Contributed by Laurie Fendrich / What a mess. And today was doomsday.
Eliza Netsua couldn’t get back to sleep, so she dragged herself out of bed at five a.m. Her loft, long ago a sewing sweatshop renovated only insofar as the splintery floors had been sanded and the walls slapped with multiple coats of white paint, was already hot and stuffy. A full-on August heat wave in New York. The gallery was closed for the month and, moreover, it was Monday, a day even she, the assistant director, wouldn’t ordinarily be working. But on this particular Monday, she was, yes, doomed was the word, slated to inform Katrina Olsavsky — one of the gallery’s most important clients — that the Henry Chattingsworth painting that Eliza herself had sold her five years ago, was a fake.
In the merciless yellow-pink light, Eliza showered. After the sweat on her forehead stopped glistening, she donned her most professional summer dress, the black shift with the cap sleeves. She then reached for her matinee pearls. Best, she thought, to appear more like a banker and less like an art dealer today. She poured herself an iced leftover Starbucks from the fridge and turned on her phone. There was the latest text from Doug Golden, her boss and owner of Max Golden Gallery — named for his father, a pioneering American dealer of modern art. In his usual fashion, Doug had sent it in the middle of the night. “Tell Katrina,” he texted, followed by the words, “No one knew until three days ago,” followed by, “Say this sort of thing can happen etc.” It was the same thing he’d already said to her in person at least five times, but as always, he needed to treat her as stupid by then repeating what he said in texts.
At 10 a.m., riding up the elevator to Katrina’s apartment, Eliza took off her mask and used her arm to wipe the sweat from her forhead. Then she smeared her fresh peach gloss onto her lips. She’d try to keep the proper social distance with Katrina, naturally, but since both of them, as well as Katrina’s housekeeper, were fully vaccinated against COVID, none of them would be wearing masks.
The apartment was blissfully cool and inviting in the way rich people’s apartments in the summer always are — sealed against the withering heat of NYC summers, yet flooded with sunlight. Angie led her into the living room where she stood next to where the Chattingsworth usually hung, awkwardly trying to adjust the seam of her dress. She looked over at the Ekaf vase, the one she’d knocked over and broken a year and a half ago while Katrina was in Florida and she was in the apartment taking inventory of the art. What a catastrophe that had been. She had hid the accident from Doug, who would have thrown a fit had he known, or maybe even fired her. After frantically searching the Internet for a week straight, she’d located a replacement a few blocks away on Madison Avenue, ironically enough. Five thousand dollars — five thousand dollars! The price had almost made her vomit; she was able to afford it only by maxing out her Visa card. Sharp-eyed as Katrina was, when she returned from her vacation she never suspected a thing. Now it stood like the devil it was, glimmering on its pedastal, its ugly shape intensified by the translucent sallow green glass.
After several minutes, Katrina entered the room, slow but sure, with her housekeeper Angie following her carrying a tray of coffee and cookies. Belying the Czech porcelain, the coffee was instant. The rich always have their tics. Katrina beckoned Eliza to sit down next to her on avelvet, dark green 1930s Art Deco sofa.
“Not to worry, sit near me. We are all vaccinated, dear Liza. You look so very hot, but here you can cool down,” she said. “So when do I see my Chattingsworth back here? A little frame job like this why does it take so long?”
Although Katrina spoke with a heavy Czech accent, after more than five years of working with her, Eliza always understood her every word.. Now Katrina wassmiling, her right hand stretched out to rest gently on Eliza knee. The ring finger of her left hand sported a pileup of emeralds and diamonds. Like Eliza, she was dressed all in black — an elegant asymetrical black silk blouse paired with cropped black slacks and pointed black flats — wearing no jewelry other than the rings. Her white hair was wrapped in a complicated European twist held together in the back by a short black clip. Katrina, who was nearing ninety, knew that a little bit of face powder, a touch of mascara and some lightly applied pale taupe brown lipstick made her look ten years younger.
Eliza picked up her coffee and, after taking a polite sip, placed it back on the coffee table. There was no point in delaying things. She turned her hips just a bit in more in order to face Katrina head on. Then she took a deep breath.
“Katrina, I have bad news for you, and because I know you value the truth, I’m not going to sugarcoat anything. While your Chattingsworth was out being reframed, a terrible discovery was made. It turns out the painting isn’t genuine. It’s a forgery. Since I’m the one who made the deal, since I’m the one who sold it to you, I wanted to deliver this news to you in person. Maybe you think Doug should be here with me, but truly it wasn’t his fault. It’s my fault. Of course, it goes without saying that the gallery will make restitution. Every cent will be repaid.”
