In financial trouble, Isobel Sadler considers selling a painting that’s been in her family for generations. She can’t imagine it’s worth much . . . until someone tries to steal it.
Mystified, Isobel turns to art dealer Michael Whiting for advice. He identifies the painting as a sixteenth-century treasure map pointing the way to a series of lost religious artifacts hidden by monks when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. If he and Isobel can decipher the clues in the painting, Michael reasons, her money troubles will disappear.
But if they can’t decode the painting quickly, Michael and Isobel could be history themselves. As they struggle to translate the arcane instructions—laced with references to everything from the Bible to Botticelli—they are stalked by a rival who will stop at nothing to get his hands on the treasure.
Peter Watson’s stylish art-world thriller seamlessly mixes action with “sustained literariness, refinement, and polish” (Library Journal).
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About the Author
He has published three exposés on the world of art and antiquities, twelve books of nonfiction, and seven novels—some under the pen name Mackenzie Ford—and from 1997 to 2007 was a research associate at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge. Watson lives in London, where his interests include theatre, opera, and fishing.
Read an Excerpt
'You may be richer than you think, Michael. Come over here and I'll show you why.'
Julius Samuels smiled and lifted a glass to his lips. The liver spots danced on his old throat as he swallowed his whisky. It was not quite 10 am. He was seated in a worn mahogany swivel chair and wearing a white coat smudged with paint. His left hand held a large oval-shaped palette with squibs of pigment laid out in a curved spectrum near the edge. A cigar thicker than a thumb burned in a tray on a shelf near his right shoulder.
Michael Whiting picked his way past stacks of gilded frames, tins of oil, bottles of varnish brown as beer, rows of canvases, their faces turned confidentially to the wall. He edged around a large easel, careful not to snag his corduroy suit on the wood, and stood next to the massive bulk of London's most venerable picture restorer. Behind and below them the traffic in Dover Street rumbled forward in the sunshine.
In front of the two men, on the easel, stood a painting. It showed a woman: her skin was pale but she had the faint blossom of pink in her cheeks. She was wearing a blue hood — except that half the hood was missing. It had been removed by the restorer. Under it was revealed a thick mane of chestnut hair.
Samuels reached for his cigar and drew on it. The end glowed like the curly filament in a small lamp. 'I took off the varnish, then applied some diluted acetone and white spirit.' He cleared his throat. 'The blue came off straight away, as easy as wiping your nose. I found all this lovely hair underneath. Then I found the earring ... that's when I called you.' He wedged the cigar back into his mouth.
Michael was examining the chestnut hair. It was beautifully painted; he could almost count the strands. 'Perbloodyfection. But why would anyone cover up such lovely hair with that hideous hood?'
'Rum bunch, those Victorians. But I've come across this before. People were more religious then than they are now. Italian religious art was fashionable in those days — and that made it expensive. But it wasn't hard to "doctor" one of the family portraits, which were much more common and therefore cheaper. Get a nice-looking woman, safely dead so she couldn't complain. Cover up the jewels, the cleavage, the fashionable hairdo. In no time you have a saint or the Blessed Virgin.' He chuckled, though it sounded as if he was gargling. 'They were rogues in those days.'
Michael smiled, carefully keeping his eyes on the picture. 'You should know.'
Samuels replied without removing the cigar from his mouth. 'Have a whisky, Michael. You're not thinking straight this morning. I sometimes "improve" paintings, I know. All restorers do. That's what customers want — old masters that look as though they were painted at the weekend. But I never invent.' He reached across for the Bell's and a glass.
He continued as Michael helped himself. 'The reason I phoned you was this: if you give me the go-ahead and I clean all this Victorian mush away, you might be able to identify the lady from her jewels. There might even be a coat of arms in the background. If you can identify her you know better than I do how much that will improve the value of the picture. That's why you may be richer than you think.'
Michael's eyes were watering slightly from the strength of the whisky so early in the day but he tried not to let it show. He felt a quickening of the pulse that wasn't due to the alcohol and stared again at the canvas. This was one of the main reasons he had become an art dealer: for the thrill of discovery. True, he loved just looking at paintings. English ones especially. Michael thought English painting was very underrated across the world. The Americans appreciated it, but the Italians, the French and the Germans had never regarded English art as equal to their own. The few occasions when Michael had sold paintings to foreign museums had been the proudest moments of his career. But the discoveries he had made — those were the most exciting times.
He leaned forward to inspect the picture again. The hair and the jewel were certainly a cut above the blue hood. As old Jules said, underneath this dreary Victorian saint, which he had acquired at a house sale along with something else he valued more highly, there might just lurk a much better painting.
Julius had taken down from a shelf a large book. Like all good restorers he kept a meticulous record of what he did to paintings. He made notes and little drawings, partly to cover himself should there ever be any dispute about the authenticity of something he had restored, partly as an aidemémoire in case, as regularly happened, a work came back to him on a later occasion. He opened the book and showed Michael a tiny drawing on one of the pages. 'This is how much I've taken off so far. The rest shouldn't take me too long. What do you think?'
