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The Collection

The Collection

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The Collection

Longueur:
534 pages
5 heures
Sortie:
Jul 23, 2018
ISBN:
9780463202517
Format:
Livre

Description

A mysterious French nobleman arrives at Ekaterina Tuomonova's gallery in Chelsea, London. He is in search of an expert in early 20th century Post Impressionist art. Olivier de la Salle proposes John and Ekaterina visit his château in Provence, in the South of France, where he needs help in identifying a collection of paintings long forgotten in the recesses of his château.
The story explores the world of art and art dealers with their immensely rich clients, collectors and oligarchs, crooks and forgers, auction houses and museums, the vast sums of money that art attracts today, artists and their friends, their wealth and their misery, their mistresses and their patrons. It is the Belle Epoque, then comes World War I, the Russian Revolution, followed by World War II and the looting by the Nazis of Museums and Jewish families in 1940, and finally the arrival of Russian oligarchs who spend hundreds of millions of dollars to own the works of Picasso, Modigliani and their fellow artists who lived when Paris was the cultural centre of the world at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Sortie:
Jul 23, 2018
ISBN:
9780463202517
Format:
Livre

À propos de l'auteur

John Kinsella lives in France where he spends his time between Paris and the Basque Country, that is whenever he is not travelling further afield in search of experience and new ideas. He has written twelve novels and translated two of his books to French as well as seven other books on archaeology, architecture, biographies and religion from French and Spanish into English.In addition he has authored An Introduction to Early 20th Century Chinese Literature, this is in a pdf format as it is difficult to transform it into a mobi or epub format and can be found on Amazon.Contact mail:johnfranciskinsella@gmail.com

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The Collection - John Francis Kinsella

THE

COLLECTION

John Francis Kinsella

BANKSTERBOOKS

LONDON - PARIS - BERLIN

cover montage with

Wikimedia commons

Standing nude (Elvira) Modigliani

Walter Hadorn Collection

Kunstmuseum, Bern, Switzerland

Published by John Francis Kinsella at Kindle

Copyright 2018 John Francis Kinsella

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favourite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the work of the author.

