Read The Bernini Bust Online

Authors: Iain Pears

Tags: #Di Stefano, #Italy, #Jonathan (Fictitious character), #General, #Flavia (Fictitious character), #Fiction, #Mystery Fiction, #Art thefts, #Police Procedural, #Mystery & Detective, #Argyll, #Women Sleuths, #Policewomen, #Police, #California, #Police - Italy

The Bernini Bust

BOOK: The Bernini Bust
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The Bernini Bust

Iain Pears

Chapter One

Jonathan Argyll lay contentedly on a large slab of Carrara marble, soaking up the mid-morning sun, smoking a cigarette and considering the infinite variety of life. He was not a sun-worshipper - far from it - he was quite proud of his ultraviolet-free complexion, but needs must, despite the risk of wrinkles; his temporary colleagues looked upon his packet of cigarettes with all the approval of vampires presented with a clove of garlic and were prepared to cite innumerable Los Angeles County Clean Air Acts to force him into the open when his nerves required reassurance and sustenance.

He didn’t mind really, although all that moral fervour in such a confined space occasionally made him feel claustrophobic. He would be at the Moresby Museum for only a few days and his stock of moral relativism would last. The when-in-Rome syndrome. A bit longer and he would no doubt be reduced to hanging round the toilets, blowing smoke into air-conditioning vents. But he could survive for a few days.

So he was frequently to be found wandering down the highly expensive, mahogany-coated stairs, through the vast brass and glass doors and into the gentle warmth of California in early summer. And then on to his favourite slab where he performed the joint exercise of having his smoke, watching the world go by, and obscuring the letters which announced to the passerby — not that there were many, this being a part of the world where legs now served mainly a decorative function - that the Arthur M. Moresby Museum of Fine Art was located in the building behind him (9-5 weekdays, 10-4 weekends).

Ahead of him lay what he had come to accept as an almost typical Los Angeles townscape. A broad swathe of luxuriously tended grass - kept going by water piped nearly a thousand miles and then sprinkled in a fine mist - separated the white concrete museum building and the adjacent administrative block from the street. Palm trees sprouted everywhere, doing little but sway in the light wind.

Cars drove with painful slowness up and down the wide boulevard ahead. From his well-placed vantage point Argyll could see everything but, apart from himself, there was not another living person visible.

Not that he was paying much attention to the street, the weather or even the palm trees. Life in general was much more on his mind, and beginning to get him down a bit. Success; that was what his presence on the lump of marble signified, and a very mixed blessing it was proving to be. He did his best to look on the bright side; he had, after all, just successfully unloaded a Titian for a client on to the museum behind him for an outrageous sum of money, of which he (or rather his employer) would collect 8.25 per cent. Better still, he had done almost nothing whatever to earn it. A man called Langton had turned up in Rome and said he wanted to buy. Simple as that. Apparently the Moresby considered itself a little short on sixteenth-century Venetian and wanted something by Titian to reinforce its credentials.

Argyll, quick on his feet for about the first time in his professional life, asked for a grossly inflated sum to start off the bargaining. To his immense astonishment, this Langton man had squinted, nodded and said, “Fine. Cheap at the price.” More money than sense, evidently, but who was Argyll to complain? Not even any haggling. Pleased though he was, he still felt slightly let down. People should bargain; it was only proper.

The whole sale went through at such lightning speed he was left breathless. Within two days a contract had turned up. All the normal business of examining and testing and humming and hawing was dispensed with. However, one of the terms of the sale was that the picture should be delivered to the museum free of charge, and that Argyll should be on hand to witness the authentication process - provenance checking, scientific tests, and so on - with museum staff. If there was any dissatisfaction, he would have to take the thing back. More to the point, it was strict payment on delivery — or rather acceptance.

As a point of principle he had protested about this, making vague complaints about honour and gentlemen and the like. No deal. The terms were invariable and set by the owner who, in forty years of collecting, had learnt not to trust an art dealer further than he could throw one. In his heart, Argyll sympathised. Besides, the important thing was to get his hands on the cheque. Essentially, he would have dressed up in Greek national costume and sung sea shanties in a public place if that was what they wanted. Times were hard in the art business.

