Sunday 21 July 2019

Left Field: CHAPTER 11 - Café Slavia

We are surrounded by fakes. There are fake pearls, fake fur, fake blood, fake signatures. Some fakes are not just meant to deceive, but to impress as well, like fake books that fill the shelves of people who wish to appear more learned than they are, or fake aristocrats who purchase their fake titles. Fakes can be used negatively, such as documents created to justify the attack on Iraq. Or positively, inflatable tanks placed on the cliffs above Dover before D-Day.

The art world is rife with fakes, where they are called forgeries. They are as old as the Old Masters and often the Old Masters were the greatest forgers of all. Michelangelo produced replicas of Domenico Ghirlandaio’s drawings that were so good, Ghirlandaio thought they were his own.

I spent a lot of time in Ključ, helping catalogue Rabuzin’s prodigious output. After one visit in October 1990, I returned to Zagreb a few days before my flight to London. I arrived on a Friday and my plane had been booked for the following Tuesday. I had planned to spend my three free days with my friend Darko Glavan, a rock critic. Unfortunately, when I got there, Darko said he had to go to Paris that weekend to visit Jim Morrison’s grave and write an article on The Doors.

I went to a bar on TkalčićevaStreet that was frequented by artists. There I bumped into Marko Tomić, a wheeler-dealer who was always introducing me to ex-communist party ‘bizinessmen’, all of whom knew someone who knew someone who had a Picasso they wanted to get out of the country. It was less than a year since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Eastern Europe was full of art works migrating westward, lured by the promise of insanely high prices.

Over a beer, Marko said, ‘There is interesting painting in Prague. I’m going there to authenticate it. Come with me, David. It will be, as you English say, jolly good fun.’

I shook my head. ‘I have to go back to London.’ ‘When do you leave?’


We have time.’

But it’s Friday afternoon.’

We go now.’

Marko had many crazy qualities, one of which I shared:
impetuousness. Two hours later, we set off in the pouring rain in his beat-up, unheated Citroën deux chevaux. There was a leak above my head. Cold and wet, I climbed into the back seat for the rest of the journey.

The tin snail’s windscreen wipers were worn and their scritch-scratch was tortuous to listen to. The car’s signal lights were broken and when Marko overtook lorries, I shut my eyes and prayed. I didn’t think we’d make it but, 650 kilometres later, at three in the morning, we arrived in Prague.

Marko drew up outside a large house in the leafy suburb of Karlin. An old man answered the door and led us into a cellar. At its centre was a one and a half metre circular wooden castle, complete with battlements and flag. 

I stared at it.The old man smiled at me. ‘Prague Castle. I make.’ He walked to the side of the room and turned on a tap. There was a large wheel with yoghurt cartons attached to its outside rim. As each carton filled with water, the wheel started to turn. Like a large clock, the wheel had cogs connected to the rim of the castle which began to revolve.

I see you like,’ the old man said. ‘Turn off after you enjoy.’

He pointed to a camp bed in the cellar’s far corner. ‘There you sleep.’
The old man and Marko disappeared and I was left alone in the basement. When I tried to turn off the tap, it came away in my hand. The castle cranked and groaned. What could I do? I had no idea where Marko or the old man were. The noisy castle kept me awake.
In the morning, Marko brought me a coffee. ‘So you like this,’ he said, nodding towards the turning contraption.

Like it? It kept me awake and I couldn’t turn the water off. Find a way to stop the damn thing.’

He shrugged. ‘That not matter. We go now to Café Slavia and wait Maja. You will like her. She very beautiful.’ 

Located on the banks of the Vltava River, the Slavia was typical of the cafés you find throughout the former Austro- Hungarian Empire: varnished wood panels, sturdy chairs and tables and newspapers slung over wooden dowels. Old men sip their coffees while playing chess and fur-coated women gossip in low voices and eat éclairs and chocolate gateaux.

Marko and I sat drinking foul kavas. In those days of glasnost, but before the arrival of Starbucks, Czech coffee was dark, strong and served in mugs. Oily, gritty coffee grains floated on the top of the cup and stuck to your lips.

Marko kept getting up to make phone calls, returning each time to say, ‘Maja is on her way.’

I trusted his word as much as I did his driving, but we were a long way from Zagreb and there was nowhere else for me to go.

After three hours, Maja finally arrived. Marko was right; she looked like she belonged on a catwalk. Tall, leggy and sultry, she had the appearance of a tigress who would eat her own cubs if necessity demanded it. She was poured into her Levis and over her white silk blouse was an expensive black- leather jacket zipped to just below the last button.

She took us to a waiting car. As we drove through the town, I felt like the castle, going around in circles. We were. After a 15-minute journey, I could see the Café Slavia two hundred metres down the road.

We get out now,’ Maja said.

She led us into a small gallery. As the door was closed, so were the curtains. A jacketed guard appeared from nowhere. He revealed an Uzi sub-machine gun.

Marko whispered, ‘I have told them you are English lord. Expert on Renaissance art.’

I was shaking with a mixture of fear over the gun and anger with Marko. ‘You’ve done what?’ 

