On October 18, 1969, Caravaggio’s Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence vanished from the Oratorio di San Lorenzo in Palermo, Sicily. The Nativity, as it is commonly known, is one of Caravaggio’s last great masterworks, painted in 1609 while he was a fugitive from justice, wanted by papal authorities in Rome for killing a man during a swordfight. For more than four decades, the altarpiece has been the most sought-after stolen painting in the world, and yet its exact whereabouts, even its fate, have remained a mystery. Until now. . .
ST. JAMES’S, LONDON
It began with an accident, but then matters involving Julian Isherwood invariably did. In fact, his reputation for folly and misadventure was so indisputably established that London’s art world, had it known of the affair, which it did not, would have expected nothing less. Isherwood, declared one wit from the Old Masters department at Sotheby’s, was the patron saint of lost causes, a highwire artist with a penchant for carefully planned schemes that ended in ruins, oftentimes through no fault of his own. Consequently, he was both admired and pitied, a rare trait for a man of his position.
Julian Isherwood made life a bit less tedious. And for that, London’s smart set adored him.
His gallery stood at the far corner of the cobbled quadrangle known as Mason’s Yard, occupying three floors of a sagging Victorian warehouse once owned by Fortnum & Mason. On one side were the London offices of a minor Greek shipping company; on the other was a pub that catered to pretty office girls who rode motor scooters. Many years earlier, before the successive waves of Arab and Russian money had swamped London’s real estate market, the gallery had been located in stylish New Bond Street, or New Bondstrasse, as it was known in the trade. Then came the likes of Hermès, Burberry, Chanel, and Cartier, leaving Isherwood and others like him—independent dealers specializing in museum-quality Old Master paintings—no choice but to seek sanctuary in St. James’s.
It was not the first time Isherwood had been forced into exile. Born in Paris on the eve of World War II, the only child of the renowned art dealer Samuel Isakowitz, he had been carried over the Pyrenees after the German invasion and smuggled into Britain. His Parisian childhood and Jewish lineage were just two pieces of his tangled past that Isherwood kept secret from the rest of London’s notoriously backbiting art world. As far as anyone knew, he was English to the core—English as high tea and bad teeth, as he was fond of saying. He was the incomparable Julian Isherwood, Julie to his friends, Juicy Julian to his partners in the occasional crime of drink, and His Holiness to the art historians and curators who routinely made use of his infallible eye. He was loyal as the day was long, trusting to a fault, impeccably mannered, and had no real enemies, a singular achievement given that he had spent two lifetimes navigating the treacherous waters of the art world. Mainly, Isherwood was decent—decency being in short supply these days, in London or anywhere else.
Isherwood Fine Arts was a vertical affair: bulging storage rooms on the ground floor, business offices on the second, and a formal exhibition room on the third. The exhibition room, considered by many to be the most glorious in all of London, was an exact replica of Paul Rosenberg’s famous gallery in Paris, where Isherwood had spent many happy hours as a child, oftentimes in the company of Picasso himself. The business office was a Dickensian warren piled high with yellowed catalogues and monographs. To reach it, visitors had to pass through a pair of secure glass doorways, the first off Mason’s Yard, the second at the top of a narrow flight of stairs covered in stained brown carpeting. There they would encounter Maggie, a sleepy-eyed blonde who couldn’t tell a Titian from toilet paper. Isherwood had once made a complete ass of himself trying to seduce her and, having no other recourse, hired her to be his receptionist instead. Presently, she was buffing her nails while the telephone on her desk bleated unanswered.
“Mind getting that, Mags?” Isherwood inquired benevolently.
“Why?” she asked without a trace of irony in her voice.
“Might be important.”
She rolled her eyes before resentfully lifting the receiver to her ear and purring,
“Isherwood Fine Arts.” A few seconds later, she rang off without another word and resumed work on her nails.
“Well?” asked Isherwood.
“No one on the line.”
“Be a love, petal, and check the caller ID.”
“He’ll call back.”
Isherwood, frowning, resumed his silent appraisal of the painting propped upon the baize-covered easel in the center of the room—a depiction of Christ appearing before Mary Magdalene, probably by a follower of Francesco Albani, which Isherwood had recently plucked for a pittance from a manor house in Berkshire. The painting, like Isherwood himself, was badly in need of restoration. He had reached the age that estate planners refer to as “the autumn of his years.” It was not a golden autumn, he thought gloomily. It was late autumn, with the wind knife-edged and Christmas lights burning along Oxford Street. Still, with his handmade Savile Row suit and plentiful gray locks, he cut an elegant if precarious figure, a look he described as dignified depravity. At this stage of his life, he could strive for nothing more.
