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© Srijon Chowdhury. Courtesy Foxy Production, New York City

© Srijon Chowdhury. Courtesy Foxy Production, New York City




In an effort to replenish its anemic membership with younger blood, the New Amsterdam Club has, among other measures, relaxed its dress code, allowed the use of cell phones, and added a mezcal cocktail to the menu. Yet one unspoken rule remains unchallenged: no business talk on the premises. Unless, maybe, in what’s known as “the little bar.” No one would dream of discussing work in the big bar or the dining room, but the little bar is a territory with a diplomatic status and a legislation of its own. Conversations are kept brief and drinks left unfinished out of consideration for those who pretend not to be waiting outside: according to yet another tacit law, each party is given total privacy in the narrow, seatless bar. Perhaps because its regulars don’t tend to be among the club’s most aesthetically minded members, the issue with the Sargent hanging in a dusky corner by the little bar’s entrance wasn’t immediately noticed. In 1885, John Singer Sargent painted a portrait of his friend Martin Graham, a minor watercolorist with whom he traveled Scotland that summer. It may have been as an homage to Graham that the oil on Sargent’s brush becomes less viscous toward the painting’s edges. Light strokes, faded colors, and dissolving shapes merge into one another, somewhat resembling a watercolor—a medium that Sargent, of course, also mastered. The subtlety of this conversation between friends through different materials and forms was utterly lost in the pixelated reproduction of the portrait that had been printed on canvas and mounted in a frame that closely resembled the real thing. Eventually someone noticed the crude forgery, but no one could say how long the original had been gone.

Like the New Amsterdam Club, the Spanish Association is grand and underattended. Unlike the club, however, the association is overendowed. At the dawn of the twentieth century, Charles Dunlap was caught up in the “Spanish craze” that swept the United States. But for him the fad developed into a lifelong obsession. Without making a significant dent in the shipping fortune inherited from his father, he bought almost two millenniums’ worth of Spanish history—from Roman artifacts, Nasrid textiles, and Hebrew Bibles to paintings by El Greco, Velázquez, and Goya—and erected an imposing building on West 152nd Street to house his collection. For the rest of the country, the Iberian fervor turned out to be briefer than a snap of castanets, and interest in Dunlap’s objects faded soon after his early death. Nevertheless, the association endured, embalmed in money. With virtually unlimited funding, it has never needed to attract the general public or high-profile donors. Its mere existence is the only condition for its continued existence. The few scholars who regularly consult the archives have long ago stopped looking at the masterpieces in the galleries leading to the library. This is why it wasn’t immediately obvious that Zurbarán’s still life Quince, Apple, and Lemon had been replaced with a printout. In this case, however, it wasn’t a reproduction of the painting but a photo of an actual quince, an actual apple, and an actual lemon, eclipsing one another in orbiting chiaroscuros, very much in the same way Francisco de Zurbarán had laid out and painted the fruit he had gathered from an Andalusian orchard. Academics and conceptual artists quivered with excitement after the news broke—referent, context, appropriation, etc. The police didn’t immediately connect the Zurbarán to the Sargent.

No one could establish when the still life had been stolen (or “improved,” according to a wisecracking criticaster), but the forgery was discovered toward the end of the American Booksellers’ Conference, held every fall in New York City. The main extracurricular event of the ABC has always been the party at the offices of the Parallel Press. It is widely accepted that editorial audacity and exquisite taste have kept the publishing house a bastion of literary prestige for over half a century, even if its halo of almost religious mystique has lately faded a bit. Overcrowded, sweaty, and often smelling of autumnally damp wool, the Parallel parties were unintentionally glamorous. There was something quaint about those evenings, with their indoor smoking and lighthearted, unconcealed bumps of cocaine in the kitchen. It was loud; everyone yelled; nobody cared. The books lining the walls were pushed back on their shelves to make room for plastic cups with bourbon or generic Côtes du Rhône. The autographed first editions and galleys marked up by prominent authors were kept in a locked room. But all the art—the pieces that the late Mindy Hall, the press’s founder and first publisher, had received or bought from her artist friends throughout her life—remained on display. Or, as it turned out during this year’s party, not quite all the art. Because the first thing Matthew Robbins, Hall’s successor, noticed the following morning as the cleaning crew stuffed Solo cups into garbage bags was that the relatively small Twombly above the bricked-up fireplace had been substituted with a fake. Instead of Cy Twombly’s traces, which had tended toward meaning while calmly refusing to become writing, there were now grotesque doodles. This caricature of the original, taped to the frame, had been executed in quick puerile strokes, using the box of twelve Crayola crayons left on the mantel—most likely as a provocation, according to Robbins’s press release.