K-081020181814

johnfranciskinsella@gmail.com

http://johnfranciskinsella.blogspot.fr/

https://www.facebook.com/john.f.kinsella

CONTENTS

Prologue

Chapter 1 A Visitor

Chapter 2 The Gallery

Chapter 3 A Strange Story

Chapter 4 Dubitative

Chapter 5 Hidden Risks

Chapter 6 Michel Kahn

Chapter 7 Archaeology

Chapter 8 Gertrude Stein

Chapter 9 London Experts

Chapter 10 Ambroise Vollard

Chapter 11 Kremlin Connection

Chapter 12 Icons

Chapter 13 Sergei Shchukin

Chapter 14 Naive Politicians

Chapter 15 Who wants to be a Billionaire

Chapter 16 Another Country

Chapter 17 Art, Images and Communications

Chapter 18 The Village

Chapter 19 A Trail

Chapter 20 The Stein family in Paris

Chapter 21 Legal Counsel

Chapter 22 The Orangerie

Chapter 23 Nazi Looting

Chapter 24 Sanctions

Chapter 25 A Home-made Oligarch

Chapter 26 Houghton Hall Revisited

Chapter 27 Disco Night

Chapter 28 Oligarchs

Chapter 29 Picasso

Chapter 30 Sunflowers

Chapter 31 Amsterdam

Chapter 32 Art Dealers Fin de Siècle

Chapter 33 Nouveaux Riches

Chapter 34 A Hair in the Wind

Chapter 35 The Man who Invented Impressionism

Chapter 36 Science

Chapter 37 Liam Clancy

Chapter 38 The Pushkin

Chapter 39 Marseille

Chapter 40 A Tragic Tale

Chapter 41 The Revolution

Chapter 42 A Change of Sentiment

Chapter 43 A Battle of Giants

Chapter 44 Sex, Scandal and Oligarchs

Chapter 45 From Russia with Cash

Chapter 46 Art Business

Chapter 47 Sudden Death

Chapter 48 Forgeries

Chapter 49 Enemies and Opposition

Chapter 50 Another Victim

Chapter 51 Salvator Mundi

Chapter 52 Magellan’s Cross

Chapter 53 Heartland

Chapter 54 Non-invasive Techniques

Chapter 55 Chagall

Chapter 56 The Heart of the Matter

Chapter 57 A Better Laundromat

Chapter 58 An Important Visit

Chapter 59 A Missing Yacht

Chapter 60 A Search into the Past

Chapter 61 Ka 38

Chapter 62 The Lost Generation

Chapter 63 Targets

Chapter 64 Picasso and van Gogh in Paris

Chapter 65 Modigliani

Chapter 66 Fakes

Chapter 67 Rue Laffitte

Chapter 68 Weill and Kahnweiler

Chapter 69 Pressure

Chapter 70 New York

Chapter 71 A Limerick Lad

Chapter 72 Liam’s Story

Chapter 73 Marbella

Chapter 74 Rumours

Chapter 75 Sotheby’s New York

Chapter 76 A Change of Plans

Chapter 77 A Clan Event

We hope to see a Europe where men of every country will think as much of being a European as of belonging to their native land, and that without losing any of their love and loyalty of their birthplace. We hope wherever they go in this wide domain, to which we set no limits in the European Continent, they will truly feel Here I am at home. I am a citizen of this country too. Let us meet together. Let us work together. Let us do our utmost – all that is in us – for the good of all.

Winston Churchill, Amsterdam, 1948

The Clan

I don’t know which one of us invented the tag, but it suited the description. We were a clan. A tightly knit, if distantly scattered, clan. We were bonded by loyalty, our Irish roots and our links to Pat’s bank.

To an outsider it would have looked incongruous, me with Ekaterina, my Russian wife, Pat Kennedy with his Chinese wife, Tom with his Colombian wife and Sergei who wasn’t even Irish though his wife was, and Pat O’Connelly who wasn’t sure who he was with.

PROLOGUE

At first I was impressed by Liam’s enthusiasm and his new found interest in art. He was jetting in and out of Nîmes almost every weekend, when he wasn’t in Paris – where I imagined he was visiting the Louvre or the Musée d’Orsay. Then the penny dropped, we saw him hand in hand with Camille de la Salle, strolling through the streets of Nîmes, near the Arènes – the Roman amphitheatre, they didn’t see us and we didn’t spoil their moment together.

Katya thought it was nice, the daughter of a hard-up Comte and a very wealthy young man. I must say I agreed.

What were we all doing in Nîmes in the South of France? That was a long story. It started more than a century earlier during The Belle Époque, when Paris was the cultural centre of the world, where the visual arts – painting, music and dance, flourished in an age of peace and prosperity. Cosmopolitan Paris with its artists, writers, poets and patrons of the arts who danced in Montmartre, passed their afternoons in the cafés of Montparnasse, oblivious to the impending catastrophe of war and revolution that was to change their world forever.

Chapter 1

A Visitor

We’ve probably met before, I told you my story of meeting Ekaterina at the Pushkin. That’s right I’m John Francis. Our family has grown, Alena now has a brother, William, named after my father, Will has two middle names, Wassily after Ekaterina’s father, and Viktor after Alena’s father.

He’s just six months old and his nurse, Deidre, a young live-in London-Irish girl, cares for him weekdays and weekends when necessary. I have to admit that whilst I’m filled with pride at being a father I’m a bit puzzled by babies, I wasn’t prepared for him, I mean he came so very late in my life.

Alena is a wonderful presence, she’s now ten years old and seems to spend her life dancing and doing cartwheels. I had never imaged what a joy it could be to watch a child growing up, full of the exuberance of life, sure of herself, at the same time aware of who was watching and playing to her audience.

She now spoke near perfect English with from time to time a fault in pronunciation, or a Russian word creeping into her speech. At school she excels in dance and music.