Another man came up from the cellar with a large painting covered in linen. He placed it on a table. ‘I am Karol. This is my gallery.’ He lifted the cloth. ‘Please look. We think this is Jacopo Bassano. It is going to Munich, but first we need authentication. Your fee will be two per cent of sale price.’

Not knowing what the hell I was doing, my instincts told me to play for time. I pretended to examine the picture and concentrated on two or three parts of the painting, as though I had noticed something that would attract the attention of an expert. The fish on the kitchen floor, the figure of Judas Iscariot slumped in a chair, the haloed Christ sitting at the dining table, talking to his disciples.

I then turned my attention to the scratchings on the back, the woodworm holes in the frame. I took a notebook from my pocket and wrote a lot of gobbledegook. Hoping my voice wouldn’t shake, I told Karol that I must have professional photos of the painting and that, after studying them, I would give him my answer from London.

Karol snapped his fingers and Maja stepped forward with a camera. ‘She will take them and bring them to your hotel.’

I couldn’t tell him that I was staying in a cellar in the suburbs with a pirouetting castle. I left it to Marko to sort that one out. After he’d said something to them in Czech, I asked Karol, ‘Does this painting have any provenance?’

It does, but the paperwork is unreliable. That is why you are here.’

After we left the gallery, I said to Marko. ‘You bastard! We’re going back to Zagreb tonight.’

We can’t do that,’ he said. ‘We have to wait for the photographs.’

Oh yes. And which five-star hotel is this lord staying at?’

Don’t worry,’ Marko said, waving a soothing hand. ‘I told them you travel incognito and I would pick up the photos from Maja at the Slavia.’

I was in the shit now, up to my knees. I had to get away from Marko to think things through. I told him I’d get myself back to the house that night. I headed across the Charles Bridge on foot. I wanted to see that damn castle for real.

When I landed at Heathrow, I rang Mervyn and told him what had happened. He said he would make an appointment for me at a major London auction house with the person who dealt with seventeenth-century Renaissance art. I felt better when he said he would come with me.

In the meantime, the calls from Prague and Zagreb continued. Every time the phone rang, my legs buckled. It was Karol, Maja or Marko wanting to know if the painting had been authenticated.

A few knee-knocking days later I met Mervyn at the auction house and the two of us were introduced to the expert. He was, in fact, a young aristocrat, someone I will call ‘Charles’.

Where did you see this picture?’ he asked.

In Prague.’

In a gallery or someone’s home?’

I gave him the name of the gallery and told him about Karol.
I didn’t mention the machine gun.

Charles looked briefly at the photos, then at Mervyn. He waved his hand. ‘A fake,’ he said authoritatively. ‘There’s a lot of this stuff about these days.’

I felt relieved. If the painting had been genuine, I would have been implicated in what was possibly an art crime. Now I could extricate myself from a situation I had foolishly stumbled into.

Back at the Rona gallery, I told Stanley the whole story. He listened and smiled wryly. ‘Why didn’t you tell me earlier?’

I explained that I had felt too ashamed. Then Stanley told me about an incident he’d had some years before.

I was in Los Angeles where I was asked to visit the home of a millionaire who said he owned a Picasso. When I saw it, I told him it was a fake. That evening his bodyguard came to my hotel. Fortunately for me, we had become drinking buddies. “Get out of town,” he said. “You have given him information he doesn’t want repeated.” I left on the next plane.’

Stanley laughed. ‘Do you know what the French say about Corot? That in his lifetime he painted one thousand canvases and that three thousand are in America.’

That evening the phone rang. It was Karol again. I told him that I needed more time. There was some confusion between the picture he had shown me and another of Bassano’s paintings. ‘Ring me next week,’ I said.

To my relief, there were no more calls.

Six months later, I was at a party and met a lecturer in the Art Department at University College, London. He was an expert in late Renaissance paintings. I told him about my misadventure in Prague. He asked me if I still had the transparencies of the fake Bassano. I said that I did.

Could I see them?’

Of course,’ I said.

I sent them to him. A few days later he called me. ‘That’s no fake. It’s one of Bassano’s kitchen paintings. This one has been lost for years. It’s worth millions.’

What a fool I’d been. A fake art expert and a fake lord.

Now as I look at the transparency of this painting, I see a cook scrubbing a copper pot. There is a hole sunk into the stone floor where a half dozen still-alive fish have been netted. Surrounded by cats and cooks, they know their fate has been sealed. My eye is drawn back to the central character in the foreground, Judas Iscariot, who sits in a pose of regret and shame. He is dressed sumptuously in fur-lined robes, a glint of an earring below his crimson turban. He is staring at a goblet of red wine and a loaf of bread.

Like all Renaissance paintings, it is an allegory. The more you study it, the more you see. The long white towel draped over a hook could be the swaddling used for Christ on the cross and the shine of silver in Judas’ ear could represent the shekels he received for his greed.
I share his emotions of regret and shame brought about not, as in his case, by the betrayal of another person, but the betrayal of myself. I had been the real fake. 

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