The police are now treating the three incidents in connection with one another, but they seem uninterested in the increasingly personal, essayistic nature of the forgeries, which is all the press and the art world are talking about. Walter Benjamin, Elizabeth Harland, William Gaddis, Patricia Highsmith, Orson Welles, and Jean Baudrillard are referenced in articles that take these thefts as an opportunity to reflect, always with a touch of irony, on the true meaning of aesthetic value. Two famous critics published pieces on the affair, swapping their signatures, columns, and writing styles. Commentators pored over an elaborate manifesto that someone claiming to be the perpetrator posted online, though it turned out to be the work of a graduate student in Ann Arbor, who plans to include it (and the whole scandal) in her doctoral dissertation. While theories proliferate, the detectives on the case remain unmoved. Given the almost complete lack of security at all scenes, they say, any amateur could have pulled off these stunts. Neither the officers half-heartedly investigating the case nor the intellectual pranksters are entirely wrong.

© Srijon Chowdhury. Courtesy Foxy Production, New York Cit

© Srijon Chowdhury. Courtesy Foxy Production, New York City

The Sargent was stolen because it was easy to steal. Michael Lyles is a second-generation member of the New Amsterdam, which at first made it hard for him to accept that he would soon have to leave the club. After years of diligent, misdirected work and enthusiastic, ill-advised investments, Michael had finally wiped out his inheritance. Someone had once remarked that his adult life could be summarized in three sartorial incarnations: if at the auspicious beginnings of his career he favored spread-collar shirts and double Windsor knots, at the moderate height of his success he cultivated the meticulous shabbiness that was the ultimate token of affluence in the new circles in which he traveled, although as his business declined and he began frequenting people younger than him, he developed a taste for designers from Antwerp and limited-edition sneakers, which he proudly started wearing at the New Amsterdam when this was still somewhat of a provocation. That he had never evolved beyond this last stage probably indicated that his professional life was stagnant. There was, however, more objective evidence of this standstill: the point had come when he could no longer afford to have guests over at the club, and he well knew that the looming annual dues would be beyond his reach. He ended up concluding that it was all for the best. Who wanted to be around dinosaurs and parvenus anyway? His newly acquired disdain for the club was, in fact, what made him consider the Sargent. Michael had never cared for art, and he understood that if Sargent’s reputation had managed to get through his impermeable disinterest, the portrait hanging by the little bar must be worth something—an intuition he later confirmed by looking up other works by this artist on Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Black-market prices would be significantly lower, but he might still get enough for the painting to appease his more aggressive creditors.

Even Michael could see how insulting his printout was to Sargent’s original. But he was rather proud of the replica a young couple at a shop upstate had made of the ebony ripple frame in the seventeenth-century Dutch style, which is how they described it when they saw the photographs Michael showed them on his phone. He mounted the picture himself, and the final result was passable enough, though it didn’t really matter. It only had to hold up for the few hours between his departure and the club’s closure that night—anything beyond would be a gift. The painting was small (roughly 17 by 15 inches) and could easily be carried in an inconspicuous bag. Having had countless failed business meetings in the little bar, Michael knew which nights were slow, when patrons dwindled away, and what the view was from every angle of the room. His hands were shaking as he removed the portrait, although he was sure he had nothing to worry about.

Because the art world was absolutely foreign to him, Michael resorted to an ex-girlfriend who had gone, in her own words, from failed photographer to successful-enough gallerist. Marianne Simpson was talented at almost anything she set her mind to. In college, cognitive neuroscience, German studies, applied mathematics, and architecture seemed equally viable options. All possibilities were open—which, in the end, filled her with a paradoxical sense of claustrophobia. Her restless intellect found peace in concrete objects, and to the dismay of her advisers she concentrated on art. She started out as a sculptor with an interest in strict literality. Her pieces were realist to the point of intentional redundancy. She took countless photos in preparation for these sculptures, until she realized that everything she wanted was all there, in the pictures, and that any further steps were unnecessary. None of her teachers or friends denied the rigor and quality of her work, but for the first time she could sense everyone doubting her talent. This doubt became her ultimate motivation. The critics dismissed her first major show of photographic still lifes, but she survived the blow and stayed the course for as long as she could. As grants and funding became scarcer, she took a few graphic design jobs and then, tired of working for others, opened a gallery on the Lower East Side. Photography faded away.