In reply, Michael placed his hand on the old man's shoulder. 'If this woman turns out to be Lady Luck, Jules, it's not going to do your liver much good.' They had a deal that Michael always paid in whisky, to avoid the tax man.
Samuels gave a throaty chuckle. 'Michael, by my age your liver becomes your favourite and most useful organ.' Samuels chuckled again and the liver spots did another jig on his throat. He pointed at Michael's glass. 'Knock that back and let me get on. You must have a shop to go to.'
This time Michael laughed and finished his drink. Samuels delighted in calling dealers' galleries their 'shops': he knew how it hurt their sensibilities.
Out in the sunshine, Michael turned south, towards Piccadilly. He had broken his cardinal rule of never drinking anything other than single malt whisky — as he always did when he visited Julius. But he was smiling; an encounter with the old man always put him in a good mood.
He dodged the traffic in Piccadilly and walked down St James's Street. He passed White's, turned into Jermyn Street, then right opposite Fortnum and Mason into Duke Street. His own gallery was in Mason's Yard, halfway down the street on the left, through an archway. It wasn't Duke Street itself, of course, or Old Bond Street, come to that, but it wasn't bad. He and his partner could afford more space there, and anyone who knew anything about British painting knew where to find them.
He passed a couple of other galleries. In the window of one was a portrait and he stopped to admire it. It was a small Degas pastel, smudges of powdery pink, pale blue and apricot splashing out from the dark charcoal lines. It showed a middle-aged man, bearded and balding, but elegant in a close-fitting jacket and a high collar, with a flowered handkerchief cascading from his breast pocket. A comfortably off figure from the comfortable world of the nineteenth century, the world of servants, bicycles, picnics. A world that lots of people wanted to return to, in art if they couldn't do it in real life.
Michael looked past the portrait to his own reflection in the window. Corduroy suits, he had been told a thousand times, were a thing of the past. They reeked of jazz and coffee bars, the archaeology of the twentieth century, in the words of his ungovernable younger sister, Robyn. But, at thirty-three, he couldn't quite bring himself to abandon what he had got used to. Nor was the art dealer's uniform — dark, double-breasted suit, sea island cotton shirt, black shoes, shiny as olives — all that enticing either. The brown velvet of the corduroy suited Michael's colouring too. He'd been even blonder as a baby but he was still very fair. Robyn was jealous of his hair and its waviness, even though he couldn't seem to keep it in place. His gaze shifted to the cigar in his hand. The tobacco was a weakness, of course. Cigars were expensive, made him look older than he was, and lots of people, women especially, hated the smoke. But Michael was hooked. He loved the smell, the crackle of the leaves, the colour of the leaves. He relished the deliberate ritual of cutting and lighting a cigar, of rolling it in the flame of the match. He rolled the cigar between his fingers now, then jabbed it into his mouth and straightened his tie, using the reflection in the window.
Michael sighed. He always seemed to have an unravelled look, no matter how hard he tried. He took another glance at the apricot splashes in the Degas and moved on through the archway which led into Mason's Yard. His gallery was at the far end where its sign could be seen by passers-by in Duke Street. The green and gold lettering read: 'Whiting & Wood Fine Art'. Michael had a partner, Gregory Wood, an accountant who had many contacts in the City. All galleries had to borrow from the banks so that they could maintain sufficient stock to give customers a decent choice. If Greg could borrow money at a better rate than other galleries were getting they were ahead of the game.
Michael and Greg got on well — they had to, given the fact that they were a small firm and in each other's pockets for most of the time. While Greg raised loans and chased customers who hadn't paid it was Michael's job to find the paintings and the customers. The only slight shadow on their relationship was coming towards Michael now as he opened the door to the gallery and stepped inside. The pleasure Michael took in their current 'star'— a small Gainsborough oil sketch, a landscape with a low, pepper-coloured horizon and a firebrick sky — was soon wiped out as Patrick Wood greeted him.
Had Patrick not been Greg's son Michael would never have allowed the boy — for he was barely twenty — anywhere near the gallery. Snobbish, pompous, someone who imagined that dealing in paintings made him better than other people, he was a not unfamiliar type in the art world. Worse, a thin gold chain dangled from the buttonhole in his left lapel and he affected brightly speckled bow ties. Today's was pink with dark red spots.
'Good morning, Paddy.' Michael knew how Patrick hated being addressed as if he were an Irish bricklayer. 'What were you doing in the inner sanctum?'
The 'inner sanctum' was the viewing room at the back of the gallery, where favoured customers were shown paintings they might like to buy. It had easy chairs, a hidden bar and two velvet-covered easels. Access to the sanctum was supposed to convey a sense of privilege, or achievement, denied to ordinary mortals. Patrick had just stepped out of it, leaving the door half open.
'You have a visitor. I was hoping to keep her all to myself — though it seems she's here to see you.'
'Not just any woman, Michael. This is Rita Hayworth, Princess Diana and Zelda Fitzgerald all rolled into one. As the Michelin Guide might say: "Well worth a detour".'
Michael grinned at Patrick. The boy was improving, almost human. 'Keep that up and we'll have you writing catalogue entries soon. Think you can make some coffee without spraying speckles on that lovely bow tie?'