Ekaterina is now absorbed by her family and the gallery and at moments I feel a little lost in this strange environment of managing a home and business.

The foundation runs itself, I am a figurehead so to speak, a fairly busy one. I suppose it’s better than being just a decoration.

That said, it would be one of those weekends when I was an accessory. There was the exhibition about to be held at our Tuomanova Gallery, that’s situated close to Chelsea Harbour, which would occupy Ekaterina full time. Alena had an astonishingly full programme of activities, that left William and myself at home. There wasn’t very much I could do with William, I mean it wasn’t as if I could play with a six month old baby.

Chelsea Harbour and Battersea Park London

It was late Thursday afternoon and the gallery was about to close. I had passed by to take a look at the final preparations for Ekaterina’s exhibition ‘New Names’. She was presenting, in partnership with a Moscow gallery, a new generation of Russian painters, including one whose paintings I liked very much, Sergei Nekrasov, a young painter from the Chelyabinsk region.

We were expecting a lot of expat Russians, including a few big names, at the invitation only vernissage on Friday evening, along with a crowd of art world and showbiz personalities with a number of well-known collectors and of course the press and paparazzi on the lookout for a celebrity scoop.

It was looking good, especially after a stressful ten days when several of the exhibits had gotten caught up in customs formalities at Heathrow.

I was admiring one painting I liked of a young red-headed girl when Jessica, one of Ekaterina’s assistants, caught my eye and made a discreet sign, beckoning me over to a corner.

‘There’s a Frenchman who wants to talk to Ekaterina.’

‘She’s left. Is it something important?’

‘He won’t say. He only wants to speak with Ekaterina.’

My curiosity was aroused.

‘Where is he?’

‘At the reception.’

‘Fine, I’ll have a word with him.’

I walked over to the reception area and peeking around a corner I saw an elegant man of about sixty years old studying one of the exhibits.

‘Hello, I’m John Francis, Ekaterina’s husband.’

Ah, enchanté. Parlez-vous français?

‘Oui,’ I said, a little hesitantly.

‘I see. Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Olivier de la Salle de Sommières,’ he paused an instant before adding in a dismissive manner, ‘Comte de Sommières, that’s in Provence.’

I smiled politely as I waited for him to continue.

‘I was given your wife’s name by Alice Fitzwilliams.’

‘I see. She’s not here at the moment. I’m a very old friend of Alice, maybe I can be of help?’

‘Perhaps. Is there somewhere we can talk in private?’

‘In the conference room. Come with me.’

I pointed the way to our meeting room, invited the Comte to be seated and closed the door.

‘It’s a long story Monsieur Francis. The history of my family goes back more generations than I’d care to count. My ancestor, the first Comte de Sommières, served Philip VI and fought in the Battle of Crecy,’ he smiled as he mentioned that famous battle,’ and our château dates from about that time, though the foundations we believe go much further back.’

I listened, waiting for him to make his point.

‘But I’m not here to talk about that. During the war, my grandfather sheltered a Jewish family who had fled Paris, in the in the Occupied Zone, for the Zone Libre. When the Nazis occupied the south in November 1942, Michel Kahn put his wife and two children on a ship in Marseille that was sailing for Buenos Aires. He then returned to Paris with false papers to settle his affairs and had his furniture and valuable objects sent to us for safe keeping. He then disappeared.’

‘I see,’ said, an interesting story though I didn’t see where it was leading

‘After the war, my grandfather tried to find Kahn, but it seemed he had been sent to Auschwitz, where he probably died. We then tried to find his wife in Argentina, but found no trace.’

I listened.

‘Your probably wondering why I’m telling you this.’

I smiled again and made him a sign to continue.

‘We stored Kahn’s furniture in one of the wings of our château, where it has remained to this day. My grandfather and father felt morally bound to keep it until they found Kahn, or one of his family members.’

‘I see,’ I said as the story became more interesting.

‘My grandfather passed away quite a long time back, and slowly the story of Kahn lost its interest, by the time my father died in 1981, it was a vague souvenir and was slowly forgotten.

