The Art of Authentication
by Christopher Welch
Art by Ally Hodges
Sandy Lisle hid on the floor of a dark hallway as he waited for the police. In a room at the end of the hallway, a dead body had collapsed onto a worktable. The body was bleeding from bullet wounds. That isn’t what usually happens when you use the lav in a friend’s house, not on a summer evening outside Craftsbury, but that’s what happened to Sandy.
The dead man was Dinu Balan, a sort-of friend of Sandy’s and of mine. Sandy didn’t know whether the killer was still inside the house. Or killers. Sandy wasn’t sure. The killer count was secondary to hiding and surviving.
“I was scared, honey. Scared,” he said when he finally came home.
Dinu lived in a once-upon-a-time farmhouse that a succession of owners had extended and reconfigured, but not one of them had reconfigured the ground floor lavatory from its inconvenient location down a hallway from the main room, through the kitchen and around a corner. Sandy was in the lav when Dinu was killed. From there he could not hear the sound of the gunshots well enough to understand they were gunshots, not dropped books or a chair knocked over. He found out when he went back to the living room.
“I wanted to go right back into the john, but who wants to die in a bathroom?”
“Did you check Dinu’s pulse?”
“No!” He leaned back in his chair and sighed. “I should have, shouldn’t I?” Although it was after midnight, warm July air drifted through the open windows in our home. Sandy sipped at his drink. “It wouldn’t have made any difference. I couldn’t do anything for him except call 911.”
He hid on the floor in a dark hallway leading away from the main room. “I thought . . . I don’t know what I thought. Except that if anyone else was still in the house they wouldn’t leave with me still . . . there. If they knew. I didn’t want to do anything like turn off lights. Inside or outside, they would have known.”
He called 911 lying on a floor in the dark and waited for the sound of sirens. There was no one else in the house.
“I’m going to need more than one of these.” He rubbed the cool glass against his cheek. Then he said quietly, “It was the blood . . . Spattered on Dinu’s big table, on his books . . . The blood was a reality. It wasn’t like a painting or a movie. Everywhere . . .” He drank again. “Dinu and I put most of the prints and screens and frames in your car,” he said “They’re still there.”
“Most of them?”
“There were still two sets we hadn’t carried to the car yet.” I took his glass. “They weren’t there when the police arrived, the last two.”
“Did you tell the police about them?”
Sandy shook his head. “I didn’t tell the police about any of them. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to get you mixed up in an investigation. No, no, I didn’t. This is awful, isn’t it, honey? And we have to do something about the stuff in the car.”
We did. I wasn’t much help. My foot was injured.
R. Francis Sydney looked like he was dressing for a court appearance even when he wasn’t. I own an art gallery in the Berkshires in Massachusetts, and when he came into my art gallery two days earlier, before Dinu was killed, it was a sultry July afternoon, far too warm for a suit. Mr. Sydney had dressed down in casual clothes that on him looked like a suit. He headed directly to a room where I display contemporary prints. Many of them are by Madie Balan.
He pointed at the Balan prints, jabbing with his hand. “Those authentic? Have you had them authenticated by the foundation?”
“No . . .”
“Then they’re not authentic. We decide what’s an authentic Madie Balan and what isn’t. Send them to us.” He fished around in a pocket of his jacket and pulled out a business card. “I’m R. Francis Sydney. I head the Madie Balan Trust. You can’t sell those as authentic Balans until the authentication committee says they are.”
R. Francis? Who refers to himself by a first initial and a middle name? “I don’t. I sell them as Balans that the trust hasn’t gotten around to authenticating.”
He didn’t pay any attention. “You have any more of these so-called Balan prints? Where’d you get these?”
“Mr. . . . Sydney, is it?”
“Who told you they were authentic? If anyone did?” I didn’t answer, but he may not have noticed. He was an elegant man even without a court-appearance suit, tall, silver haired, and possessed of a well-bred New York City accent. He wore a wedding band. I wondered what his wife called him. “Are they on consignment? Who consigned them?” He turned away from the Balan prints and fixed his attention on me as though I were an uncooperative witness. “Of course you’re not going to tell me.” He stared at me with a steady, unyielding gaze.
I have trouble with competitive stare-downs, but I fixed my attention on a mole by his right lip. “I’m not. No one would.”
He nodded curtly. “We’ll see,” he said. “And we’ll find out if they’re authentic Madie Balan prints.”
I knew where the prints came from, but deciding whether that made them authentic was not an easy task. It was not an easy task to know what “authentic” meant in Madie Balan’s world.
Madie Balan had died in the autumn in New York City, lost in a haze of drugs, bad choices, and adulation. She was more dynamic than Eva Hess had been and more exciting, more dynamic than Tracy Emin. That’s what everyone told her, and probably some of them believed it. Probably Madie did not. At least she wasn’t sure. She doubted. She tried to escape the doubting, but to do it she used drugs and alcohol, and she relied on friends who were happy to make sure she had everything she wanted so long as they were part of the package.
She was one of the few artists of the post-Warhol generation who found a way to drive art in a new direction, who found a new force and focus that pushed beyond the small-scale cleverness and defensive irony endemic among her contemporaries. She meant what she created, and she meant it without equivocation. That unhesitant presence in her work gave her authority. It also isolated her and created in her the endless fear that whatever she had been able to do so far, she would never be able to do tomorrow or next month or next year or ever again.
Madie Balan was Dinu’s daughter.
“You’ve knotted up Francis’s panties in a very uncomfortable spot,” said a man who sauntered into my gallery later that afternoon. “Not hard to do, is it? Well, you wouldn’t know that, but it isn’t. Especially not when one disregards his authority. Hello,” he extended his hand. “I’m Ian Ruisma. Co-conspirator with R. Francis on the Madie Balan Trust.” Ian Ruisma was tall, brisk, and had a great deal of unkempt hair and a British accent.
“He’s called Francis?”
The man laughed. “Generally he’s called Mr. Sydney, but a select few get away with Francis.” I knew of Ian Ruisma. He was a prominent gallery owner in London and had some connection to Paris. He was a nightlife celebrity and a reliable source of controversial opinion. His picture popped up in art world photo-ops as often as the most avid artists’. None of that obviously qualified him to sit on a board trying to sort out the real Madie Balans from the wannabes, but obvious qualifications are not the main currency of art market sovereigns except as those qualifications have to do with sale prices and sale volume. Ian Ruisma qualified, hands down.
“Now where are those dodgy Balans you’re peddling?” He examined them without much care and sighed. “Madie Balan ought to be spanked. No records, the dear, just scribbled notes. Receipts. Sometimes. Quite difficult to piece it all together, but that’s what we are tasked to do.” . . .
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"The Art of Authentication" by Christopher Welch, Copyright © 2013 with permission of the author. All rights reserved.
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