As in Darwin, things evolve.
Harry long ago found a restorer named Ejder Simonen, a Kurd who escaped Iraq fifteen years ago. Ejder’s a wizard at fixing up paintings of almost any style. Whenever we’ve needed restorations, Ejder was the man.
A week after my conversation with Harry, I bring Ejder a couple paintings we’d bought, including a landscape I paid €50 for, simply out of pity.
“It’s not much good,” he says.
“It’s not bad either.”
“No, that’s true. Not much either way.”
“But the frame is good—” Just as there are always people trying to sell paintings they can’t prove are Old Masters, there are always people seeking an Old Master lurking unnoticed in someone’s garage or attic. And one of the reliable indicators of age, when you’re trying to quickly—and surreptitiously—judge an undervalued find is the style and condition of the frame.
“The frame? No, not bad.”
“The wood and the canvas look mid-1600’s. There’s an auction sticker on the back from 1813.”
He turns it over to check. “Okay. So?”
“So this could legitimately be a canvas from the Golden Age of Dutch painting.”
His eyes narrow. “Yes?”
“Well, you wouldn’t confuse it with a Rembrandt or Vermeer—”
“Not a chance.”
“Or a Hals.”
“But maybe a Van Ruisdael?” I offer.
His face prunes. “Not really.”
“Well, not a top-notch Van Ruisdael—a Monday Van Ruisdael, a day he had a hangover, maybe?” Ejder goes a little cross-eyed. “Maybe the artist tossed it out because he wasn’t satisfied but the maid put it in her room because, hey, he’s Van Ruisdael, right?” I catch a glimmer in his eye, where maybe he’s catching my drift.
“This sky is not convincing,” he says flatly, in that scholarly tone he used when we first met him, before he realized that, most of time, we really didn’t care. “There’s a lack of variation in the cloud cover, light and shadow, here—and here in the trees. And darker here.” Ejder gets worked up about these things, he’s an artist.
“Absolutely, you’re absolutely right,” I tell him. “But it wouldn’t take a lot of paint to fix that, would it?”
And now his body language shifts. Ejder the restorer is a technician, flat-footed, unsentimentally regarding the task in front of him. Ejder the artist, on the other hand, shuffles back and forth on the balls of his feet, precariously balanced between what is and what could be. He crosses before the canvas several times before returning his attention to me.
“It’s not just how much paint,” he says. “It’s the right kind of paint. You can’t buy from the art supply store; any expert would detect that immediately. They mixed their own paints in those days. The blue sky—blue from that era, that’s lapis lazuli, it’s as expensive as gold by the ounce.”
“And the varnish?”
He shrugs. “You need a couple paintings of that era, dilute the varnish, let it run off and collect it. Then you add it back over the repainting so the varnish is all the same yellow.” His knowing this answer—and my knowing to ask the question—makes clear we’re discussing the same subject, which neither of us has so far raised openly. And, from what I can tell, he’s not sold on the idea yet.
“How many paintings would you need,” I ask, “to get enough varnish?”
“Three or four, probably.” He anticipates my next question. “I’ve got one or two hanging around—I’d need more.” He wags his hands back and forth. “It’s a sliding scale. If you want a high price, you have to be more convincing. If you take less, it might not even pay.”
“Right,” I muse. “A Van Ruisdael this size probably wouldn’t net more than €6-7,000.”
“So it wouldn’t make sense for just one painting. But if I could find three or four really cheap paintings a month, a couple hundred or less, not much good but that could be improved—” Now he’s listening. He’s even leaning in my direction. “Enough to keep a steady flow—and if I split the profits 70/30—”
“60/40,” Ejder says immediately. “60 for you.” I don’t argue, so he continues. “And Van Ruisdael is about right, don’t ask for Rembrandt’s and Picasso’s, there are too many experts out there.”
He takes another glance at my €50 landscape. “We might not need a lot of blue, really. I could extend the yellowish-white section of the sky, yellow is cheaper.” The gap between us has vanished. He’s on the team. “If you’re selling two or three from the same era, you can say you picked them up in someone’s garage. The frame from the first painting would give credibility to the others.”
“I’ll start looking around for old canvases and frames at estate sales—and paintings that might be fixable.”
“They don’t have to be good,” Ejder boasts. “I leave the business to you. I like painting and paying my bills. You do the rest.”
And so, we begin.
I buy, in person and online, mediocre paintings, from people glad to be rid of them. Either they’re a source of varnish or Ejder fixes them ‘in the style of,’ and we hang them in the hall where collectors sit while waiting to sell us their dodgy art or in a stall we run twice a week in the Marais.
I do not hawk these paintings to anyone. They carry no false signatures. If any of our visitors takes a look and sees a Van Ruisdael or Hals or Courbet, they didn’t get that from me. Which means, every buyer walks away thinking they’ve fleeced us, so no complaints later.
“This is better,” Harry agrees, a month or so after our first conversation. “It’s more us.” I shush him—we are attending the funeral of Martin Boudreaux, one of his buddies, a noted ‘restorer’ of Louis XIV furniture and creator of the once-famous Boudreaux Scale for Antiques—genuine, mostly-genuine, nearly-genuine, could-be-genuine and we-pray-every-day-that-it-might-be-genuine. We are two of a total of six mourners. The priest ministers over the grave, the rest of us take turns shoveling a bit of dirt on the casket and exchanging mournful glances with the widow. “Of course,” Harry says as we walk away, “if we had better protection, like Dead Martin here, we could take bigger chances.”
“Like the big players have,” he growls. “One or two members of the Legislature. The Chief of Police or his assistant.”
“That’s not our game,” I say, as convincingly as I can.
“It could be,” Harry presses. “We could do much bigger jobs—some of the people coming through our doors these days have real money. And some of them are just asking to be taken.” This is an old refrain. “Think about Dead Martin here. He was a big man for years, with nothing like your charm.”
“Sara likes my charm, thank you very much. And Dead Martin died in prison, a broken man.”
“He stopped paying the right people.”
“The right people stopped being the right people. They were pushed out by even-more-ruthless scumbags who were determined to become the right people. He got old, Harry, like we all do. The game changes but the risks don’t. Getting locked up, being at the mercy of other prisoners—”
“—and guards, don’t forget,” he chimes in.
“And the guards, exactly. It all gets infinitely harder to take with age. Be practical, Harry—we’ve survived this long because we’re small potatoes.”
Harry looks genuinely surprised by this.
“What’s big money to us is petty cash for our targets. In the rare case they catch on to the game—and thankfully, few do—they write it off. So we don’t have to pay the price.”
“It wouldn’t matter if we were really protected,” Harry repeats himself. I pull him to a halt and we watch the procession of Very Important Men at someone else’s funeral, someone who’s clearly been paying today’s right people. This widow bows her head and hopes for favors.
“There are your Protectors,” I say. “Protection comes with a pricetag—and we wouldn’t like it.”
“There are all sorts of ways to satisfy—”
“No, there’s one way,” I say. “Whatever way they choose.”
Harry shakes his head and I know this subject will come up again. In my wildest dreams, though, I couldn’t have anticipated how.