‘Three months ago, I undertook restoration work in the wing and those rooms were opened with a view to moving the contents to make way for the work.

‘I commenced an inventory, there was a larger number of paintings, interesting, but apparently nothing of very great value.’

I must say felt a little let down when the Comte said that.

‘Naturally I know the secrets of our château and knocking on the wall I found one of the doors, disguised in the decorative wood panelling, which led to the servants passages, which was nothing unusual in our old French châteaux, they kept the servants out of sight,’ he said with an apologetic smile.

‘I hope I’m not being too lengthy?’ he said pausing.

‘Not at all.’

‘Well I took a lamp to see if there was anything of interest hidden away. There was nothing in the passage except dust, then out of curiosity I followed it to the stairway that led to the kitchens and laundry rooms in the basement. To cut a long story short I found a lot of other stuff, chandeliers and wall fittings, and behind a roughly boarded up alcove, quite a number of paintings, certain were framed, others on their stretchers, some rolled up, and a number of boxes and cases with folders full of drawings and sketches.

They were obviously old, at a guess from the styles about 1900. A closer look and I recognised a couple of the artists’ signatures.’

My interest perked up again as the Comte lowered his voice.

‘Now I’m not an expert, and I did not want to contact one in France, at least before I had some outside advice. There were several questions, first it was necessary to identify each painting, and secondly determine whether they part of Kahn’s property or not, you know the legal question of ownership.’

‘I see.’

‘It was why I contacted Alice, hoping she could introduce me to a discreet specialist in London.’

Now I was listening.

‘Can you tell me who the artists are?’

‘Yes, but perhaps we should sign a confidentiality agreement,’ he said with an apologetic shrug. ‘You understand I have to take a minimum of precautions.’

‘I’ll call my lawyer if you agree,’ I proposed.

‘That won’t be necessary, I already have a document with me. It also stipulates you examine the paintings within seven days.’

I sensed it could be interesting, but I had to know if a visit was worthwhile, if the paintings were of real artistic and market value.

‘Good. If you’d like to show me your agreement.’

He pulled a couple of typed pages from a small document case and slide them over to me.

I browsed over the details, they were pretty standard, probably downloaded on the internet.

‘So would you like me to sign?’

‘Yes,’ he said pointing to the spaces where I had to fill in my name and address and a place to affix the date and my signature.

I complied. He kept one copy and gave me the other.

He smiled, ‘I suppose you like to see the list?’

I nodded and he passed me another sheet of paper, a list which I carefully inspected.

‘May I ask what you know about Kahn?’

‘Not very much to tell you the truth. I think Kahn was a lawyer and had done some work for my grandfather. It seems he was a friend of Gertrude Stein, who amongst other things was an art collector, so I suppose he moved in that circle, you know, artists, writers and intellectuals.’

‘I see,’ I replied, vaguely remembering Gertrude Stein as a writer who’d met James Joyce in Paris in the twenties or thirties.

‘It seems that he was quite wealthy, and in 1940, when the Nazis were approaching Paris, many other Jewish families confided their valuables to his care, including works of art. The idea was he could sell them and forward the proceeds to them, overseas.

‘The trouble is there was no market and many of the paintings at that time still had no value.’

‘So what happened then?’

‘Well after the Nazis occupied the rest of France everything happened very quickly, which was why Kahn returned to Paris and disappeared, leaving everything in my grandfather’s care.’

‘I see. Where are you staying? In London?’

‘I’m taking the Eurostar back to Paris this evening,’ he said looking at his watch.’

‘Oh!’

‘Then tomorrow morning back home. Sommières is near Montpellier. Do you know it?’

‘As a matter of fact I do. I was there three years ago with Ekaterina.’

‘Well if you’re interested you’ll have to come quickly, within seven days.’

‘Yes, let me see, I was thinking quickly, at the beginning of the week.’

‘Tuesday if that suites you.’

‘Good, I’d like a copy of the lists if you don’t mind.’

‘Well... alright, Alice said I could trust Ekaterina.’

‘Have you shown these to anyone else?’

