Family Heirloom

by Nigel Gordon

"No," he assured the young presenter, "it was not a family heirloom." It had come from his husband. Technically that statement was correct. An heirloom was something that has belonged to a family for generations. He was perfectly able to assure the young lady that this had not been in his family, or his husband’s, for anything like that amount of time. Nothing like that had come down to him, daddy had sold everything off to pay the debts. Mostly his gambling debts but also the bills for the flat he kept for his trollop. Not that James Luiderweg nee Danvers held that against him. In fact he had been quite happy when his father had set up an establishment for their ex-nanny in a flat just off Seymour Street. It had meant that they really saw him, which was a great relief to James, his mother and his sister.

It had been quite amusing to watch the faces of first the expert then the presenter as they first looked upon it. Inside the roped off area where the experts sat he had been glad merely to have a seat at last. The queue of people bringing their valuables to show to the programs experts for valuation had been far longer than he had expected. As a result he had been standing for nearly three hours when he had almost whispered the nature of the item in the box to the assistant, who had shepherded him through the barriers to the experts table.

Three hours the expert had been sitting there, looking with feigned interest at the debris of mediocre lives and trying to say something nice about them. The elderly ladies, whose pensions did not meet their needs, who had, in expectation, carted heavy framed pictures, which they assured him had hung over Grandmother's fireplace and were signed Constable, across the town for him to view. He had to tell them that they were Oil Prints, worth forty to one hundred pounds for the frames. Less now than thirty years ago, when they had been fashionable for decorating fake Victorian bars. He had seen James as another in the ongoing stream of banality that was the lifeblood of a lunch-time T.V., antique shows. James of course had recognised him, the great Simon Charles Seymoure, doyen of the art world, master of the quick quip. Simon, of course had not recognised James, James doubted if he would even recall an exhibition that took place over fifty years ago.

There had been no interest on Simon's part in the flat cardboard box James had placed on the table, just a hope that it was not another hand coloured photograph in cheap Edwardian frame that the owner was convinced was a Georgian miniature. He really needed something that would give him that line, spontaneously produced, after hours of careful rehearsal, to cut to the core some housewife with her most treasured possession, or that exclamation that would show just how stupid they had been not to know the value of what they had.

The first hint that this was something different had been when he had taken the box to draw it to his side of the table. It was heavy, far heavier than any painting that could fit into a twelve inch by eighteen inch battered cardboard box should be. Then he had removed the lid expecting to see the normal packing of newspaper or at best tissue. There had been silk, deep blue heavy silk. Not the fine silk of China or the Far East, nor the thick silk of Italy or France. This was the silk of Asiatic Russia, the silk of the Imperial Household that had robed the Czars. In sixty years in the business only once had he seen such a material used to wrap an object. With fearful anticipation he started to turn back the layers and as he did so got the first hint of what lay below. Through the last layers of silk he could see the hint of gold.

It was gold, gleaming strong gold. Not the washy gold of leaf burnished over gesso but the strong red tones of Siberian gold hammered millimetre thin and filled with ges. He sat there silent, not daring to pick it up, just looking, taking in the colours. The red of the gold alloyed ten parts gold to three parts copper. The bright blue of lapis lazuli ground fine by Turkmenistan maidens to form a paint of unmatched hue. Then there were the gems like coloured pebbles dancing with the light as if there were ten thousand candles. The presenter, alerted that there was something wrong by an ambitious production assistant, darted over.

"Simon!" she exclaimed in that annoyed tone she always used to the experts when they were not playing it her way. Then she saw it and was silent. They cut that piece out when it came to the broadcast, Peggy Ann could never be lost for words, neither could the expert. To make sure they had some they re-filmed the whole scene the next day with a carefully rehearsed script. James had been quite happy to play his part and to answer their questions. He had only had to lie a little, really not at all.

It had been in his husband's stuff. No his husband had not been English, he came from one of the Baltic states, escaping the advancing German when he was seventeen, but never spoke of it and James was not sure exactly where Ivan came from. James had met him during the war they had been working in the same War Office department. Oh, his job, he had been in communications. He told them that his husband had worked in documentation. James, with a German grandmother and Polish Grandfather had been fluent in both languages and was much sort after for his skills in that War Office department. As had Ivan, whose ability to reproduce any German document was regarded as almost magical. After the war Ivan had worked for a time as an artist, but that had not worked out, so they had bought a small hotel in the South West.

They had had no choice. Not after that first exhibition. Up to then Ivan has sold his work on a steady basis. There had been an interest in paintings that used the traditional approach but as he had said they were not a true display of his skill, he did not have the old materials. Then had come the exhibition and a young critic fresh out of Oxford, who needed to make a name for himself, and knew more about English than the subject he wrote about. 'A pallid imitation of Faded Masters', he had called Ivan's work. Then gone on to write, 'he claims to use the techniques of the Icon painters of history but it is clear from his work that he has no understanding of their methods or approach to their quality'. After that who would want Ivan's work?

Oh yes James confirmed, he was quite happy to sell it. To be honest he really had no choice, times were not that good. He had a small government pension but it was hardly enough to get by on. James failed to mention that in fifty years they had turned what was little more than a boarding house into a respected Hotel. It had now been sold and the proceeds would keep him going for many a year.