“I thought some dreadful Russian was dropping by at four to look at a painting,” said Isherwood suddenly, his gaze still roaming the worn canvas.
“The dreadful Russian canceled.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You must have forgotten, Julian. Been happening a lot lately.”
Isherwood fixed Maggie with a withering stare, all the while wondering how he could have been attracted to so repulsive a creature. Then, having no other appointments on his calendar, and positively nothing better to do, he crawled into his overcoat and hiked over to Green’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar, thus setting in motion the chain of events that would lead him into yet another calamity not of his own making. The time was twenty minutes past four. It was a bit too early for the usual crowd, and the bar was empty except for Simon Mendenhall, Christie’s permanently suntanned chief auctioneer. Mendenhall had once played an unwitting role in a joint Israeli-American intelligence operation to penetrate a jihadist terror network that was bombing the daylights out of Western Europe. Isherwood knew this because he had played a minor role in the operation himself. Isherwood was not a spy. He was a helper of spies, one spy in particular.
“Julie!” Mendenhall called out. Then, in the bedroom voice he reserved for reluctant bidders, he added, “You look positively marvelous. Lost weight? Been to a pricey spa? A new girl? What’s your secret?”
“Sancerre,” replied Isherwood before settling in at his usual table next to the window overlooking Duke Street. And there he ordered a bottle of the stuff, brutally cold, for a glass wouldn’t do. Mendenhall soon departed with his usual flourish, and Isherwood was alone with his thoughts and his drink, a dangerous combination for a man of advancing years with a career in full retreat.
But eventually the door swung open, and the wet darkening street yielded a pair of curators from the National Gallery. Someone important from the Tate came next, followed by a delegation from Bonhams led by Jeremy Crabbe, the tweedy director of the auction house’s Old Master paintings department. Hard on their heels was Roddy Hutchinson, widely regarded as the most unscrupulous dealer in all of London. His arrival was a bad omen, for everywhere Roddy went, tubby Oliver Dimbleby was sure to follow. As expected, he came waddling into the bar a few minutes later with all the discretion of a train whistle at midnight. Isherwood seized his mobile phone and feigned an urgent conversation, but Oliver was having none of it. He made a straight line toward the table—like a hound bearing down on a fox, Isherwood would recall later—and settled his ample backside into the empty chair. “Domaine Daniel Chotard,” he said approvingly, lifting the bottle of wine from the ice bucket. “Don’t mind if I do.”
* * * * *
He wore a blue power suit that fit his portly frame like a sausage casing and large gold cuff links the size of shillings. His cheeks were rounded and pink; his pale blue eyes shone with a brightness that suggested he slept well at night. Oliver Dimbleby was a sinner of the highest order, but his conscience bothered him not.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, Julie,” he said as he poured himself a generous measure of Isherwood’s wine, “but you look like a pile of dirty laundry.”
“That’s not what Simon Mendenhall said.”
“Simon earns his living by talking people out of their money. I, however, am a source of unvarnished truth, even when it hurts.” Dimbleby settled his gaze on Isherwood with a look of genuine concern.
“Oh, don’t look at me like that, Oliver.”
“Like you’re trying to think of something kind to say before the doctor pulls the plug.”
“Have you had a peek in the mirror lately?”
“I try to avoid mirrors these days.”
“I can see why.” Dimbleby added another half inch of the wine to his glass.
“Is there anything else I can get for you, Oliver? Some caviar?”
“Don’t I always reciprocate?”
“No, Oliver, you don’t. In fact, if I were keeping track, which I am not, you would be several thousand pounds in arrears.”
Dimbleby ignored the remark. “What is it, Julian? What’s troubling you this time?”
“At the moment, Oliver, it’s you.”
“It’s that girl, isn’t it, Julie? That’s what’s got you down. What was her name again?”
“Cassandra,” Isherwood answered to the window.
“Broke your heart, did she?”
“They always do.”
Dimbleby smiled. “Your capacity for love astounds me. What I wouldn’t give to fall in love just once.”
“You’re the biggest womanizer I know, Oliver.”
“Being a womanizer has precious little to do with being in love. I love women, all women. And therein lies the problem.”
Isherwood stared into the street. It was starting to rain again, just in time for the evening rush.