Eliza was taken aback to hear these words tumble out of her mouth. She had no idea if the gallery would pay Katrina back in full, and more, it was unequivocally Doug’s fault. It was his father Max who had acquired the painting, and it was Doug who had kept it tucked away in the warehouse all these years — and then, only after some reluctance, agreed to sell it to Katrina. Surely Doug knew by memory everything about its provenance. Yet for some unknown reason, here she was protecting him. Damn, lying like this to cover the ass of a powerful man was such a woman thing.
Eliza looked down for a moment, afraid to see Katrina’s reaction. When she looked up, Katrina was sitting motionless, like a blackbird perched on a limb. It was best to remain quiet and let things settle. With some effort, Katrina stood up from the sofa and walked toward the row of windows. At her age, she never moved fast, but this time she moved at a pace a snail would call unhurried. Then she pointed over to the empty space on the wall where the Chattingsworth had hung before the framers had taken it away.
“Liza, you are a good girl. I like working with you from day one. But you just like young people all over, you don’t really understand art.” She looked around the room. “Art, my Liza dear, art is about desire.”
Here comes the speech, Eliza thought. O.K., the woman has a right. But with her heavy accent, if she talked a long time, it would be tiresome.
Katrina gestured again at the empty space on the wall, and then across to the other side of the room where the wall of Gorky drawings hung in groups of three. With an agitated voice, she asked, “Do you see my Gorkys? Liza my darling girl do you see them Gorkys? All of them? Do you see them?”
“Well, yes, Katrina, of course I see them,” Eliza answered, barely able to suppress annoyance at the questions. “I’ve always admired them. Gorky’s one of my favorite artists, and your collection, and the way you’ve hung them, is stunning.”
“Yes, well, my husband Artur, he love these Gorkys so very much.” Katrina stared at them and then turned to Eliza. “They are fakes, my dear Liza. All fakes. All of them.” She was almost beaming as she said the words.
Eliza remained seated, stunned. “Fakes? What do you mean, fakes?”
“Yes, well, Artur wanted Gorky so bad, and I know there was no way to get Gorky after he kill his self. Even back then all the Gorky drawings are gone or way too much money. But from Max, I know an artist down in the Village. Back then, that’s where all the artists live. His name was Jack Sabinitz. Jack, he turn out he fake anybody, old master or modern. I hire Jack to make these Gorky for Artur, one a year until Artur die, and Artur love them very much.”
Eliza got up to look closely at the Gorkys. The woman had gone mad. Of course they were Gorkys. Surely they were. Didn’t her master’s degree in modern art history from NYU and the years of going to auctions and museums with Doug count for anything? These drawings had Gorky’s varied, looping contour line along with his loosely applied wash. Then again, wasn’t there a little something in the line that seemed clumsy? So if they’re not Gorky’s work, she thought, whoever this Jack Sabinitz guy was, he was damn good.
“Weren’t you afraid Artur would find out?” Eliza finally asked, after sitting back down on the sofa.
Katrina walked over to join her. “Oh, no, no, that was not possible. Yes, it hard sometimes when museum people stop by. I know they wonder. But Artur, he see Gorky because Artur want to see Gorky. You see, Artur, he had desire. When you have desire you do not see fake.”
“Well, still, Katrina, this is a terrible thing. I mean, Ibelieve you. But it’s, well, if these drawings are forged, they’re worthless. This is awful. You could get in serious trouble. What about insurance? I mean, surely your accountant must be told these are fakes?” Eliza asked, her incredulity mounting.
“My accountant, yes, he knows. He never let bad money happen ever. He never insure fakes. And Douglas father Max, such a smart man. He had reasons he never share with anyone about these fake Gorkys. Douglas, though, well, I not sure Douglas he ever know they are fake. Maybe yes, maybe no.” Katrina made a gesture of helplessness. “But yes, when I die, my nephews they will be disappointed. That I know.”
Katrina folded her hands in her lap and sighed. “Douglas’s father Max, when Artur business good, we always pay what you Americans call top dollar for real paintings we want and we never ever question price. Artur and I never haggle.When Artur business not so good, Max, he always help me please Artur anyway. Max know when Jack paint the many many fakes in this room.”
Eliza looked around her. “What? There more fakes? And Max knew? Don’t tell me the Demuth drawings, too?”
