Old Scores

Aaron Elkins

Chapter 1

'My treat,' Tony said, reaching over my extended hand to pick up the check. 'This is on me.'

Oh-oh, I thought. Watch out now.

This is not to imply that Tony Whitehead is a devious type, or one in whom every generous action implies some ulterior motive. It's just that Tony usually doesn't do things without a reason. Sometimes it's to your advantage, sometimes it's not. And it's been my experience that when he picks up the tab-it's not.

Tony is my boss, the director of the Seattle Art Museum (or SAM, as we insiders call it). I'm Chris Norgren, the curator of Renaissance and Baroque art. We were lunching a few blocks from the museum in the stylish, dark- wood elegance of a trendy new dining spot called Palomino. Our table was at a railing overlooking the spectacular glass-and-granite atrium of the Pacific First Centre building four stories below. As befitted a restaurant that described itself as 'a Euro-Seattle bistro,' Palomino was neoeclectic all the way. The furnishings were vaguely Art Deco, the wall hangings and open brick ovens vaguely Country French, the massive round columns and mauve walls vaguely Aegean.

It was all very handsome and inviting, and certainly of the moment, but it wasn't a choice I would have expected from Tony, who prided himself on ferreting out little hole-in-the-wall 'finds' under the Alaskan Freeway. He'd surprised me by suggesting it. And made me wonder what was up.

Not that I didn't trust him, you understand. As a matter of fact, I do trust him. And I like him a lot. He works hard and he has high standards for himself and his staff. He's a skilled administrator and a formidable Trecento scholar, and more than once I'd seen him stand up for his people when the chips were down. He'd been particularly kind to me at a critical time in my life.

All the same, there was an occasional whiff of snake oil in his nature, and he had a history of getting me involved in things I should have known better than to get involved in. Always for the greater good of the Seattle Art Museum, of course, or in the interests of art itself. But not always in the interests of my personal comfort and convenience.

'How was the meal?' he said amiably.

'Delicious,' I said. Which was true. I'd had a spit-roasted-chicken pizza, thereby taking advantage in one dish of both the Milanese girarrosto that roasted the fowl, and the alder-fired Roman pizza oven. The famous apple- wood-fired oven had made its contribution in the form of bruschetta, delicately charred chunks of Italian bread coated with olive oil, garlic, and bits of sun-dried tomato. I hadn't figured out a way to try the hardwood grill, too, but whatever I'd had was excellent.

'How about some dessert?'

'No, thanks.'

'Why don't we have some salad? You know, a palate-cleanser.'

I agreed. We ordered green salads. Did we wish fresh Gorgonzola and walnuts on them, the black-shirted, black-trousered waitress wanted to know. We didn't. Would we care for another glass of wine?

'Go ahead, Chris,' Tony said expansively. 'No hurry getting back. We've got all the time in the world.'

'No, thanks, Tony. Gee, I wonder why I have this feeling I'm going to need a clear head.'

'Ha, ha,' he said reassuringly, 'not really. Although, you know, there is something I wanted to tell you about. Don't look so edgy, Chris. I think you're going to find this interesting.'

I didn't doubt it.

He reached for the bruschetta and tore off a piece. 'As it happens, there's a collector who wants to give us one of his paintings,' he said off-handedly. 'It'd fall in your bailiwick if we take it.'

'What painting?' I asked warily.

'Oh, it's just a portrait. By, what's his name, you know, Rembrandt.'

Well, there in a nutshell was why no one had ever accused Tony of not knowing how to get someone's attention.

'What's-his-name-Rembrandt,' I said thickly, once I got my voice going again. 'Tony, this is…' I frowned. 'What do you mean, if we take it? Are you kidding me?'

'Well, we do have a small problem. The man we're talking about is Rene Vachey.'

'Rene…?' I stared at him. 'And he just… just up and offered us this old Rembrandt he happened to have lying around?'

Tony continued his placid chewing. 'That's about it. One of his lawyers called me this morning to tell me about it.'

'Just like that? Out of the blue?'

'Just like that.'

I sat back against my chair, not sure just what my feelings were. 'Mixed' would be as good a way as any to describe them, I guess. A Rembrandt portrait. Any red-blooded curator of Baroque art who says he wouldn't be salivating for it sight unseen would be lying through his teeth. I mean, after all, Rembrandt is-well, Rembrandt. The fact that SAM didn't own a single one of his paintings was something I regarded as almost a personal affront, but I'd long ago given up the idea of getting one any time soon. And now, suddenly, there it was, in my mind's eye, gilded seventeenth-century frame and all, hanging in the Late Renaissance and Baroque Gallery on the fourth floor, in pride of place on the west wall. I was dazzled.

At the same time, the mention of the donor's name had made me thoroughly leery. I'd never met the elderly Rene Vachey, but I knew who he was. A successful French art dealer as well as a collector, he was one of the art world's more eccentric characters (and take my word for it, that is saying something), unpredictable, controversial, notorious. To some, an unscrupulous and self-serving scoundrel; but to many others a welcome gadfly in a field cram-full of self-puffery and faddishness. I could see both points of view.

The most spectacular of his escapades had occurred about ten years earlier, when the morning shift at the Musee Barillot in Dijon had walked in to discover to their horror that six of the museum's most-prized possessions had vanished during the night, frames and all. Among them were paintings by Tintoretto, Murillo, and Goya.

The usual tumult followed. The police were called in and got to work grilling museum employees and other suspicious characters. Photographs and descriptions of the stolen works were given to Interpol. Accusations of lax security were flung at the museum director, who responded by wringing his hands and bemoaning the sad state to which French morality had degenerated. He also fired his security chief.

Then, exactly four weeks later, Rene Vachey opened a public exhibition of works from his own excellent collection, mounted in his own gallery, three blocks from the museum. This was something he did occasionally, but this time there was a difference. Featured proudly and prominently in their original frames were the six pictures missing from the Barillot.

More tumult. Vachey, one of Dijon's most prominent citizens, permitted himself to be arrested and charged in what was almost a public ceremony. Afterward, he held a news conference well-attended by the Parisian press corps (whom he had taken care to invite). Yes, he said, he had taken the pictures from the museum, or rather caused them to be taken; the responsibility was entirely his. But stolen them? No, he had not stolen them. To steal, he pointed out, was to take the property of another, was it not? But whose property were these paintings? Did the Musee Barillot own them? He thought not, and he thought he could prove he was right.

Now I ought to point out that we are not talking about timeless works of art here, despite the famous names. Artists are like anyone else; they have off-days. Usually they themselves destroy or paint over their less successful efforts, but often enough these works survive. And there are certain small European museums, and some American ones, too, that have capitalized on this, picking them up relatively cheaply and amassing collections rich in great names but lacking in great works. This is not my favorite approach to developing a museum, based as it is on the belief that the average museumgoer is too dumb to know or care what he or she is looking at as long as the label says Picasso or Matisse. Worse, that's precisely the kind of museumgoer it helps to create. ('Ooh, look, a genuine

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