“Sold any paintings lately?” asked Dimbleby.
“None that I’ve heard about.”
“That’s because the sales were private.”
“Bollocks,” replied Oliver with a snort. “You haven’t sold anything in months. But that hasn’t stopped you from acquiring new stock, has it? How many paintings have you got stashed away in that storeroom of yours? Enough to fill a museum, with a few thousand paintings to spare. And they’re all burned to a crisp, deader than the proverbial doornail.”
Isherwood made no response other than to rub at his lower back. It had replaced a barking cough as his most persistent physical ailment. He supposed it was an improvement. A sore back didn’t disturb the neighbors.
“My offer still stands,” Dimbleby was saying.
“What offer is that?”
“Come on, Julie. Don’t make me say it aloud.”
Isherwood swiveled his head a few degrees and stared directly into Dimbleby’s fleshy, childlike face. “You’re not talking about buying my gallery again, are you?”
“I’m prepared to be more than generous. I’ll give you a fair price for the small portion of your collection that’s sellable and use the rest to heat the building.”
“That’s very charitable of you,” Isherwood responded sardonically, “but I have other plans for the gallery.”
Isherwood was silent.
“Very well,” said Dimbleby. “If you won’t allow me to take possession of that flaming wreck you refer to as a gallery, at least let me do something else to help lift you out of your current Blue Period.”
“I don’t want one of your girls, Oliver.”
“I’m not talking about a girl. I’m talking about a nice trip to help take your mind off your troubles.”
“Lake Como. All expenses paid. First-class airfare. Two nights in a luxury suite at the Villa d’Este.”
“And what do I have to do in return?”
“A small favor.”
Dimbleby helped himself to another glass of the wine and told Isherwood the rest of it.
* * * * *
It seemed Oliver Dimbleby had recently made the acquaintance of an expatriate Englishman who collected ravenously but without the aid of a trained art adviser to guide him. Furthermore, it seemed the Englishman’s finances were not what they once were, thus requiring the rapid sale of a portion of his holdings. Dimbleby had agreed to have a quiet look at the collection, but now that the trip was upon him, he couldn’t face the prospect of getting on yet another airplane. Or so he claimed. Isherwood suspected Dimbleby’s true motives for backing out of the trip resided elsewhere, for Oliver Dimbleby was ulterior motives made flesh.
Nevertheless, there was something about the idea of an unexpected journey that appealed to Isherwood, and against all better judgment he accepted the offer on the spot. That evening he packed lightly, and at nine the next morning was settling into his first-class seat on British Airways Flight 576, with nonstop service to Milan’s Malpensa Airport. He drank only a single glass of wine during the flight—for the sake of his heart, he told himself—and at half past twelve, as he was climbing into a rented Mercedes, he was fully in command of his faculties. He made the drive northward to Lake Como without the aid of a map or navigation device. A highly regarded art historian who specialized in the painters of Venice, Isherwood had made countless journeys to Italy to prowl its churches and museums. Even so, he always leapt at the chance to return, especially when someone else was footing the bill. Julian Isherwood was French by birth and English by upbringing, but within his sunken chest beat the romantic, undisciplined heart of an Italian.
The expatriate Englishman of shrinking resources was expecting Isherwood at two. He lived grandly, according to Dimbleby’s hastily drafted e-mail, on the southwestern prong of the lake, near the town of Laglio. Isherwood arrived a few minutes early and found the imposing gate open to receive him. Beyond the gate stretched a newly paved drive, which bore him gracefully to a gravel forecourt. He parked next to the villa’s private quay and made his way past molded statuary to the front door. The bell, when pressed, went unanswered. Isherwood checked his watch and then rang the bell a second time. The result was the same.
At which point Isherwood would have been wise to climb into his rented car and leave Como as quickly as possible. Instead, he tried the latch and, regrettably, found it was unlocked. He opened the door a few inches, called a greeting into the darkened interior, and then stepped uncertainly into the grand entrance hall. Instantly, he saw the lake of blood on the marble floor, and the two bare feet suspended in space, and the swollen blue-black face staring down from above. Isherwood felt his knees buckle and saw the floor rising to receive him. He knelt there for a moment until the wave of nausea had passed. Then he rose unsteadily to his feet and, with his hand over his mouth, stumbled out of the villa toward his car. And though he did not realize it at the time, he was cursing tubby Oliver Dimbleby’s name every step of the way.