded, acknowledging her acquaintance with the American curator, Armand continued, “He recently acquired four works by Italian Renaissance artists. However, all four were forgeries. But most peculiar still was that all four were painted over the works of a modern surrealist artist.”

Clara gasped. “How awful! Poor Bernard.”

Armand scanned the gallery as he inquired, “My father said you have an eye for old Renaissance masters and modern surrealists. Have you ever purchased works from a man by the name of Michel Tucci?”

 Clara’s eyes at first squinted, then opened wide. “Yes! In fact I did. I believe it was back in nineteen fifty-five.”

Clara went on to explain how Michel Tucci had originally approached her attempting to sell the works of an unknown surrealist artist. Despite her interest in surrealism—even purchasing a Magritte, among others—Clara had refused Michel’s offer, being that she wasn’t in the market for unknown artists. However, a year later, Tucci returned, this time offering a splendid array of Flemish, German, Italian, and French artists from the Renaissance to Rococo eras. And despite those artists being lesser known, they were not unknown, and well worth the reasonable investment.

Armand’s jaw twisted as his mind reeled. “Would you mind if I take a look at those acquisitions?”

“Of course not. Come, right this way.”

As they entered another gallery, Clara pointed to six paintings. “Here they are.” Her face was now marred with concern. “You’re not suggesting that Michel sold me fakes, as well, are you?”

“It’s a distinct possibility, Mrs. Vandermeer. I think it would be wise to have them X-rayed to see if they’re forgeries.”

Clara grimaced. “The mere thought of this makes me ill, Signore Arnolfini. We no longer have an X-ray machine, but I’ll have an infrared reflectogram done. It’s also noninvasive and will determine what exactly lies underneath the top layer of paint. And I’m hoping it’s nothing more than gesso or some base pigment.”

An  hour later, Armand and Clara found themselves in a back room, waiting impatiently as the technician scanned the works. The first one proved to be an original, but as the remaining five were scanned, they each revealed a painting underneath. Clara and Armand gasped, especially since all five appeared to be in the same style as the mysterious, surrealist artist Paolo Santanello.

Clara’s face turned crimson red as she spat, “Where is this Michel Tucci!?”

Armand gazed solemnly at the paintings, then back at Clara. “I have no idea. I was hoping you might have some insights as to where he might be. I know he lived somewhere in Italy, but his last known whereabouts was in the United States, when he sold Bernard Higley those forgeries. Yet, when Bernard tried to contact him, his landlord said he had moved, with no forwarding address.”

Clara glanced at the five fakes and grunted. “You can have them, they’re worthless!”

Armand twitched. “I’m truly sorry for revealing this scam, Mrs. Vandermeer. I can only imagine how upset you must be. However, while I appreciate your offer, I couldn’t possibly take them.”

Clara shook her head and slammed the table. “Upset doesn’t begin to explain how humiliated and deceived I feel! Michel Tucci seemed like a nice respectable man, and I knew of several other curators who had purchased works from him, as well.” She paused, then added, “Yet, I have not heard a word about him for many years, until this recent scam you’ve just mentioned at the Cloisters. Do you have any idea if Tucci knows these works are fakes, or is he being duped like us?”

“That’s a good question, Mrs. Vandermeer, one that we’ve been asking, as well. But I aim to find out.”

No sooner did he finish that sentence, than Clara’s secretary entered the room. “Mrs. Vandermeer, there is an urgent phone call for you from a Mister Sergio Arnolfini. He wishes to speak to his son.” Peering over Clara’s shoulder, she added, “Is that him?”

Armand stepped briskly into view, fearing his father might be ill. “Yes, I’m his son. Where is the phone?”

Armand dashed to the main office and picked up the receiver. “Pop, what’s wrong? Are you okay?”

Sergio’s voice surged through the earpiece, “I’m fine, Armand. However, my dear friend, Anton Platzer, just called me. He’s the curator at the Schwarzenberg Palace, in Prague. And get this, he just discovered that two recent acquisitions were revealed as forgeries!”

An electric chill ran down Armand’s back. “Don’t tell me, Michel Tucci was the dealer and Anton found surreal paintings underneath?”

“Exactly, Armand. Evidently, Tucci’s fakes have spread like a virus.”

 Armand wrapped up his conversation with his father, then bid Clara farewell. Taking another flight, Armand landed in Czechoslovakia, and dashed to the Schwarzenberg Palace.