He had arrived a few days back, alarming the museum staff by bearing the small picture wrapped up in a supermarket bag and transported as hand luggage on the aircraft. It was firmly removed from his care, encased in an especially designed wood and velvet box weighing an extraordinary amount, and carried in an armour-plated wagon from the airport to the museum, where a team of six began to study it and another three considered where it might best be hung. Argyll was impressed. He thought one person with a hammer and nail would have done the trick well enough.

But it was the consequences of the sale that bothered him, and cooled off the warm glow of affluent well-being that should, ordinarily, have suffused him. If there was one thing worse than an unhappy employer, it was a happy one, it seemed… His thoughts returned yet again to the unwelcome generosity of Sir Edward Byrnes, proprietor of the Bond Street gallery bearing his name, and Jonathan Argyll’s employer. But, as he knew that no satisfactory decision was likely to result from thinking any more about Byrnes’ offer - instruction, rather - that he return to London after nearly three years in Italy, he was not completely disappointed to be interrupted by the sight of a cab pulling slowly off the street, driving along the driveway of carefully laid, hand-fired terracotta tiles, through the mist keeping the lawn in fine fettle, and finally stopping outside the museum entrance.

The man who emerged was tall, excessively thin and had a carefully cultivated air of aristocratic fastidiousness combined with just a suggestion of aesthetic flair. The first side was indicated by the immaculately fitted suit and watchchain crossing his stomach; the second by a handsome ebony and gold walking stick in his right hand and a lilac handkerchief in his breast pocket.

As the taxi drew away, this man stood still and gazed imperiously about him, very much with the air of someone faintly surprised not to see the full welcoming committee that must be around somewhere. He also looked distinctly annoyed, and Argyll sighed heavily. His day was spoilt already.

It was much too late to escape. The man’s gaze, having little else to alight on, fixed on him and Argyll saw the look of recognition spread over the ageing but still handsomely chiselled face.

“Hello, Hector,” Argyll said, accepting the inevitable, but refusing to show any form of welcome by budging from his marble slab. “You’re the last person I expected to see here.”

Hector di Souza, a Spanish art dealer resident in Rome for longer than anyone could remember, walked over and saluted the Englishman with a well-practised wave of the walking stick.

“In that case, I have the advantage,” he said smoothly. “I fully expected to see you. Although not, of course, in such a languorous posture. I trust you’re enjoying your stay?”

That, of course, was Hector all over. Stick him at the North Pole and he’d act as though he owned the place. Argyll tried to think of a suitably cutting reply, but inspiration failed him, as usual. So he yawned, leant over and stubbed out his cigarette in an inconspicuous corner of the marble.

Fortunately di Souza neither wanted nor waited for a reply. Instead, he resumed his gaze around the landscape, looking with right eyebrow delicately raised to indicate a somewhat contemptuous disapproval of American urbanism. Eventually his eye came to rest on the museum itself, and he sniffed loudly in a fashion that was utterly damning.

“This is a museum?” he asked, squinting at the bland and anonymous building behind Argyll’s left shoulder.

“For the time being. They plan to build a bigger one.”

“Tell me, dear boy, is it as bad as they say?”

Argyll shrugged. “Depends what you mean. By bad, that is. The truly disinterested might say it’s full of tat. But as it’s just shelled out a large amount of money for one of my pictures, I am honour-bound to defend it. But I think they could have spent the money better.”

“They just have, my dear, they just have,” he said with quite unbearable self-satisfaction. “Twelve of the finest pieces of Graeco-Roman sculpture on the market.”

“Provided by yourself, I suppose? How old are they? Fifty years? Or did you have them carved to order?”

