Authors: Paul Adam
“Yes, I'm familiar with Henri le Bley Lavelle,” he said. “An excellent craftsman. His work comes up for auction quite frequently. The prices are respectable, but nothing special. He's a bit out of fashion at the moment. Modern buyers find him a littleâwell,
isn't too strong a word. His designs are very ornate, almost gaudy. People these days want something simpler.”
“This gold box is quite plain,” I said. “Though it has a fairly elaborate engraving on the lid. It's what's inside that puzzles me. There's a velvet-lined wooden insert with a cutout in the middle in the shape of a violin.”
“But no violin?” Rhys-Jones said.
“No, but the box was obviously made for one. It was a gift from Elisa Baciocchi, NapolÃ©on's sister, to Paganini, so the violin link makes sense. What doesn't make sense is the size of the box. It's far too small for any violin I have ever seen.”
Rhys-Jones turned his head to look at Rudy, who was slumped back in an armchair, sipping his tumbler of cognac.
“It's a mystery to me, too,” he said.
“Elisa gave Paganini another gift, many years earlier,” I said. “We don't know what it was, but in Le Bley Lavelle's records there was a mention of a Jeremiah Posier, who seems to have been another jeweller.”
Rupert Rhys-Jones went very still. He stared at me, his eyes unblinking behind the thick lenses of his glasses.
“Jeremiah Posier?” he said slowly.
“You're sure about that?”
“Yes. Why? Who was he?”
Rhys-Jones licked his lips.
“Jeremiah Posier? A violin?” he said. “Dear God, it can't be. Surely not.” His voice had gone suddenly hoarse.
“Can't be what?” I said.
Rhys-Jones didn't appear to hear me. He gazed at me as if he were in a trance for a few seconds, then rose to his feet and went to the bookshelves on the wall. He took down a massive tome about sixty centimetres tall and a good ten centimetres thick. I'd seen books like it in Rudy's officeâI had one or two of them myself. They weren't intended for sale to the general public; they were limited-edition reference books for fine-arts specialists and cost several hundred, sometimes several thousand, euros each.
Rhys-Jones put the tome down on his desk and I saw the title:
Goldsmiths and Jewellers of the Eighteenth Century
. He ran his finger down the list of contents, stopping at a name near the bottom, then turned to a chapter at the end of the book.
“Jeremiah Posier,” he said. “Court jeweller to Catherine the Great of Russia, and probably the finest goldsmith of his era. He made the great imperial crown for Catherine's coronation in 1762. That's it there.”
He showed me a photograph of the crown.
“It's a Byzantine designâtwo half spheres, to represent the two continents spanned by Catherine's empire, studded with four thousand nine hundred and thirty-six diamonds, though we generally round that figure up to five thousand. There are pearls along the edges, and a beautiful red gem on the top that's usually referred to as a ruby but is, in fact, a red spinel, a semiprecious stone that you don't
find very often in Western European jewellery but which was highly prized in the East. This particular specimen weighs nearly four hundred carats and was brought to Saint Petersburg by Nicholas Spafary, the Russian envoy to China in the late seventeenth century.”
Rhys-Jones lifted his head and gazed at me again. I could sense his excitement.
“The imperial crown is undoubtedly the most spectacular piece of jewellery Posier produced for Catherine, but it wasn't the only item he made her. You have heard of Giovanni Battista Viotti, of course? The great Italian virtuoso violinist. In 1780, he went on a concert tour that took him to Saint Petersburg, where he played for the Empress Catherine. Catherine was not a great lover of music, but she was a great lover of young men. And Viotti was young. In his twenties, handsome and prodigiously gifted. He became the empress's lover and stayed in Russia for a year. When he finally left the country, Catherineâwho was famously generous to her paramoursâgave him a gift of a jewel-encrusted gold violin that had been specially made by Posier.”
“A gold violin?” I said.
Rupert Rhys-Jones nodded.
“Solid gold and studded with diamonds, rubies, and emeralds.”
He turned over two or three of the thick, glossy pages of the book to reveal a full-colour drawing of the violin. Rudy heaved himself up from his armchair and came to look, too.
