Black market art world – bad news. First there are the art thieves, a hoary bunch of lycra-clad thugs who believe their chosen line refines them beyond the specter of criminality. When they’re not plucking paintings off museum walls, they’re in the gym doing Pilates, their steel eyes far-away and dull, hypnotized by the electronica pulsing in their iPods. Then, there’s the endless chain of middlemen, a motley assortment of aficionados and malcontents, generally European, always impeccably dressed – they’re the sacrificial lambs when the bullets begin to fly. Each has a philosophy with which they rationalize their particular brand of crime – some are Robin Hoods for the jet set, others claim a grudge against bureaucratic intrusion into the art world. Others have a knack for tracing everything back to the Nazis and have convinced themselves that they’re righting some wrong or other. Most of these middlemen are welterweight scholars with undergrad degrees in art history, forensics or economics though I’ve met at least two who studied journalism. This brings me to “Hal,” my J-school contact, now courier, who phoned last week with an alarming offer.
His voice was staccato over the line, sentences broken as if he were looking over his shoulder while speaking. Even through the static of his pre-paid cell I knew his breath was rank with coffee and cigarette smoke. I was sure he hadn’t slept in days. Couriers never do. They’re always on the run, whether they’re working or not.
“‘Sleeping Nude with Arms Open.’ You in?”
“You’ve got five seconds to change the subject before I hang up.”
“I just need your bed for a few days,” Hal hedged. It took a moment before I remembered “bed” was art thief slang for stowing a hot canvas. Credit that to Vincenzo Perugia, the Italian who stole the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911 and kept it literally under the covers for a couple of years.
“I’m hitched, Hal. Went legit.”
“Thanks for the invite,” he hissed, “Where do I send the flowers?”
“Wasn’t a funeral, Hal.”
“Forgive me, I get confused. ‘Specially when a buddy of mine leaves me off the guest list, I figure he must have bought it.”
“Five seconds, Hal.”
He clucked his tongue.
“Modigliani, mate. Just two nights. She’ll never know.”
I heard his rust whiskers scrape the receiver, pulled tight by a leather smile.
Amadeo Modigliani painted “Sleeping Nude with Arms Open” in 1917, three years before he died, both tubercular and poor. Contrary to his miserable end, the painting (alternately known as “Red Nude”) is lush with life – a woman, supine, atop a red duvee, her arms open and above her tousled dark hair, her pose sensuous, knowing. It never seemed she was sleeping as the title suggests. I think she’s faking it. I like that about her. The painting first caught my eye as a postcard I purchased in a stationary shop while skulking in Abbot Kinney. I needed wall art at the time and seeing as my digs were small and my decorating budget smaller, five and half by four and a quarter, was a fit. The nude in question, however, appealed to me most because she was a dead ringer for a woman I’d known briefly back home in Lumaville, a woman whose orbit I’d later have the good fortune of intersecting again. A woman, in point of fact, I married several years later. I’m just sentimental enough that Hal’s call with the real deal put a slow fade on my better judgment. More later…