Anton Platzer greeted Armand with open arms and a broken heart. He explained how he had purchased the works of two minor artists: Hans von Aachen, a German painter of Northern Mannerism, and Norbert Grund, a painter of the Rococo style from Prague.

Armand examined the works, marveling over the skill and detail of the disparate styles of the forgeries, yet remained baffled about the forger’s reason for painting over another artist’s work. Who would do such a thing, and why? He thought.

“Mr. Platzer, my father informed me that you purchased these paintings from Michel Tucci, is that correct?”

“Yes. I can’t believe that feeble old man sold me fakes,” Anton huffed. “He seemed so sincere and kind. Not to mention that his sterling reputation had preceded him.”

Armand glanced at the two paintings. “Do you have any idea where Tucci might be?”

“All I know is that he moved to the United States. I believe he is somewhere in New York.”

“Are you sure he didn’t move back home to Italy? He recently made a score in New York at the Cloisters museum and abandoned his apartment.”

Anton shook his head. “No, I believe his trail here in Europe is too well worn and beginning to fall apart for him to remain here. It appears he is now staking out new territory.” He scratched his head. “But does Tucci know that he’s selling fakes, or is he just a blind fool, like all of us?”

“My guess is that he knows very well what he’s doing. That all of his forgeries are painted over the same artist’s works seems to indicate he or his forger knew this artist and didn’t care much for his modernist bent. So either he or someone he knows covered them over with very skillful renditions of old masters, and he’s making a pretty penny in the process.”

“A pretty penny! Huh! That scoundrel fleeced me of fifty thousand dollars. And I hear Clara and Bernard, among others, have all lost more than that. I’ll gladly contribute five thousand dollars to your investigation if you catch this despicable old weasel.”

“Thank you, I aim to try, Mr. Platzer. I’ll be in touch.” Armand shook his hand and took his leave.

Catching a flight to JFK airport, Armand returned to his apartment on the Upper East Side, several blocks from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim. As he sat on the couch watching an episode of The Rockford Files, his mind wandered. If Michel Tucci came to America, he thought, he didn’t come empty handed!

He zapped the TV off with the remote, then called Peter Hansen, an old friend in the FBI. He asked Peter to scan all the manifests of air and sea freight shipments from Italy containing the name Michel Tucci. Peter obliged, and three hours later, Armand’s phone rang.

“Hello? Peter?”

“Yeah, Arnolfini. It’s Saint Peter. I came through for you. Your pal Michel had a large shipment made from Italy last year. Manifest number 83290. It was then delivered to an address in upstate New York on February third.” Peter paused, then added, “I actually bought some property up in Wurtsboro. It’s beautiful and peaceful, Arnolfini. You know, getting away from the rat race and all. Kind of like Green Acres.” Peter then began singing the jingle, “Greeeen Acres is the place to be. Faaaarm livin’ is the life for—”

“For Pete’s sake, Pete! Stop clowning around! What’s the address?”

Peter chuckled. “Okay, hold your piglets, Arnol…Ziffel.”

“Don’t be a ham, Pete! Because if you were, you’d have botulism.”

Peter laughed, then snorted as he said, “Okay, okay, it was delivered to 157 Highview Terrace in Bloomingburg, New York. Do you need the zip code, too, Arnolfini?”

“No, that will do. I owe you one, Pete!”

“One?” Peter said. “How about a hundred and one!”

“Well, if you really want to start counting, I guess you’d have to sell your house in Brookville to pay me back.”

Peter chuckled. “Very true, Arnolfini. You know I’m toying with ya. But you really should come up and see my property in Green Acres. There’s a guy up there who, I swear, looks just like Mr. Haney. In fact, I think it is Mr, Haney!”

Armand finally laughed. “You’re a knucklehead, Pete. But, okay, we’ll have to hook up for dinner one day and checkout your property. But I have to run. This lead is a good one. Thanks again!”

Armand hopped in his brand new ‘79 gold Oldsmobile Toronado, which was released three months prior to the New Year, and turned on the radio. It was playing Runnin’ with the Devil by a new band called Van Halen. Armand smirked as he thought how Michel Tucci was also running with the Devil. He then tuned in WQXR. He smiled; it was playing Franz Liszt’s revolutionary Second Piano Concerto, a twenty-two-minute masterpiece of pure genius. He slammed the car into gear and headed upstate on the New York Thruway.

