“These some of your reproductions?” he calls from the other side of the room. Aiden Markel, the owner of the world-renowned Markel G, here for a studio visit. Aiden Markel, who just a few months ago barely acknowledged my presence when I stopped by his tony Newbury Street gallery to see a new installation.
I look over my shoulder. “Yeah. I don’t usually have any completed ones here. But the truck’s tied up all week, so the Degas isn’t getting picked up till Friday.”
“Reproductions.com. Got to love the name. Saw the article in the Globe last month. Nice exposure for you.” He hesitates. “I guess?”
“Not exactly the kind I’m looking for.” Just what I need: publicity for pretending to paint someone else’s masterpiece. “I tried to get out of the interview, but Repro wouldn’t stand for it.”
“Are they doing as well as their hype?”
“Probably better,” I say, although I’m not really listening and not at all interested in Repro. I’m too focused on pulling my best paintings, but not too many. Light. Interesting value is what he wants, deep and translucent. I grab one. Not strong enough. Then another.
“Now this is OTC,” he says, pointing to the Pissarro, which although incomplete is obviously filled with trees covered in masses of white blossoms.
I laugh. “For the pretentious.”
“But poor,” he adds.
I lumber down with three canvases under my arm. “Not all that poor. Those things go for thousands of dollars. Tens of thousands for the bigger ones. Unfortunately, I only get a fraction of that.”
I quickly remove my more abstract paintings from the wall. Replace them with the ones I’ve chosen. I turn to him, but he’s staring at the fake Degas.
“You’re damn good at this.”
“It beats waitressing.”
His eyes don’t leave my rendering. “I’ll say.”
“Degas’ later work isn’t all that hard to copy. Not like his early oils. They’re a real bitch,” I say, trying to be polite when every part of me wants to grab Markel and pull him to the other side of the studio. “What with all those layers. Painting and waiting. Painting and waiting. Could take months, maybe years.”
“And Reproductions.com has you do that?”
No. Never. A piece like that would have to sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.” I come to stand by him. “Degas is my specialty, his oils in particular. I’m actually certified — whatever that means — by Repro, after I took the requisite classes.” I wave to the piles of books in the corner. “I’m working on a book proposal about him. His relationship with other artists, dealers, collectors of his day. Cross-germination. That kind of stuff. But I’m not working on it as hard as I should be.”
Markel’s eyes remain glued to the Degas reproduction. “This seems like a better use of your time. Do they appreciate you?”
“Sometimes I get a bonus when people order a Degas with the stipulation that I’m the artist,” I shrug. “Although you can hardly call a person who copies a masterpiece an artist.”
He doesn’t contradict me, and I gesture him back to my real work. He steals a last glance at Woman Leaving Her Bath before he follows.
We stand in silence, staring at my windows. I force myself to remain silent, to allow the work to speak for itself.
After two minutes that feel like twenty, Markel touches my arm. “Let’s sit down.”
We walk over to the couch and sit on opposite ends. He finishes off his wine and pours himself another. I decline his offer of a refill, wanting the wine, but fearing I’m too jittery to hold onto it.
Markel clears his throat, takes another sip. “Claire, I’ve just been given the opportunity of a lifetime. A chance to do good, real good for lots of people. And I hope you’ll feel the same way about the one I’m about to give you.” He pauses. “Although I suppose yours is really more like making a deal with the devil.”
I have absolutely no idea what he’s talking about, but I catch the word “opportunity.” “And you’re the devil?”
He shakes his head vigorously. “The devil’s the one who gave me this opportunity. Although I’ve no idea who he is. He’s levels away from me.”
Although I meant it as a joke, he ponders the question, a professor attempting to answer a precocious student. “No. I guess that’s wrong. Pawns are the better analogy. But clever pawns. Who can capture the queen. Either way, I’m mixing my metaphors.”
“I’ve got no problem with the devil. I’m one of those people who thinks heaven would be boring. But being a pawn has never suited me.”
This time he does laugh, but I can tell it’s forced. “Then we’ll stick with the devil.”
Enough of this. “Okay,” I say. “What are we talking about here?”
He locks his eyes on mine. “Something not quite on the up-and-up.”
I don’t break the stare. “I thought you said it was an opportunity to do good?”
“The end is good. It’s just the means that are a bit iffy.”
“There’s illegal and there’s illegal.”
“And which one is this?”
Markel looks across the room at the Degas and Pissarro.
And now it all makes sense. “Oh” is all I can say.
He takes a sip of wine, relaxes into the lumpy couch. The most uncomfortable part of this conversation is clearly over for him.
I cross my arms over my chest. “I can’t believe that after everything that’s happened, you, of all people, would even consider asking me to forge a painting.”
“How much does Reproductions.com pay you?”
“They pay me to copy, not to forge.”
“So you said a fraction. A few thousand a picture? A little more?”
Often it’s less, but I nod.
“I’ll pay you $50,000. Plus expenses, of course. A third up front, a third on completion to my satisfaction, and the final third on authentication.”
“Is this because of what happened with Isaac?”
“It’s despite what happened with Isaac.”
I’m stupefied by this answer, and it must have showed on my face, because he says, “You’re the best for the project.”
“Out of all the thousands of artists you know?”
Again, he looks across the room at the Degas reproduction. “You’re the only one I’d trust with it.”
“How do you know I won’t talk?”
“It’s not your style,” he says, which is true. People who have been on the wrong side of rumor know when to keep their mouths shut.
“What about turning you in? I could always go to the police.”
“Not when you understand what’s at stake,” he says.
“So tell me.”
“I meant what I said about your paintings, Claire. You have a unique talent. You always did. Just because you’ve been blackballed doesn’t mean you can’t paint.” He pauses. “I’d also like to give you a one-woman show at the gallery.”
I barely conceal a gasp.
“In six, nine months,” he says. “After you’ve finished this project. Do you think you could have twenty paintings ready by then? Of the realistic highly glazed?”
I turn away to hide my longing. My own show at Markel G. An impossible dream.
“I’m pretty sure I can get the same Times reporter who covered Jocelyn Gamp to cover you,” he says.
The New York Times. Sales. Commissions. Studio visits from the Met. My heart actually hurts. “Claire, please look at me.” When I do, he says, “I’ll protect you. Like I said, I’m levels away from anyone with any knowledge, and you’ll be a level away from me.”
“What’s the part where we get to do something good?”
“I’ll tell you all the details when you’re on board.”
“There’s no way I can agree to something this mysterious.”
Markel stands. “Just give it some thought.” He touches my shoulder. “I’ll check in with you next week.”
“You really are the devil, aren’t you?”
“If you believe in the devil.”
Which, of course, I don’t.