“My God, that is exquisite!” he exclaimed.
“Isn't it just?” Rhys-Jones said.
I looked at the drawing. The violin it depicted was about twenty centimetres long and not much thicker than a finger. The vertical sidesâthe ribs of a normal violinâwere studded with diamonds, and round the top edge, where the purfling would usually be, was a continuous row of bloodred rubies. Four more rubies were inlaid into the head of the violin to represent the pegs, and down the centre of the instrument, instead of strings, were four lines of emeralds. Even in the two-dimensional drawing, the jewels seemed to sparkle with light.
“Catherine the Great gave this to Viotti?” I asked.
“That's right,” Rhys-Jones said.
“And what happened to it?”
“No one knows. Viotti took it away from Russia with him; then it disappeared. No one has seen it for the last two hundred years.”
“It's stunning,” Rudy said. “Where did the drawing come from?”
“From Posier's workshop. He kept a record of it. There are forty diamonds and forty rubies round the edges, each weighing more than a carat, and eighty small Siberian emeralds down the middle. Those four red stones at the head aren't rubies; they're red diamonds, an incredibly rare gem.”
“What would it be worth today?” Rudy asked.
“That craftsmanship, with that provenance,” Rhys-Jones replied. “I wouldn't dare name a price. The last time a red diamond was auctioned, in Americaâone weighing less than a caratâit went for nearly a million dollars. Those four red diamonds alone are probably worth five million dollars. And then you've got the other diamonds and the rubies and emeralds, not to mention Posier's cachet. Put it in an auction, I couldn't see it going for less than twenty million dollars, maybe fifteen million pounds, depending on the exchange rate.”
I gazed at the drawing, taking in the delicate golden scroll, the curving lines of brilliant jewels. I knew now what we were looking for. And I knew why FranÃ§ois Villeneuve and Alain Robillet had been killed.
spent the night at Rudy's home in the Buckinghamshire countryside, thirty miles northwest of London. Rudy's wife, Ruth, no doubt aware of her husband's lunchtime proclivities, gave us a light dinner of poached salmon and salad; then Rudy and I spent a happy couple of hours playing violin duets, with Ruth accompanying us on the piano.
Both the Weigerts were accomplished musicians. They'd met as students at the Royal Academy. Rudy had realised shortly after graduation that he wasn't cut out for the drudgery of life as a rank-and-file orchestral violinist and had found himself a job with a London violin-dealing firm. Ruth, the more talented of the two, had stuck with music, building a solid career for herself as an accompanist and chamber musician before the arrival of their childrenâtwins, a boy and a girlâhad disrupted the settled pattern of their lives.
Ruth's career, by choice, was the one that was sacrificed to the demands of a family. She scaled down her playing commitments for a
period, then, finding the trick of juggling children and work too demanding, gave up altogetherânot without a sense of relief. She'd suffered badly from concert nerves and had always found performing stressful. With Rudy earning a decent salary, she was content to stay at home with the twins, keeping her hand in by doing some keyboard teaching on the side.
She was still a formidable pianist, putting Rudy and me to shame with her dexterity, her phenomenal gift for sight-reading any piece that was placed before her, no matter how difficult. We played the Bach double-violin concerto, then duets by Vivaldi, Shostakovich, and Moszkowski, Rudy lending me his Gagliano, while he contented himself with one of the lesser instruments from his collection.
It was eleven o'clock when Ruth excused herself to go to bed.
“I'll see you in the morning, Gianni,” she said. She kissed Rudy. “Don't stay up too long.”
“We're just going to have a little chat. Business, you know.”
“Yes, I know,” Ruth said dryly. “Just don't have too many glasses of it.”
She left the music room and headed upstairs. Rudy and I went along the hall to his study and Rudy got out a bottle of malt whisky and poured us each a generous measure. The curtains were open, the light from the room spilling out over the patio and the lawn beyond. On the skyline, I could see the undulating silhouette of the Chiltern Hills.
We talked about violins and I recounted my experience with the Cannon and Yevgeny Ivanov.