He crossed over the Tappan Zee Bridge, past the Ramapo rest stop, and headed west at Exit 16.  Before long he came to Exit 114, then drove up the winding street, onto Highview Terrace, which eventually reached the peak of the mountain. As he gazed out, he was overcome by the lush panorama of the Hudson Valley, which spread out as far as the eye could see in all directions, with distant mountains sculpting the horizon.

What a spot! He thought. A spot anyone would relish, especially an art dealer. He chuckled. Or even Mr. Haney.

As he drove farther along the dirt country road, he came upon a startling sight, a towering A-frame chalet that stood majestically on the summit.

Armand scanned the area; there wasn’t another house or person in sight. He turned off the engine and stepped out. The silence, seclusion, and sky-scraping perch atop the highest peak in the valley struck him at once as quite eerie, yet sublimely ethereal. Now he understood why people called areas like this God’s Country. The Shawangunk Mountain Range had a special charm all its own.

As the thick cumulus clouds in the distance parted, a beam of sunlight shed its golden rays upon the valley and onto the tiny telephone poles below, which suddenly appeared like small crucifixes. The image of Santanello’s surreal crucifixion came streaming back into his consciousness. Armand shook his head free of the mirage and walked up to the modern chalet. Gazing up at the peculiar, stylish structure, Armand was moved by the pyramidal shape that was so prominent in houses of worship or the grand pyramids of Egypt. He was expecting to find an unassuming hideout, certainly nothing like this.

He walked up the broad redwood deck and up to the large glass sliding doors. He rang the bell and waited.

No response.

He shifted from side to side, to see if he could peer through the curtains, but to no avail. He knocked on the glass door, but that too yielded no reaction.

Disheartened, Armand returned to his Toronado and drove down the mountain, making his way to the Shawanga Lodge. He rented a room and had a meal in the motel’s restaurant, which fell drastically short of pleasing his cultivated palate. With his appetite at least satiated, he watched an episode of Barney Miller, then retired for the night.

Early the next morning, Armand drove back up to the A-frame chalet. As he approached the peak of the mountain, he slowed down. Parked on the gravel driveway was a yellow, Supercharged 1937 Cord 812 Coupe. He pulled up alongside the rare and precious automobile, with its distinctive flex-chrome exhaust pipes, and came to a stop. He gazed at the quarter-million-dollar car and shook his head, irritated: And they say crime doesn’t pay. Ha!

He slid out of his Oldsmobile and climbed quietly up the deck and reached the sliding doors. Once again, he couldn’t see past the sheer curtains to decipher Michel Tucci or any moving silhouette. He rang the bell.

Nothing.

He knocked on the glass doors.

Again, nothing.

Armand sighed as he dejectedly gazed at the ground, his mind reeling: Where did the old swindler go? Or is the decrepit old crook just deaf? He turned right and looked at the radiant ’37 Cord. The old geezer certainly has good taste though.

On instinct, Armand turned left, where the glare from a patch of white birch trees reflected into his eyes. As he squinted, he noticed the dense woods had a narrow path. It lured him in. As he strolled through the tall columns of trees, with their smooth and almost magically glistening bark, Armand eventually came upon a clearing. He stopped dead in his tracks!

Up ahead he saw an old man sitting at an easel, painting a mysteriously somber yet beautiful landscape. There was no mistaking it; the enigmatic canvas was in every sense the work of Jacob van Ruisdael, the 17th century Dutch master.

Silently, Armand walked up behind him and gazed down at the painting. “That’s rather intriguing.”

Michel jolted, then turned, shock marring his wrinkled face, as Armand wryly added, “It looks exactly like Jacob van Ruisdael’s Jewish Cemetery, especially since I see no cemeteries or ruins in the Hudson Valley from here.”

“You have quite an eye for the old masters, Mr.—?”

“Arnolfini, Armand Arnolfini.”

“Arnolfini?” Michel queried in his thick Italian accent. “As in Jan van Eyck’s Giovanni Arnolfini?”

“The very same, indeed, just several generations removed.”

“My Lord, son. You come from a mighty famous family. Yet, I must confess, you look nothing like your ancestor, and thank heavens for that! You look rather healthy and alive.”

“Yes, and my vision and sense of deduction is also quite healthy,” Armand said as he glanced back at the canvas. “Do you intend to sign that Jacob van Ruisdael?”

Michel laughed. “You may be a famous Arnolfini, Armand, but I am not a van Ruisdael. Nor a Jacob, at that. I am just a nobody.”