Patrick nodded. These sparring matches were normal and they both knew Greg approved. He said he wanted the spots knocked off his son.
Michael cast a brief glance over the walls of the gallery. It was late May and the art world was preparing for its big season, June through to mid-July. Soon Michael and Greg would be putting their best wares on the walls in readiness for the foreign collectors who would descend on London for the big auctions and the fancy antique fairs. For now, however, the gallery was showing some of its less intimidating pictures: a small Hoppner portrait, a Cozens landscape and a wonderful, almost abstract, cloud study by John Thistle in peach, cream and crimson. Michael adjusted the picture, which was not quite straight on the wall, and went through to the inner sanctum.
The room stuck out at the back of the gallery with nothing built above it, and Greg and he had been able to equip it with a glass roof or skylight so that pictures could be viewed for much of the time in natural light. The sun streamed in through the glass panels and on to the woman who was waiting. Patrick had not been entirely wrong. She wasn't young enough to be Princess Diana but she had the Hayworth hair, long and sweeping down the side of her face so that it almost covered one cheek. Deep eyes, dark as damsons. A warm, wheat-coloured skin. But the face was dominated by the sharp arch of her eyebrows, which were somehow curved and angled at the same time. It gave this woman's face an amused, quizzical, sardonic cast. Michael noticed that she had a thin plaster across one cheek. She hadn't taken off her raincoat, hadn't even unbelted it; that, he supposed, was what gave her a Fitzgerald air. It was as if she had an open car waiting for her nearby.
'Hello,' he said, holding out his hand. 'You're here to see me? You're not the taxman, I hope?'
She stood up, smiled, and shook hands. In high heels she was an inch or so shorter than he was — taller even than Princess Diana. Her hands were surprisingly rough. 'Isobel Sadler.'
'Please sit down,' he said. 'I've just been to see a man who insisted on offering me a large Scotch — at this hour! — so I for one need some coffee. Would you like to take off your coat?'
The coat masked the woman's figure so he was disappointed when she refused. Instead, she unbelted it and let it hang loose. Underneath she was wearing a white cotton shirt and a kilt. She sat back in her chair and crossed her legs.
Before she could speak the phone rang. Michael picked up the receiver and took a fresh cigar from his top pocket. As he listened he lovingly rolled the thick tube between his fingers. 'I don't believe it,' he said into the receiver. 'Again? Imbloodypressive. How many divorces is that — four? Five! Yes, I'm in, of course. Good idea. Three weeks, I'd say. If Miss Masson is divorcing, it can only mean she's ready to get married again. Okay? 'Bye, Nick.' He replaced the receiver, licked the end of the cigar and began to fiddle with his matches. 'Sorry about that. Where were we?'
Isobel Sadler said, 'It's good of you to see me. I gather it's normal to have an appointment. As if you were a doctor.' An eyebrow lifted a fraction. A mocking movement?
Michael shrugged and breathed blue smoke into the room. 'You're lucky I'm here,' he said. 'I travel a lot. You might have wasted your time.'
'I hope I'm not wasting yours. Edward Ryan suggested I come to you.'
'Oh yes? I wonder why.' Ryan was a dealer in oriental things. Michael tapped the first of the cigar ash into a lacquered tray.
Isobel Sadler smiled. 'He said you weren't too old or too young, that you weren't too rich or too hungry, that you weren't too straight or too bent, and that you liked a gamble.'
'Hmm. Who are Ryan's solicitors? I'll sue.'
'Save your money. He also said you thought like a detective — that's why you've made so many discoveries. Well, I have a mystery for you.'
As she said this, Isobel Sadler reached down to a packet at the side of her chair. From the shape it looked like a painting. She unwrapped the paper. Michael admired her movements but noticed once more the rough skin on her hands. In profile, her nose was too long to be perfect, and in an ideal world her lower lip would not have been so fleshy. But those eyebrows, which seemed to move independently of the rest of her face, gave her expression a jolt of electricity, radiation as much as warmth. It was one of those faces where none of the individual parts was in itself remarkable but where the whole added up to considerably more than the sum. Michael liked it.
She got up and placed the picture on one of the velvet easels, then sat down again in her chair.
Michael looked at the painting. He could usually tell straight away how good or bad something was but it was hard on people to respond too quickly. They were more flattered, and more convinced, if he took his time over it, and less devastated if the verdict was unfavourable.
He noticed immediately that the frame of the picture was broken at one corner and that some paint had chipped off nearby.
The picture showed a landscape of sorts. There was a valley in the background, and some buildings behind a copse of trees. In the foreground was a ring of figures — he counted nine — and, it appeared, all were male. Each figure was dressed differently: one was in a tunic, another in what looked like a monk's habit, and yet another appeared to be a skeleton wearing a mitre. One of the figures lay in front of a ruined window that made a kind of arch, through which the countryside could be seen. The ruin contained a number of columns, one with a carved capital, and to one side there was what looked like a small chapel area screened by a red cloth.
Excerpted from "Landscape of Lies"
Copyright © 1989 Peter Watson.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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