‘Not for the moment.’

He produced an old fashioned copper plate visiting card emblazoned with the family crest.

‘This is my card. If you intend staying in Sommières I can book a hotel room for you.’

‘Fine, I’ll call you when I know the time of my arrival.’

I made a photocopy of the list and asked if he’d like me to call a taxi, but he declined. ‘I can drop you off somewhere if you like. I’m on my way home, near Victoria Station.’

‘If you insist.’

I dropped him off on Buckingham Palace Road, near the station. It was the least I could do. There I suspect he took the underground to St Pancras for the Eurostar.

Almost as soon as I’d said goodbye to de la Salle, my mobile rang. It was Ekaterina to know where I was. I hurried back to our place, it was not far, on Royal Hospital Road.

Ekaterina was talking on the phone when I arrived, something to do with the arrangements for the caterers for the vernissage.

Over dinner I mentioned the visitor and my intention to go to France, she was surprised, but her mind was elsewhere, what with putting the children to bed and then last minute calls to her assistants.

Chapter 2

The Gallery

Art was a strange business as the products a gallery bought and sold were unique.

Ekaterina’s business was buying and selling art for her clients, promoting her artists. There were several kinds of contemporary art, that made by artists now dead, for which the quantity of work was by definition unexpandable, this group was made up of famous artists, known to all, whose works were of huge value, followed by a second group appreciated by specialists though of a much lesser market value, but still figuring in the thousands of dollars, finally were dead artists who would probably never be known other than by local museums and institutions as part of local history.

The living artists were the international monstres sacrés, a handful, like Jasper Johns, Jeff Koons, Ai Weiwei, David Hockney or Damien Hurst, whose works sell for millions, even hundreds of millions, then a whole crowd of artists well known in the world of art and collectors in their respective regions, followed by a legion of hopefuls most of whom would never make it beyond shows put together by the mundane kinds of galleries that can be seen in any city almost anywhere.

The scarcity of an artist’s work increased prices. Some artists such as Picasso or Chagall were highly prolific in their output, both lived to very great ages, others were much less productive and certain like Modigliani died young.

I have to admit it was a hit and miss business, as it was impossible to predict who would break through to reach fame and celebrity for some inexplicable reason. It was why galleries like Ekaterina’s, besides backing a stable of artists under contract, promoting one man shows and participating in art fairs, bought and sold whenever they could works by famous or recognised artists, an insider business, where they made real money

Working with collectors and museums, knowing when a work of art comes on the market, it was a question of who you knew, and Ekaterina now knew a lot of very wealthy art collectors and was building a solid reputation.

Chapter 3

A Strange Story

The next day was a whirl and it was late in the evening after the last guests had left I returned home, leaving Ekaterina to head off to some fashionable late night restaurant in Chelsea.

The house was quiet, the children’s nanny had turned in and finally I could give my full attention to Olivier de la Salle.

I ran down the list of names, some I had never heard of. The presence of those I did recognise seemed scarcely believable, though a few appeared to be misspelt in the transcription. I grabbed my tablet and went to a web site specialized in early twentieth century Modernist painters. I checked-out the names, noting titles and dates of paintings, then another site specialised in lost works, many of which had disappeared during the wars.

I went to bed with my mind in a buzz and had difficulty sleeping. When Ekaterina returned it must have been near three, not the moment to talk to her about what could turn out to be a wild goose chase.

I was up early, followed by Ekaterina who was soon fussing around the children and in a hurry to get off to the gallery. My programme for the day was fixed. Shuttling Alena to and from activities including a birthday party with one of her classmates, leaving me peeping in and out of the exhibition whenever I had a free moment.

I recounted the story of Olivier de la Salle to Ekaterina between her phone calls, coffee and instructions to the children’s nanny, but she wasn’t really listening to me, no doubt the story seemed too far fetched to be of real interest.

I called Pat O’Connelly in Paris, it was an hour later over there.

‘You’re early John!’

I laughed.

‘What’s troubling you?’

‘Nothing. Tell me Pat, what have you got on Monday?’