It was Marianne whose wit had reduced Michael’s adult life to those three stages of attire. She had met him right before he gave up spread collars and silk ties for frayed button-downs and merino cardigans, and she had initially thought herself responsible for this transition. One of their first fights (their relationship was based on conflict; they only truly met in battle) was over his “fascistoid” outfits, which she took as acts of aggression and her friends found hilarious. A gradual change followed that skirmish, and when Michael started showing up in corduroy and tattered tweeds, she believed she had won the war. Shortly thereafter he introduced her to his new acquaintances—all wearing some version of that shabby uniform—and she understood he was a chameleon with no taste of his own. She never brought it up, but this was a not minor cause leading to their breakup a few months later. Meeting him again after so many years, in his outmoded Belgian avant-garde costume, she deduced that he must have left his previous scene for a younger set.

Marianne also deduced immediately that the painting was stolen, despite Michael’s protestations and a convoluted story involving friends of friends of friends. She wanted nothing to do with the transaction, but she did know a shady dealer who could help. All she asked in return was that he tell her the truth about the Sargent. After a long preface describing his fall and the extent of his despair, Michael told Marianne how he had pulled off the theft. (For moral context, he described the decline of the club and even managed to mention his once-scandalous sneakers in the process.) She was far more interested in the logistical details than in her friend’s woes—or even in the prize itself, which lay neglected on the sofa until Michael, having been promised an introduction to the dealer, wrapped it up and left.

As she listened to Michael’s story, Marianne felt “time twisting into a helix,” as she would later put it. She remembered preparing for her first important show of photographic still lifes years before. She remembered the unattended Zurbarán at the Spanish Association, how much she had loved the painting, how closely she had studied it looking for inspiration for her own work, how indifferent the few others who passed it seemed to be. She also remembered the reviews of her last show (“accomplished yet ultimately irrelevant exercises in referential accuracy,” according to Art Agora). By looking back she found herself looking into the future: her memories morphed into a flawless scheme. She would re-create the still life (Quince, Apple, and Lemon) in real life, take a picture that not only reproduced the original with absolute precision but also captured its feeling—a photograph of Zurbarán’s gaze rather than merely one of the fruit—and replace the painting with the photo. Then she would wait to get caught. Of course, she wouldn’t be so inelegant as to plant clues for ham-fisted detectives; someone in the art community would have to recognize her style. Her photograph would be up at the Spanish Association for weeks or, with some luck, months before anyone realized that art was imitating art imitating nature. Eventually a colleague or a critic would think of her work. When the police came knocking at her door, she would return the Zurbarán at once, explaining how the whole thing had obviously been a conceptual art project. She would be let off with a slap on the wrist—or, worst-case scenario, a short sentence at a low-security prison, which would only cement her reputation as a provocateur. But it was also possible that no one would ever find her out. And if, after a year or two, nobody came for her and the case went cold, well, then she would own a Zurbarán. She couldn’t lose.

After so many years devoted exclusively to her gallery, Marianne had forgotten how much she enjoyed taking photographs. She understood that her real piece was the entire “event”—the photo replacing the painting, the discovery of her scheme, the coverage in the specialized press—but she took enormous pleasure in the shoot. Once she felt certain that she would be able to re-create the painting, she reached out to the shady dealer.

With his slick hair, whitened teeth, and radiant skin, Brett was ubiquitous in the art world. He wasn’t a close friend, but Marianne knew she could count on his greed. Among his legitimate clients were hedge fund managers, oilmen, and oligarchs—but the real money, people said, was in his murky operations, regarding which everyone claimed to have heard a wild story. Brett never cared to deny this gossip, and Marianne was convinced he loved the outlandish rumors about himself, not only because he was vain but also because there is no better hiding place than hyperbole. Still, she knew from reliable sources that he was effective at laundering the reputation of purloined paintings, negotiating with insurance companies, and acting as the middleman for pieces stolen on commission. She also knew that many of his deals didn’t revolve around cash at all. The art was sometimes used as collateral in much larger transactions or as a political bargaining chip, all of which she found quite frightening. This is why she intended to keep their meeting—at the McDonald’s on Third Avenue at 58th Street, per his instructions—brief.