Armand smiled. “You are certainly not a nobody, Paolo.”

Michel’s lips twisted with confusion. “What do you mean by Paolo? My name is Michel, Michel Tucci.”

“Nice try. But you, signore, are Paolo Santanello—a phenomenal surrealist artist who, for some reason, remains an enigma.”

Michel laughed, mockingly. “You, son, have a vivid imagination. How ever did you deduce such a fallacy?”

“I’m sure the names Bernard Higley, Clara Vandermeer, and Anton Platzer ring a few bells.” Michel rolled his eyes, unimpressed, as Armand continued, “And quite oddly, Franz Liszt’s Second Piano Concerto also aided in my deduction.”

Michel’s head recoiled, now totally confused. “A concerto!?” He then snickered with a condescending smile as he shook his head and slapped his leg. “You are most entertaining, Signore Arnolfini. But, please, do explain.”

Armand remained stern and stoic. “Well, you see, Liszt had pioneered a very unique device. He launched his concerto with a single theme, which then underwent a series of transformations, at one point dark and brooding, and other times playful, dreamy, or even triumphant, but all emanating from that same single kernel. It made me realize that all these various old masterworks, which appeared to be by different Renaissance artists, were all by the same hand, the hand of a modern surrealist whose tantalizing works appeared underneath all of them. You, Paolo, are the kernel, the one theme that carried through the entire set, being brilliantly transformed only on the surface by masterful forgeries.” Armand cracked a satiated smile as he peered deeply into the phantom forger’s eyes. “So after contemplating all those loose ends, and now seeing you paint this picture, your name alone, Signore Santanello, ties them all together.”

Paolo’s frail shoulders wilted as his gnarly old hand laid the paintbrush down near his rich palette of oils. He expelled a sigh of regret mixed with relief. “It’s been a long hard road, son, and I’m at the end of that trail. Life isn’t always fair.” His eyes veered toward the canvas then back up at Armand. “It has long been said that hard work and effort will reap great rewards. But I say, bah!” Paolo blustered with cynicism. “I had studied with intense vigor, Signore Arnolfini, perfecting my craft to the highest degree possible, yet met with one rejection after another by curators, snobs, and collectors of all sorts. I’ll have you know, as a young lad, back in the early nineteen hundreds, I had created startling images of surrealism, even before those of Giorgio de Chirico. His now famous painting Song of Love had allegedly ignited the avant-garde genre of surrealism in nineteen fourteen, some ten years before André Breton allegedly founded the movement.” Paolo shook his head with disgust. “How bizarre and flawed mankind is in documenting progress or ascribing credit.”

Armand nodded, knowing well the flaws of recorded history. “I must admit, Paolo, although I have a personal interest in surrealism, my father and I have long been aficionados of the old masters, so my knowledge of surrealism’s founding is not clear.” Armand squinted. “But are you saying you actually pioneered surrealism before de Chirico?”

Paolo snickered. “My boy, as I said, life is not fair. Yes, I did. As a young man in nineteen eleven, at age twenty-two, my work was on display in an open market in Turin, Italy, my hometown. By an odd stroke of bad luck, Giorgio de Chirico happened to pass through my village on his way to Paris. Some three years later, I had seen a photo of Song of Love in a newspaper article, heralding de Chirico as a pioneer. That work—might I add—was very much like the one I had on display three years prior. Oh, yes, Signore Arnolfini, I most certainly pioneered surrealism well before de Chirico, Dali, Ernst, Magritte, and the rest.”

“I don’t understand,” Armand said. “If Giorgio and others were breaking new ground with their art, why did your attempts fail? Especially if your artwork was not only similar but the precursor.”

Paolo swallowed hard as his wrinkled lips twisted. He looked up at Armand, his weathered and once vibrant brown eyes now reduced to two black pools of pain and sorrow. “My father had died in the Great War, and my mother’s health spiraled into a deep state of melancholy. It was either abandon her and strike out into the world for self glory or retreat back into the womb of my existence, namely the warm and tender-loving arms of my mother.”

Solemnly, Armand shook his head as his eyes drifted to the vast panorama of mountains and streams in the Hudson Valley, then back at Paolo’s improvised van Ruisdael. “I’m still a bit baffled, Paolo. You have extraordinary talents. This van Ruisdael is just as magnificent as the other artists you copied with masterful skill, each in different genres no less. You mean to say you couldn’t score a big hit, somehow?”