‘So there is something.’

‘Listen, I’m serious.’

‘OK. I have a couple of meetings, nothing really important.’

‘Can you come to Sommières with me?’

‘Sommières?’

‘Yes, in the Midi, Provence, near Montpellier. It’s important. I need your help.’

‘Well....’

‘We can take the TGV to Avignon, less than three hours from Paris.’

‘OK John, now tell me what it’s about.’

‘I can’t go into the details, but it’s a meeting with someone who calls himself Comte Olivier de la Salle de Sommières.’

‘A penniless aristocrat?’

‘I don’t know, I’ll tell you the rest on Monday. I’ve booked a seat on the Eurostar and I’ll be in Paris at eleven. There’s a train to Montpellier at twelve, buy two tickets and I’ll meet you at Gare de Lyon.’

Waiting for Alena I started to swot up on early 20th century painters in France and instead discovered Gertrude Stein and her role in the Post-Impressionist movements. She was an American writer and art collector who lived in Paris at the time, famous for her salon at rue de Fleurus, which was the meeting point of many famous artists and writers of the day, including Pablo Picasso, Cézanne, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, James Joyce and Henri Matisse.

The photos of the walls at her place on rue Fleurus, were covered with paintings amongst which were van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Gauguin’s Three Tahitians, and Cézanne’s Bathers. Paintings by Renoir, Manet and Toulouse-Lautrec were hung from ceiling to floor, and even the doors of the dining room were covered with Picasso’s sketches.

The Stein’s place at 27 rue Fleurus

On Saturday evenings she held her celebrated salon, a gathering with the presence of Picasso and his mistress Fernande Olivier, Georges Braque, Henri Rousseau, Matisse and Cézanne, as well as writers, poets and passing visitors to Paris.

I then learnt in 1874, the year Gertrude Stein was born, an association of independent artists, founded by Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro and fellow artists, called the Société anonyme coopérative des artistes peintres, sculpteurs et graveurs, broke away from tradition, embodied by the French Académie des beaux-arts, and organized an independent exhibition in Paris, at 35 boulevard des Capucines, which gave birth to a movement called Impressionism.

In total, one hundred and sixty five pieces of work by thirty artists were presented to the paying public, the entrance fee to the exhibition was one franc, about half a dollar at the time.

The name was derived from Claude Monet’s painting, Sunrise, which the art critic Louis Leroy declared was an ‘impression’, incomplete, with its unconventional apparently easy brushwork, striking colours and new pigments. The painting created a natural effect of life and movement, which was eventually accepted as a new way to depict the world seen by a new generation of creators at a time when photography was in its infancy, without colour, or spontaneity, when moving images were yet to invented.

In Monet’s days, life was changing fast, with the developments of the railways that radiated from the capital, enabling Parisians to discover the surrounding countryside at weekends, all of which led to the bucolic scenes created by Monet and Renoir, of picnickers in the château de Sceau, boaters and bathers on the Marne, or dancers at the popular guinguettes.

Impressionists such as Pissarro and Gustave Caillebotte focused their attention on Paris itself with scenes of daily life in the capital, working people and the bourgeois, in bistros and cafés, in natural street scenes.

After 1886, the Impressionists each went their own way as new painters arrived developing their own avant-garde movements such as Neo-Impressionism, Primitivism and Symbolism.

By Sunday things had calmed down, though the gallery was opened after lunch, and I managed to speak with Ekaterina. She listened carefully and looked at the list, but in spite of her attention I had the vague impression she was humouring me.

‘Go if you like John, it won’t do any harm, it’ll be good to take Pat with you. He’ll keep you company,’ she said laughing, then a little more seriously, ‘If it’s really interesting I’ll jump on a plane.’

We took the children for a walk across Albert Bridge to Battersea Park before lunch, then Ekaterina disappeared leaving me to amuse Alena and keep an eye on Will, our baby son, with the help of the nanny who was more competent in the matter than I.