"Look ol' chap," Ivan had said when they knew that they had exhausted all the avenues for treatment on a tumour that was malignant and inoperable, "make sure you get a good price for it, the more they pay the less questions they will ask." The next day they were married, the first day when they legally could, all right it was not called a marriage, a civil partnership was the term used. To Ivan and James though it was one and the same. Not that it made much difference they had been together over sixty years.

“Oh no,” James confirmed, “they had never had it on show”. In fact they only got it in 1992. James told them that Ivan had gone back home for a trip after the Baltic States got their independence. One of Ivan’s cousins had got in touch as there were some family matters that needed to be sorted out. No James had not gone with Ivan, somebody had to run the hotel. Ivan’s father and the rest of the family were long dead but a cousin had given him a suitcase that Ivan’s father had left for him if he ever returned. Then James had broken down in tears with the memory of Ivan, he had read long ago that a crying women was difficult to question and hoped it was the same for a crying elderly man.

It had taken time of course to sort all the details out. Without a clear provenance it had to be authenticated and that took time. A Russian university established that the board was Siberian Pine and dated it to the late l6th or early 17th century. As it should, when Ivan had offered his help to restore the fresco in one of the ancient palaces, nobody had questioned him when he asked for some of the old floor boards that were being replaced. The metallurgical department of a Black Country college analysed the gold and reported it was six parts copper to twenty parts gold. An expert in New York confirmed that this was consistent with Imperial work from the time of Ivan the Terrible to Peter the Great, the latter introducing the European standard of six parts base metal to eighteen parts of gold. In Cambridge X-Ray Spectrography confirmed that the blue was indeed lapis lazuli, though scientific investigation could not confirm the role played in its preparation by Turkmenistan maidens.

The production company had of course wanted to make the most of it. It was a find and could be exploited to the full. Rather than being one out of ten or twelve items that went to auction during the last thirty minutes of an hour long program, this deserved a program all on its own. Every bit of the story from the initial discovery and identification by their expert, an event they filmed seven times, through all the tests and examinations was recorded and assembled into a two hour special. Now the last part was ready to be filmed. Not though in some small provincial auction house, for this item only Bond Street would do.

James had of course protested that really he did not want to go to the sale. At his age the trip from Weston to London would be too much for him. At no time did he let on that a division of solders could not have stopped him attending. With an eye on the production needs the production company had arranged a car to collect him and take him to a comfortable hotel, just round the corner from the auction house. Yesterday he had been wined and dined; today he sat in the auction room and glanced at the catalogue open on his lap.

"Lot 247. An Icon, circa 1650, provenance unknown, mounted in the style of the Imperial Household, the property of a Gentleman."

James gave a short interview to the presenter, again stating that it had been in his husband’s things and he had found it after his death. He had made a point of looking a bit frail having put a white base powder on under his light makeup. He had also used a touch of shadow under his eyes, forty years in the armature dramatics society had come in useful. Peggy Ann, feeling uncomfortable besides this frail and tired old man, who reminded her of Quentin Crisp, moved off quickly to talk to the experts, who were happy to give her a range of opinions in return for some TV exposures.

The actual auction of the Icon when it came was quick, moving from an opening bid of two million three hundred thousand to two million four hundred, then five, six, seven, eight and nine hundred thousand respectively. At the point there was a pause, generated more by the stage craft of the auctioneer than by any delay in the bidding, before it moved on through the three million barrier, finally coming to rest at three million four hundred and fifty thousand. Peggy Ann was excited, James was relieved, the sale was over.

James stayed in London for a few more days to sort out the money and pay a visit to an investment manager in the West End, the son of a close friend of James’s and he understood how these things were done. By time his train got him back into Weston, James had declined the chauffeur driven car for the return, he carried a large sum in negotiable bearer bonds. The money from the sale of the hotel was invested overseas to provide him with a decent income for what could not be more than the few years he had left.

Four days later he went up to the small studio at the top of the hotel and took a last look round. Memories flooded back, of those days and nights that Ivan had sat up there, pain of cancer eating at the core of his being but the fire of determination burning in his eyes. With the contents of the suitcase he had worked, grinding pigments by hand with mordants that had been in his family for generations. He had worked to prove to James, what James had known all along, that Ivan was what he had said, an icon painter of the old school. One, who with the correct materials, the materials that his family had collected over the centuries, could paint as well as any of the ancient masters. These had been Ivan Luiderweg's final works. They were his best, far surpassing the work of the masters who had taught him. James packed the last of his work in the small brown suitcase. Work even better than the piece he had sold, with these he would remember his love. Then he closed the door behind him and walked down the stairs. There the new owners were waiting for him to hand over the keys, after which he left Weston.

It was some three days later that the news broke. Five national charities and a number of smaller charities found in their post a plain brown envelopes, each containing negotiable bearer bonds. That same evening, just before James caught a flight to Spain, where he would transfer for a flight to South America, he phoned a national newspaper. Now maybe Simon Charles Seymour would remember that exhibition and the painter whose work was a pallid imitation.

Copyright © 2015 Nigel Gordon