“Who’d buy a stolen painting?” Gayatri asked.
“A work of art is always sold before it’s stolen,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, it’s almost certain that whoever steals such an expensive piece would have already found a buyer for it. Or more likely, the thief would have been hired by some collector to steal the piece for them. So Gayatri, in a way you’re right. It’s not like someone can filch a Van Gogh and put it on eBay.”
“And how many times has a Van Gogh painting been stolen?” Sheena asked.
“Several times. Van Gogh’s works have been stolen several times.”
I could see that I had them hooked. The class no longer wanted to discuss Van Gogh’s vertical strokes or his reluctance towards mixing colours on the palette or the story behind his masterpieces. No, now they only wanted the trivia and controversies surrounding the artist.
“One of Van Gogh’s works, Blossoming Chestnut Branches, was stolen from Foundation EG Bührle gallery in 2008 but was found just nine days later in a parked car in Zurich. The Ramparts of Paris was stolen in Manchester in 2003, but it, too, was recovered in a matter of days.”
Their mouths were now agape; they were eating my words and swallowing them whole, digesting them.
“Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen is another work that’s gone missing – this one, along with the View of the Sea at Scheveningen, was stolen from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 2002. They were both recovered in 2016 in Naples.”
“So have all the stolen paintings been recovered?”
“Well, no. Poppy Flowers, a painting he created in 1887, three years before he committed suicide, is still missing. It was once stolen in 1978, but was recovered after a couple of years. Then, it was reported stolen again in 2010 from the Mohamed Mahmoud Khalil Museum in Giza. It hasn’t resurfaced since. Gone, vanished.”
I could see them leaning forward, eating up my words. I went on. I had them exactly where I needed them.
“It’s missing, but the rumour mill has been working overtime since then…”
I paused deliberately.
“What are the rumours?” someone asked eagerly, just as I’d hoped.
“Well, some people have traced the path the painting could have taken – from Cairo to Dubai to Hong Kong. It’s said that it purportedly got sold for over sixty million US dollars to a private collector.”
“Is Poppy Flowers more coveted because of its chequered history?”
“That is one of the reasons, yes. After all, it has been stolen twice, and is still missing!” My confidence was rising. I had been preparing for this moment for months now. When I started teaching here, I couldn’t have delivered this lecture so convincingly. Now they trusted me, all eighteen of my students. I could sell them a fake Van Gogh tomorrow and they’d lap it up as the real deal on my say so.
I cast my eyes across the small classroom to look at all of them, one by one. I’d heard that the word con comes from confidence, which is really a state of mind more than anything else. I had been at poker tables, played high odds, and I could endorse that the centuries-old adage – you don’t play the cards, you play the opponents – was spot-on. Whoever blinked first lost.
“There are two other reasons that make this painting precious,” I continued, and saw heads nodding in anticipation. “One – not many people across the world have seen it since it left Italy in the seventies, because Egypt wasn’t on the world map for art lovers. That increases the curiosity value around it, which always hikes up the price. Secondly, some art publication once claimed in an article that Poppy Flowers was a personal favourite of the master himself – that can’t be confirmed, of course, but you probably know that some people will believe anything they read in print.”
I could feel the interest of the room rising, becoming more intense and focussed. The questions came rapidly now.
“What size is it?”
“It’s not very big; twenty-six inches by twenty-one. Oil on canvas. It’s got yellow and red poppies against a dark background.”
“Where do you think it could be?”
Exactly the question I had been waiting for.
“Well…there was some serious bidding in the clandestine art world in Hong Kong, and in the end, it is rumoured to have been bought by some erstwhile Nawab from India, an art patron. The Nawab died soon after, bequeathing his prized collection to his son, who turned out to be a real loser – a classic story of riches to rags.” I stopped and smiled. “But like I said, these are just rumours.”
“You have got to be kidding me!” Sheena exclaimed.
“The Nawab’s prodigal son is said to have either pawned or sold the collection for cash, and then never managed to recover any of the paintings from…”
Well, this wasn’t exactly true. I had a shortlist of four people – two businessmen who were art collectors, a politician and an erstwhile Nawab. Four possible suspects, right here in India. But my students didn’t need to know all that.
“How will the owner know if what they have is an original? Will a fake Van Gogh be easy to spot, Mr Rueben?”
“Not necessarily. Many painters can replicate a Picasso or a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh so brilliantly that a lay person can’t even tell the difference.”
“So there’s no way to establish if the Poppy Flowers that belongs to someone in our country – if it is still in India – is the original one?”
“Of course, there is,” I said. “That can be determined by any Impressionist era expert, or by someone who specialises in Van Gogh’s works,” I slipped myself in without quite saying it outright. “There is a certain style, and then there is the age of the painting itself…But that doesn’t mean that a rookie can identify a fake…”
“What, according to you, would be its value, if it was really an original?”
“The approximate value is currently put at fifty to fifty-five million US dollars, but the real value, I’d say, can go up to around 150 million US dollars. It really depends on how much interest the painting generates, and how many buyers there are.” Once again, I was being economical with the truth. I knew the painting was worth 200 million US dollars, because it already had a buyer in Japan. I knew that the deal had already been made. I also knew who was selling the painting to him. And I could tell you who was being paid to deliver it to the seller – Professor Albert Rueben, a Vincent van Gogh expert, erstwhile Fine Arts professor at Hautes études commerciales aka HEC, Paris.
And no, I was never an arts professor at HEC. But the office clerk here in Delhi had had a motorcycle accident the day he was meant to send the mail asking for references from HEC. When the poor man returned to work, everything had already been taken care of, the references received and filed by the temporary staff. I don’t need to tell you that the clerk’s accident wasn’t just a piece of good luck. Neither was the temporary member of staff helpful without a reason. The person who had been managing everything for me in the background wasn’t doing it all for charity either. So, there it was – the only reason for my sudden interest in Shri Vincent van Gogh.
Excerpted with permission from Extract from The Heist Artist, Vish Dhamija, HarperCollins India.