Argyll’s sarcasm was perhaps a little heavy-handed, but to his mind it was perfectly excusable. If not one of the biggest rogues prowling the Roman art market, di Souza was at least one of the more consistent. Not that people didn’t like him; far from it. Admittedly, some had trouble with the way he would come over all a-quiver at the very sight of an aristocrat; others found his baroque gallantry with women (the richer the better) annoying. But, on the whole, once you got used to the arrogance, the affected accent and his uncanny inability to find his wallet whenever a bill for a meal arrived, he was quite good company. If you like that sort of thing.

The only trouble was he could never resist the opportunity to make money, and a naive and inexperienced Argyll had once come into his sights. Not serious, really; a little matter of an Etruscan figurine (fifth-century BC) cast in bronze a matter of weeks before Argyll was persuaded to buy it. It is difficult to forgive that sort of thing. Di Souza had taken it back - more than he had ever done for a real client - and apologised, and taken him out for a meal in recompense, but Argyll still nursed a certain grievance over the affair. The man had, after all, forgotten his wallet that time as well.

Hence his scepticism, and di Souza’s wish to brush the matter aside.

“Selling things to you is one thing; selling things to old man Moresby is another,” he said airily. “I’ve been trying to catch him for decades. Now I have, I don’t want to lose him again. The stuff I’ve sent here is perfectly genuine. And I’d much prefer it if you didn’t start casting aspersions on my integrity. Especially considering the favour I’ve done you.”

Argyll regarded him sceptically. “And what favour is that?”

“You got that Titian off your hands at last, didn’t you? Well, you’ve me to thank. That man Langton asked about you, and I gave you a marvellous write-up. Of course, a recommendation from myself carries considerable weight in the more knowledgeable quarters. I told him your Titian was superb, that you were a man of great integrity. And here you are,” di Souza concluded with a broad sweep of the cane around the landscape which implied strongly that he had personally called it into being.

Privately, Argyll considered that a recommendation from di Souza was no great favour, but let it pass. At least it partly cleared up the point of how Langton had come to him. He’d wondered about that.

“So,” di Souza went on, “your career in Italy is now on a much more secure footing. You may thank me later.”

Certainly not, Argyll thought. Besides, it looked like his career in Italy was drawing to a close, and he rather resented di Souza for reminding him.

How could he refuse Byrnes’ offer? The art market hadn’t collapsed entirely, but it was shaky round the edges and even a well-established figure like Byrnes was having to draw in his horns. He needed his best personnel on hand to advise him, so someone, either Argyll or his opposite number in Vienna, was going to be summoned back to London. The sale of the Titian made him choose Argyll. It was a gratifying show of confidence.

But - and it was a big but - to leave Italy? Go back to England? The very idea made him miserable.

The same thoughts again. Di Souza’s garrulousness was proving useful for the first time in their acquaintance, taking his mind off matters.

“It’s a fairly new place, isn’t it?” he was saying, impervious to Argyll’s inattention. “Can’t say I’m all that impressed.”

“Nor is anyone else. That’s the trouble. Arthur Moresby spent so much money and this is all he gets for it.”

“Poor man,” said di Souza sympathetically.

“Indeed. I’m sure it must be terrible. So now they think it’s not grand enough to stand comparison with the Getty. They’re on the brink of an all-out construction war. You know the Getty Museum is a replica of the Villa dei Papyri at Herculaneum?”

Di Souza nodded.

“This lot are thinking of building a full-size copy of Diocletian’s Palace at Split. About the size of the Pentagon, as far as I can see, but more expensive. According to rumour, you’ll be able to put the entire Louvre in the thing, and still have enough room left to throw the Olympic Games.”

Di Souza rubbed his hands together. “And they’ll have to fill it, dear boy. How splendid! I got here just in the nick of time. When do they start building?”

Argyll tried to dampen his enthusiasm. “Don’t get too keen. I gather they’ve got to get Moresby to sign on the dotted line. And he’s not someone who’s used to being hurried along. Still, you may meet the architect. He wanders around with a fanatical look in his eye all the time, muttering to himself. He’s a sort of guru of what he terms the post-modern return to classical tradition. His roofs leak. Awful charlatan.”

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