Paolo began packing up his materials as he said, “Armand, technical skills of imitation are not worth a damn. What makes a great artist great is their heart and soul, imagination and innovation. Anyone can acquire a wealth of knowledge, yet only those who utilize that knowledge in a unique and innovative fashion have earned the right to be called brilliant. These forgeries I have done over the years have all been cheap imitations. Painting restorers are a dime a dozen, and their names remain obscured and their financial rewards remain marginal. And in a sense, rightfully so. I missed my chance when I was young to make my mark. My mother lived for twenty more years after my father died, yet by that time World War Two had broken out and the world was not interested in buying art, as much of it was hidden or stolen. Especially by that fat bastard Hermann Goering! He was the world’s biggest art thief.”

Paolo stood up and folded his chair as he continued, “Fortune has not shone upon me in regard to my art, but did so with my heart. Those years with my mother, and the woman who had become my wife, were the pearls in the oyster shell that became my sheltered life. When they both died in a Fascist raid by Mussolini’s henchmen, that’s when I myself spiraled into a sad state of depression. It crippled me for a decade, until I decided to paint over my own creative canvases with forgeries of old masters to make a living, a fair living, one more in line financially with my worth. Great artists, Signore Arnolfini, deserve adequate compensation for the rich cultural enhancements they bequeath to civilization. Over countless centuries too many great artists, musicians, and even inventors have died penniless and forgotten, yet mankind has not made any attempts to correct this most humiliating and debilitating flaw.”

Paolo cleaned his paintbrush carefully with turpentine and packed it neatly away with his linseed oil and special varnishes, as he added, “I have chosen to forge the works of lesser-known artists to keep a low profile and not incite a world-wide manhunt.” He paused but a moment, then said reflectively, “However, I suppose I sold my soul to the devil, burying my love and passion under a veneer of falsehoods just to earn a fair living. Now I am ninety years old and the journey is almost over. Soon I shall cross the celestial threshold and return to my loving wife and mother’s arms, and get to see my father once again.”

Paolo handed Armand the painting and folding chair and collected his easel and paints. “Come, follow me.”

They travelled back through the glaring birch trees and returned to Santanello’s unique A-frame chalet, with his exquisite ‘37 Cord parked in the driveway.

Armand stopped. “Ah, yes. Now it all fits.” He glanced at the priceless old Cord, then up at the modern chalet. “You cherish antiquity, but also modernity.”

Paolo chuckled. “Very good, Armand. Yes, I most certainly do. I admire the old masters, but progress must be made. In fact, if you’re wondering where I got all the old canvas fabric to paint my modern artwork, it was from my ancestor who owned a mill during the Renaissance. I had found reams of it in his attic and thought it would be interesting to paint modern visions on ancient canvas. Only later, when I began my charade, did I realize that my forgeries would be readily accepted when they examined the canvas from the back. Odd, how that, too, all worked out, as if destiny tried to throw me one small bone. But now it’s over. Finito. So, please, follow me.”

As they entered the chalet, Armand’s eyes illuminated. There before him was a sprawling arrangement of paintings of all sizes by various artists, famous artists. Armand placed the faux van Ruisdael and folding-chair down and stepped closer to inspect Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer by Rembrandt. He marveled over the light and dark brushstrokes that precisely imitated the great Dutch master. Then he stepped over and gazed at The Crucifixion of Saint Peter by Caravaggio. He stepped back and said, “Dear God, Paolo! I have studied the originals up close many times, and I must say, these are fantastic. I cannot tell the difference.” He glanced at Paolo. “It’s scary how mind-boggling your skills are. You have masterfully reproduced the works of two great titans who shared a very similar style.”

Paolo approached Armand’s side. “Yes, as I said, life is not always fair. For many years Rembrandt basked in the limelight because of his dramatic style of chiaroscuro, while Caravaggio—being the true pioneer of the style—remained in the shadows, forgotten for centuries. It’s a crime to humanity.” Paolo paused, then added, “Actually, in an odd way, it’s sadly apropos, as their painterly style of light and shadow underscored their own disparate fates.” He gazed up at Armand. “Wouldn’t you agree?”

