For the love of art – Part 4 February 2019
Over the next four weeks, Ellen would visit no. 12 once a week. Each visit would enable her the opportunity to remove one of the famous paintings. She found a bag that fitted each painting and carefully removed every single one. Except for the Pierneef. Clearly this was the forgery. The original which had once graced the frame had been removed by the Covents and replaced with their forgery. Ellen remembered the young courier, his hand speckled with paint. He must have been the maker of the piece. How clever the Covents had been.
Ellen had decided that she was not going to cause a fuss over the Pierneef. The Covents, or whatever their real name was, had taken the effort to replace the painting. Why would one create a fuss, when clearly none was needed. Nobody knew the paintings were there, and nobody knew they were now forged or gone. How the Covent’s had know of the Pierneef was a mystery to Ellen. One she felt no need to consider.
Once all of the pieces had been removed, Ellen returned no. 12’s keys to the key cupboard at the office. She had been careful to remove her fingerprints from the downstairs doors and had even managed to replace the lock on the gate herself. Thanks to the friendly man at the building store who liked to stare at her breasts, she had received a clear explanation on how to do it, as well as all the parts required. Ellen had then bought herself a tablet with her rental money. She would sit at home in the evening, researching her paintings, their proposed value, and how one would possibly explain where she had got them from. It would take time to build up a credible story. The alternative was the black market. Ellen had heard about selling art on the black market in a movie she had watched a few years back. She wondered how she could sell the pieces on the black market. It made her sweat profusely just thinking about it and her glasses would slip down her nose. No, she would have to try and get the paintings to an auction, with a very good story.
Whilst she figured out how to sell her stolen goods, she handed in her resignation. Both Jeremy and Bonita had stared at her, their mouths hanging open.
“I’m shocked!” Jeremy had said eventually, and Bonita had nodded dumbly in agreement. Ellen had smiled. She knew that they thought her an odd old spinster with no ambition. Which was perfect for her plan.
“An Aunt of mine, Auntie June who lived in Oudtshoorn has passed on, and left me a small inheritance,” she lied, “I am going to settle her affairs and then maybe travel. Never did much of that, you know” she explained, tucking a stray curl of hair behind her ear. Her enthusiasm for her lie turning into a very believable case.
“Of course, of course” Jeremy had said, shaking his head. “Better late than never” Bonita had chimed in. Ellen dutifully worked her last month of employment and in her final week handed over her responsibilities to a young girl who was filling her position. The young girl had limp mousy brown hair and a mouth that seemed permanently drawn in a sad face. She only seemed to light up when Ellen explained that Jeremy would like a greater push on social media. Otherwise the girl seemed completely uninterested in her role. This made Ellen sad. She had worked consistently to build her portfolio of homes and clients, and now this bland creature was going to take over and probably drive it all into the ground. She didn’t hold much hope for success. Nonetheless she carefully went through each house, even no. 12, explaining that it wasn’t up on the website as the owners didn’t pay the management fee and so the house was empty, and no one had been there for ages. The girl’s expression hadn’t changed on any of the homes, and Ellen felt comfortable that her story had been accepted as truth.
On her final day at work, Jeremy presented Ellen with a gift of a necklace and the charm representing the traveller’s prayer on the back of a hand symbol. Ellen was touched, and she blinked back a tear. After ten years of working for him, she actually knew very little about him, and him about her. The gift was a surprise and for the briefest moment she felt sorry that she had stolen from him. But then she looked at Bonita and remembered how she had seen her payslip on the printer one morning, and realised that she was being paid double, although she worked a half day. So Ellen merely smiled and hugged Jeremy and after her cup of rooibos and slice of carrot cake, she packed her goods, especially her calendar, and went home.
Ellen still hadn’t quite figured out how she was going to explain the arrival of the paintings in her life, until kind Mr Bradburry, from across the hall in her apartment block brought her the Financial Times newspaper. He had it on order from England, and when Ellen had commented on the newspaper, which she loved, mostly because of the pink paper, Mr Bradburry had said he would pass on his copies when complete. Although many of the articles made absolutely no sense at all to Ellen, she liked the articles in the Life and Arts section, and found those entertaining.
The morning after she had left her stuffy little office and job forever, Ellen sat with a cup of rooibos and the FT on her lap, slowly turning the pages. She finally found the Arts section and nearly spat her tea out when there, in a large colour photograph she saw two men shaking hands, with the Covent’s Pierneef in the background. Once she had stopped coughing and managed to place her tea down on her side table, she stared at the image again. It was definitely the same, and probably the original. Below the picture it read:
Sothebys England: An unnamed seller has just sold the once thought lost Pierneef. A remarkable work, heralded as a piece from this artists prime. The painting was sold to Mr Thwakkery for the tidy sum of 15 million Pounds Sterling.
Ellen’s eyes bulged at the sum. Well, it definitely made sense as to why the Covent’s hadn’t minded paying her a few thousand Rands to rent the house, and making all the effort to replace the picture. There was an excellent chance, that the owners of no. 12 knew there were paintings in their storage collection, but they had no idea they had been sitting on a small fortune of South African art. Too bad for them. Ellen was also mildly curious as to who this fabled great grandmother had been to collect such a selection of art. But on the other hand. It wasn’t very important. Not now that she realised she could be an ‘unnamed seller’. The truth was that she did actually have an Auntie June from Oudtshoorn who had died a while back. Ellen hadn’t bothered to tell anyone, as she had felt ashamed that Auntie June’s farm had hardly been worth anything. Ellen had sold it, covered the funeral costs, paid the farm laborers and then made a small payment towards her small apartment’s bond. That said, it wasn’t unheard of to find precious paintings on old farms. The story would definitely do, and Ellen had been the sole heir. With a sigh Ellen closed the paper and rubbed the travellers prayer charm on her necklace. The sun streamed through her balcony window. It was a beautiful day. Perfect for a walk on the beach, followed by a few calls to Sothebys and a travel agent.
This was first published in the Billboard Magazine in February 2019