“Oh, no, not the Demuths. Silly girl. They are real. But the Artur Dove. He looks easy to fake but Jack say is actually hard to fake. Only Jack could do it just right. Liza, look, you have to know the right way to bring fakes in with real art. The secret is to mix them in with real! Not all of these are fakes. I work hard to mix just right the fakes with the not fakes.”
“Katrina, I’m still working hard to absorb all this. Tell me now, did you know the Cottingsworth was a fake?” Eliza asked.
“Well of course, darling. I know it fake from the start, when Max first show me in his warehouse many years ago. I know because Jack paint the fake for Max and I watch Jack paint it!”
“What? You saw this Jack person paint the Chattingsworth? You were willing to do a fifty-thousand-dollar deal with me for a painting you knew from the start was a fake?!”
“Well look, I know that the money I pay never get to that amount, Liza. You come and sell me the painting but behind things Douglas let me know he let me pay almost nothing for it because of so many years his father sell me real paintings at prices way too high. I think Douglas finally let me have the Chattingsworth in the warehouse not just to please me but because he somehow he need to do that. I do not know why.”
“But you should know Douglas like you very much,” Katrina quickly added. “He always tell me you are good in gallery but yes, have no talent at selling. He say you are too sincere, too honest. But he want you to earn a first commission at the time and I very much want this Chattinsworth. So all was good. I feel bad Max maybe never tell Douglas the Chattingsworth it is fake, but what can I do? Sometimes fathers they want to protect sons.”
Eliza, who had given up trying to follow the dizzying logic of Katrina’s narrative, turned red at the insult to her sales ability, which, alas, she knew was in fact the unvarnished truth.
“I still want the painting back, Liza. I want it very bad. You must bring it back here, this very week. Jack, he was special to me those many years ago.”
Katrina’s eyes grew misty as her old eyes struggled to focus. In quicker than a flash, Eliza saw the truth. A once young and beautiful Katrina in the arms of Jack Sabinitz, the two of them in the throes of passion on a paint-smeared settee in his filthy artist’s loft. Multiple times, through the years, even. But no. This was her imagination running away with things. Katrina had adored Artur and would never have betrayed him.
“So let me get this straight, Katrina. You want me to return a painting to you that you and I both know is a fake.” She had returned to merely trying to understand where things stood now.
“Yes, that is what I want.”
“So you can have a room full of fakes.”
Katrina sighed. “No, dear Liza, you do not listen to me. The Arthur Dove painting over there is fake — he is so very easy for Jack to fake. But the Miro and Stuart Davis they real, though, OK, one day Jack, he add gouache and oil to a Miro pochoir Max give him to make it seem like original. Anyway, I tell you again the Demuth watercolors, they real.” Katrina seemed pleased to remind her of this. “But yes, the Chattingsworth is fake and I want it back.” She stared hard at the empty spot on the wall.
“So you see the art in this room is all mixed, fake and real,” Katrina said, looking at Eliza as she proudly summed things up. She pressed her bejewelled hand down on the sofa. “This sofa, it is copy of real Art Nouveau from 1930s, but the Vassily chairs, they are original, from original factory. The rug is from Paris, very old rug house. Irreplaceable, I tell you this rug it is worth ten times the fake Dove painting even if it was real.
Then Katrina nodded over at the Ekaf vase. “That lovely green vase is fake. A knockoff they call it, of artist name Ekoff. His vase sell for many thousands. I want it because the glass remind me of glass from when I was a child in Europe.”
Eliza stood up and stared at the Ekaf. She felt her cheeks flush yet again. That horrible day a year ago, when she’d accidentally smashed the ugly thing to smithereens, came rushing back. She was still paying off the five thousand dollars on her credit card for the replacement. The ridiculousness! And she had felt so proud of herself for having pulled it off, for even smiling to herself when Katrina returned from Florida and never noticed a thing.
“How much did that fake vase cost?” Eliza whispered.
“Oh, Liza dear, I do not remember. Maybe twenty-five, thirty dollars. I buy it a few years ago Christmastime. Angie take me. They are all over downtown, in Chinatown.”
Except for the muffled sounds of cars on the street below, the room was silent. “Listen, Liza dear. I see very much you like that vase,” Katrina said, smiling benevolently. “I actually always know you really like it. I tell you what. I give it to you. Take it now, with you. It would mean so much to me. Angie wrap it for you. I want you to have it for being the good girl you are and for all the many years you help me with my art.”
About the author: Laurie Fendrich is a painter, writer, and professor emerita of fine arts at Hofstra University.
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