Armand shrugged. “Well, yes. But in recent years there’s been a revival of Caravaggio’s works. And now both great masters share the limelight. So, you see, Paolo, life sometimes corrects its mistakes, even if years or centuries later. After all, Mozart died and was buried in a pauper’s grave. He, too, had fallen into obscurity for many years, having been blotted out by the huge shadow of Antonio Salieri. Yet Wolfgang rose from the ashes, like a phoenix, and has now cast Salieri into the shadows. So, genius often has a way of rising to the top.”

Paolo’s brief smile of acknowledgement turned into a frown. “Yes, but that some geniuses had to wait years or a century to be rediscovered is an awful tragedy. And who knows how many more Mozarts and Caravaggios have existed over time who will never see the light? There is much darkness in this world, much of which is borne in ignorance or sheer stupidity.”

Armand stood silent and pensive, until several other canvases drew his attention; one by Renoir, another by Magritte, and still another by Holbein. “I thought you said you only painted forgeries of lesser-known artists?”

Paolo chuckled. “Well, these are copies of paintings I personally adore. I never had intentions of selling them.”

Armand examined them closer. “Are all of these painted over original creations of yours?”

Paolo’s smile withered. “Yes. I suppose in a state of self-loathing, regret, or perhaps disgust, I have embarked on erasing myself from this cruel and unfair world.” He gazed down at the van Ruisdael leaning against the wall. He expelled a deep breath, taking comfort in its significance, for the wet veneer of paint was slowly hardening, thus suffocating the last breath of the unknown surrealist underneath. “That is my swan song, Signore Arnolfini. I aptly chose van Ruisdael’s gloomy landscape with a cemetery to vanquish my work, and inter my very self. I am now officially obscured from the eyes and minds of the unjust, the cliquey elites, the snobby academics, and the unfortunate public that shall never have a chance to judge my works for themselves.” Paolo handed Armand a document that he had filled in while Armand was inspecting his collection.

Armand looked down and began to read it, when his eyes widened. His head snapped up, but it was too late, Paolo choked, wobbled, and collapsed.

Armand dropped the document and hurriedly knelt down by Paolo’s side. Concernedly, he lifted the frail old man’s head. His boney neck felt as if it might break, while his thin layer of skin seemed as if it might tear. “Paolo!” Armand cried as his heart raced. “Can you hear me?”

Paolo’s eyes opened half way as he coughed and gurgled, while a rivulet of blood coursed down the side of his mouth. “Armand, I’ve managed to beat lung cancer for almost a year, but it’s over. I have no family left. And who better to make the executor of all my wealth than an Arnolfini—a man with deep roots to a glorious artistic past. It appears destiny has brought you here, in this… final…hour, this…final—“

A painful lump welled in Armand’s throat as he could feel the old man’s body wilt and begin to stiffen—the warmth of a near century-long life slowly dissipating, as it ebbed into the cold abyss of death.

A tear welled in Armand’s eye as he sat speechless, gazing at the old artist, then peering at the gallery of pseudo old masterpieces that extinguished a genuinely great, but unknown, modern artist.

Armand leaned back and once again gazed at Paolo’s will. Not only did Paolo authorize Armand to be his executor, but Santanello had also left several millions of dollars to be dispersed to numerous art academies, which would be awarded as scholarships to promising young talents; budding artistic geniuses who exhibit the prospect of uplifting civilization in one form or another.

Once again Armand peered down at the mysterious phantom forger in his arms. He had vigorously hunted him down with contempt, only to find himself saddened and burdened with a heavy heart and conflicting thoughts. The dead old man before him was clearly a genius in his own right, but by the twisted forces of fate had been dealt a bad set of celestial cards. His mission of gaining financial compensation was not borne out of self-interest or greed, but rather a philanthropic endeavor to right the injustice of an often cruel and imperfect world, a world that routinely overshadowed or even trampled over many with extraordinary talent, either due to roadblocks by haughty elites, a lack of connections, a depletion of profits by greedy capitalists, or simply bad karma.

That Santanello had also made a life-long decision to literally erase his art, and in essence himself, from the world of art also struck Armand hard. A tear unexpectedly escaped from his eye and streamed down his solemn face. Yet as he gazed up at all of Paolo’s forgeries, and contemplated all the press his monumental crime would soon engender, another thought struck him: will Santanello’s surreal under-paintings now be revealed, thus being his passport into the pantheon of the ironclad-world of Fine Art?

Armand Arnolfini wiped the tear from his eye, and smiled.

 

– – – – – – – – – –

From SHORT STORIES II by Rich DiSilvio: Mysteries, Thrillers & Historical

ISBN: 978-0998337562

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