Now Ekaterina is a warm, understanding, person, a good mother, who I have learned to trust implicitly. She rarely talked about her work, by that I mean her science, the rest she was as open as anybody else.

Perhaps it was her upbringing, training, something to do with her parents being old style academicians, or it could have been something else Russian, because whenever it came to her professional opinion she seemed to change personalities. A bit like a doctor where diagnosing a patient. Rather cold and very serious.

When I asked her what a Pissarro was worth, she replied, ‘It depends.’

‘On what?’ I naively asked.

‘Whether it’s knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing,’ she replied dryly. ‘It’s what your Oscar Wilde said.’

‘Talking about critics,’ I corrected her.

‘Before you get too involved John I have to tell you a couple of stories about lost art treasures turning up. First it’s a long business, so you have to be prepared for a long investigation. Secondly it’s not always as it seems, I mean people invent stories and then others try to change them to their advantage.’

‘I see.’

‘The other thing is the art world is full of so-called experts, pseudo experts, and crooks.’

You remember Cornelius Gurlitt, in Munich, he was not the only to hoard a collection of art treasures.

‘Yes,’ I replied hesitatingly, vaguely remembering the story.

‘Well there’s an even better story in Moscow.’

I listened.

‘It started about ten years ago.’

‘I couldn’t. At the time I was too busy with Michael Fitzwilliams.’

‘Then in 2013.’

That didn’t ring a bell either, perhaps I’d been in China with Pat Kennedy.

‘Do you know Elia Belutin.’

I waved my head.

‘He was a well known Russian artist. Well his widow, Nina Moleva, gave his collection to Vladimir Putin in 2013.’

‘I’d never heard of him or the story.’

‘Russian paintings?’

‘No, Rembrandt, Rubens, van Dyck, El Greco, and Leonardo da Vinci.’

‘He must have been a very rich collector.’

‘No, he was famous avant-garde artist and his wife, Nina Moleva, an art historian.’

‘They’d hidden the paintings, one thousand of them, in their attic.’

‘Must have been worth a fortune.’

‘A billion dollars.’

‘Jesus.

‘According to the scarcely believable story, Elia Belutin’s grandfather, Ivan Grinev, collected them.’

‘Sounds like de la Salle.’

‘Yes, but even more improbably. He was supposed to have been a scenery builder at the Imperial Theatres. He toured Europe with the theatre and is supposed to have bought the paintings at auctions.’

‘But you said he wasn’t rich.’

‘Correct. The story goes after the Revolution he kept the paintings in his apartment.’

‘Did anyone else know?’

‘Apparently the authorities did, but according to Nina Moleva, they were not interested. It sounds far fetched to me, paintings of that value stored in an ordinary small Moscow apartment.’

‘I agree.’

‘I spoke to papa a lot about it, he thought they were fakes.’

Ekaterina’s father, Wassily, was chief curator of the Kaluga Art Museum, after having been a curator at the Pushkin during the Soviet period.

‘He was sure the Leonardo and the El Greco were copies. The same with Viktoria Markova, she’s an expert on Italian paintings at the Pushkin.’

On Tuesday morning the Eurostar arrived in Paris on schedule and I took the metro to the Gare de Lyons. There I found Pat waiting at the entrance to the platform for the Avignon TGV and we took our seats in a first class carriage for the two and a half hour journey.

One of the things I shared with Pat was the fact we were both fluent Gaelic speakers, our respective Irish families were proud Republicans, and it had been a matter of national pride to have a good level of conversancy in our country’s ancient language. At Trinity, the Irish Department had encouraged us professors to speak Gaelic as an integral part of our traditions, and on occasions, I found it useful when speaking with Irish friends and colleagues in the Anglo-Saxon world, or wherever English was the language of communication, and where our conversations could be eavesdropped. The number of speakers of Gaelic outside of Ireland was almost zero, which allowed us to exchanged private words whenever it suited us.

As we boarded the train we switched into Gaelic, as many first class travellers were French business people conversant in English, who overhearing our conversation could pass on what I had to tell Pat.

Perhaps I was being overcautious, even jumping

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