Picasso! Isn't that beautiful?')

Anyway, the Musee Barillot, I have to say, was just such a museum. In fairness, it could hardly have afforded a first-rate collection of paintings. Containing a modest collection willed to the city by a wealthy physician named (surprise) Barillot at the turn of the century, it had since received little support beyond that required for maintenance. It had, in fact, made almost no acquisitions since the late 1940s. Just how it had managed to acquire the pictures in question was something that was buried in the remote past. They had hung there as long as anybody could remember, that was all.

And it was just this point that had started the clever Vachey thinking. He did some research, tracing them back to their appearance in the country in about 1800 as Napoleonic loot from Italy, Germany, and Spain. With thousands of other plundered artworks they had been destined for the Louvre, but they were among those the experts pronounced unworthy of basking in la gloire de France and had found their way into the French art market. Eventually, one or two at a time, the museum in Dijon had picked them up in the early years of the twentieth century. They had done so legally, paying the going price, and they had the papers to prove it (although it had taken them a while to locate them in the dusty vaults of a bank in Beaune).

Vachey shrugged this off. How could paintings or anything else be purchased legally from sellers who had no right to them in the first place? But French law didn't see it that way, and a much-publicized court case ensued, with Vachey cheerfully questioning the French legal system's authority to rule in cases involving non-French property.

Yes, cheerfully. For the whole thing was a sensational stunt. There had never been a question of its being anything else. Certainly these second-rate products of first-rate artists had no financial or aesthetic appeal to Vachey. His own collection was infinitely more valuable than the Musee's. He had simply decided to call attention, somewhat ahead of its time, to the enormous and tangled question of Who Owns Art?-and perhaps to make some waves and ruffle a few feathers in the sober, snooty French art establishment along the way.

This he did brilliantly, for three well-publicized weeks, until the court began to make threatening noises. In the end, the paintings went back to the museum, as Vachey had always claimed-and I believed him-was his intention. He also paid the museum's legal expenses and voluntarily donated from his own collection, as a goodwill gesture, a fine Goya charcoal study that was worth more than all six 'stolen' pictures put together.

From beginning to end, he had clearly considered the whole affair an enormous lark. Whether you conclude his basic motives were altruistic or self-serving depends on who you talk to. There was little doubt that he accomplished something useful by focusing attention on an important issue. On the other hand, he also became for a while the world's most celebrated art dealer, which couldn't have been bad for business. But whichever way you felt about that, the fact remained that he did it by burglarizing a museum, and anytime you load pictures in and out of trucks you subject them to frightening risks, especially when you do it through windows-in a hurry and on the sly. I've already said that these weren't among the Western world's great masterpieces, but Tintorettos are Tintorettos, and as far as art people are concerned, you don't mess with them to prove a point.

He'd also caused an art museum, and by extension, art museums in general, to look foolish, and that was what was worrying Tony and me right now.

So that was the man who wanted to give us a Rembrandt. Who knew what he was up to this time? The only thing I was sure of was that any gift horse from Rene Vachey required a long, hard look in the mouth.

'This picture,' I said to Tony, 'what does it look like?'

The salads had come. Tony began on his. 'I told you,' he said. 'It's a portrait. Oil on canvas.'

That struck me as a rather laconic description from a man who can get every bit as overheated about old paintings as I can.

'But what kind of a portrait? Of whom? Group or single subject? What kind of condition is it in? How much restoration has there been?'

Tony hunched his shoulders and chewed, the implication being that his mouth was too full of arugula and fennel to reply at the moment.

I leaned forward, eyes narrowed. 'You haven't actually seen it, have you?'

'Well, not exactly-'

'Have you?'

'Well, no, nobody has.'

'Not even photographs?'

'Well, n-'

'So we don't really know for sure it's what he says it is.'

Tony swallowed and put down his fork. 'Hell, we don't know for sure it exists. This could be some hoax, some game he's playing. It probably is.'

I sat back and looked at him, thoroughly deflated. 'So why are we even talking about it? Why are we bothering?'

'Because,' Tony said, 'he just might be on the level. What do you want me to do, tell him we're not interested? Tell him to go find some other museum for his lousy Rembrandt? Tell him to go ahead and give it to the Met?'

'No, I guess not.'

'Of course not. How'd you feel if the next time you walked into the Met, your Rembrandt was hanging on their wall?'

I laughed. 'Not good.'

'Well, neither would I. So let's not jump to conclusions.'

'Agreed. But something's clearly fishy here, Tony. Look, why would Vachey donate anything to us? Why not some other museum? Why not the Met? That'd give him a bigger public arena, if that's what he's after. Or why not a French museum, where at least he'd come away with some tax benefits?'

'Makes you wonder, doesn't it,' Tony agreed.

'We've never had any kind of association with him, have we?'

'Well, in a way, yes. You know who Ferdinand Oscar de Quincy was?'

It wasn't a name you'd be likely to forget once you'd heard it. 'Sure, he had your job back in the fifties.'

'That's right. Well, before that, in the forties he was with MFA amp; A. You remember what that is, don't you?'

I nodded. MFA amp; A-Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives- was the U.S. Army unit that, with major British assistance, had tracked down so much of the stupendous German art plunder of World War II and gotten it back to the museums and individuals it had been taken from. It had been the biggest and most successful recovery of stolen art in history, a well-deserved feather in the cap of the U.S. military. Afterward, most of MFA amp; A's experts, like Rorimer of the Met, and like de Quincy of SAM, had returned to the museum world from which they'd been recruited.

'Anyhow,' Tony said, 'according to Vachey, de Quincy was personally responsible for getting a dozen of his paintings back to him, and he swore then that he'd repay him someday by giving something worthwhile to de Quincy's museum.' He shrugged. 'That's us.'

'What took him so long? It's been almost fifty years. De Quincy's been gone for forty.'

'You've got me. According to his attorney, Vachey's getting on in years, he's getting sentimental. Wants to set his accounts in order before he passes on. He's taking care of old obligations, settling debts, redoing his will, all that kind of thing.'

I picked abstractedly at the salad. What I'd heard so far was not abundantly convincing. From what I knew of Vachey, I didn't think he was the sentimental type, or at least not sentimental enough to give away something worth millions just to discharge a half-century-old obligation. There was surely something peculiar going on here, something we hadn't been told.

'Tony, let's assume the painting does exist. Let's assume it's really a Rembrandt. How positive are we that he's got legal ownership? How did he come by it? What does the provenance look like?'

Now provenances are tricky things. A provenance is the pedigree of a painting, the record of its ownership from the time it left the artist's hands. Since paintings change hands often, works as old as the ones we were talking about tend to have long provenances. Often they have gaps; for one reason or another, pictures disappear for a while and then turn up again, often fifty or a hundred years later. When this happens, there are always questions. How, after all, can people be absolutely certain that a long-lost Titian that is discovered in the living

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