“You played it?” Rudy said. “You played Paganini's violin? You crafty old devil, Gianni. What was it like?”
“Incredible. But slightly odd.”
“Odd? In what way?”
“I felt like an impostor, a trespasser. You know, like an uninvited guest at a party. There's an English word for that, isn't there?”
“That's right. That's how I felt. Like a gate-crasher. I knew I shouldn't have been doing it, but I couldn't resist.”
“What utter nonsense. When you repair a violin, don't you always try it out afterwards, to make sure the repair is good? So what's the difference?”
“I know, it doesn't make sense. But Paganini is the difference. Just to touch his instrument, never mind play it, sent shivers down my back. I was unworthy of such a distinguished violin. I got this feeling that Paganini was looking over my shoulder all the time I was playing it, screaming, âStop! Stop. I can't take any more of this appalling din.' ”
“He wasn't a god, Gianni. He was a manâand a pretty disreputable man at that.”
“But he played the violin like a god.”
“For his time, yes. But he'd be nothing special today.”
“You think not? I'm not so sure.”
“Things have moved on. The standard of playing is higher than it's ever been. In Paganini's day, only Paganini could play Paganini. Now, every student at Juilliard, or the Royal Academy, or the Moscow Conservatoire can play it. I'll wager that Yevgeny Ivanov plays Paganini better than Paganini did.”
“He was certainly pretty impressive. He's disappeared, you know.”
Rudy frowned at me.
“Ivanov? What do you mean?”
I told him what had happened, described my encounters with Yevgeny and his mother, his disappearance from the hotel, and his bizarre phone call to me.
“Sounds as if he's cracked up,” Rudy said. “Had some kind of a nervous breakdown. Either that or there's a woman somewhere.”
“My guiding principle of human natureâsex. A man does something strange, acts out of character, there's always a woman involved. And vice versa, of course. Or a man, I suppose. He's not gay, is he?”
“I know nothing about his sexuality,” I said.
“It wouldn't surprise me. I know it's crude amateur psychology, but
men with overbearing mothers like that, well, they're often gay, aren't they? Poor boy. It's child abuse, really, isn't it, what he's had to go through.”
“That's a bit extreme, don't you think?”
“Well, look at it. He starts the violin atâwhat?âfour, five years old. That's when most of them start. You think it was his idea, no parental pressure? Then his mama stands over him for three or four hours a day, making him practise. You think he wouldn't rather have been out playing football, or watching television? I've seen these kids. They come to the workshops to try out instruments, and they've always got mummy or daddy in tow. They're like those tennis prodigies, the teenagers with some big loudmouth bully of a dad hovering over them every minute of the day. They've had their childhoods taken away from them. I'd say that was abuse, wouldn't you?”
“Some kids like it,” I said. “You can't generalise.”
“Then they get to their twenties and they've had enough. They rebel, reject the parents who've put them through all that misery. I bet Ivanov's run off with some girlfriend his mama doesn't know about.”
“I didn't get the impression he knows any girls.”
“Well, he should, a young fellow his age. He should have girls coming out of his ears. He could be with a prostitute, I suppose.”
“Antonio thought that, but I can't see it. He has no money, for a start. Ludmilla keeps a very tight grip on the purse strings.”
“He'd have salted something away, ready for the day when he made his bid for freedom.”
“That doesn't really fit with your theory about a breakdown,” I said.
“No, maybe not. I'm making it up as I go along. It's probably all rubbish. You want a top-up?”
We lingered until the small hours, Rudy telling scurrilous tales about his work colleagues and clients; then we went to bed. I slept heavily, anaesthetised by the whisky.
In the morning, we had a late, leisurely breakfast before Rudy drove us into London and dropped me off at St. Pancras station. I caught the
Eurostar to Paris, took the shuttle bus straight to Charles de Gaulle, and was back in Cremona by the early evening. I called the
, but Guastafeste wasn't there. He'd stayed on in Paris, one of his colleagues told me. I made myself something to eatâa pork escalope with fried potatoesâand retired to the sitting room with one of the books from my shelvesâa biography of Giovanni Battista Viotti.