She arrived early, but Brett was already there, having a soda and neglecting his fries. He was wearing gym clothes, a Lakers hat, and a watch the size of a McMuffin. After the usual pleasantries, she put her proposition bluntly: If he could find someone to execute a foolproof plan to steal a Zurbarán (it was unguarded; it would be replaced with a fake; months would go by until anyone noticed it was missing), she would pay him with a Sargent he could get for a song from a friend of hers. She knew that these two artists, although vastly different in almost every regard, had a similar market and a comparable price point, so it would be a fair transaction. Brett responded exactly how she had anticipated: Yes, those artists were more or less equivalent in a commercial sense, but why should he run all the risks and also foot the bill, however ludicrous, for the Sargent? Marianne had an answer ready: She could compensate for all that with a Twombly. A minor Twombly, perhaps, but surely enough to bridge the gap. When Brett tried to negotiate further, she said they both knew that while it was impossible to sell a painting stolen from a museum, like the Zurbarán, it ought to be fairly easy for him to place two pictures from private collections. After seeing photos of both the Sargent and the Twombly—and discussing all the steps and the timeline—Brett agreed.

I hadn’t spoken with Marianne in over a year when she called, but no matter how long we go without talking, there’s always an immediate feeling of closeness when we reconnect. We first met some eight years ago, working at the Parallel Press while trying to get our careers going—she as an artist, I as a novelist. The desk that I shared with another copy editor was right beside the art department, where she drafted bold cover designs that were almost always rejected for blander options. It didn’t take long for us to become friends: Marianne introduced me to her favorite artists; I lent her my favorite books. Despite my yearnings, which I quickly learned to repress, I knew nothing was possible beyond our instantaneously profound friendship.

Mindy Hall had died about a year before we were hired. Though only a senior editor, Matthew Robbins had managed, through aggressive boardroom stratagems, to be appointed the new publisher. I knew he would be difficult when he greeted me on my first day wearing both an ascot and a pocket square. He was a petty, insecure despot. People outside the office found this hard to believe. Matthew was fun! And that was part of the problem. Every exchange with him started with a joke one was forced to laugh at: His words quite literally demanded a physical reaction. Once you had laughed, you had obeyed his first command. We were all hostages to his violent bonhomie. Moreover, it was impossible to play along with him, since one of his favorite moves was to change the emotional tone of a situation on a dime—what had been humorous a moment before could suddenly become dead serious, and one was left chuckling alone, like an idiot. Small daily humiliations chipped away at our self-esteem. He broke us by making total claims over our time and demanding our full commitment to vainglorious, Sisyphean projects. If he was pleased with us, we were rewarded with never-ending lunches where he regaled us with his self-aggrandizing banalities. Most of the great ideas for the press came from his subordinates, who never got any credit. Still, perhaps I should be grateful to Matthew, because to vent the frustration and rage he induced in us, Marianne and I started to have drinks with some regularity. Tired of his stupidity and meanness, Marianne ultimately quit to open her gallery. Being a writer, I stayed on, thinking it would eventually help me get published. This never happened. I don’t blame Matthew for that. Not entirely. But looking back at the years I have spent working for him, I can see that under his tutelage I have learned to be afraid and self-doubting in ways that I couldn’t have imagined before and that now define me.

This is why I didn’t hesitate when Marianne told me about her project and asked me to get the Twombly for her. Especially when she got to the part with the crayons. The details of the execution can interest no one—they involve remaining hidden in a bathroom after all the ABC guests had left, taking the Twombly from its frame and replacing it with a fake, returning to the bathroom until the morning, and finally walking out, thinly disguised, with a garbage bag, among the cleaning crew I had hired. Of course, we could easily have managed a better forgery—or at least a printout of the original, as with the Sargent. But it had to be crude. And it was all about the box of crayons. The perceived provocation and the hurried nature of the copy were of the essence: Matthew needed to believe that both the theft and the forgery had taken place during his party. This would lead him to the conclusion that several perpetrators must have been involved. Among his guests there had to have been a group of conspirators making a circle around the painting or distracting his attention in some way as the original was replaced with the doodles someone had made right there, on-site, while laughing at him. And he did believe this to be the case: He had invited a bunch of vipers into his office, only to be ridiculed. I copyedited the press release where this was implied. I heard him, through the walls, yelling unfounded accusations into his phone. I was forwarded some of his irate, threatening emails from the people who received them—all wondering whether Matthew had utterly lost his mind.

Aside from the outbursts of rage, life at the office has grown rather quiet. All those futile, flamboyant projects have come to a halt. There are no more lunches. No jokes. Matthew distrusts all those who attended his party—which is essentially everyone in the book business. He has become the subject of widespread mockery and the butt of every joke in the literary world. It’s said that the board of directors will summon him any day now. Meanwhile, he remains obsessed with the theft and keeps focusing on small, trivial matters. A moment ago, he told me to find him a few posters and arrange them in a display so he could select one to cover up the pale rectangle where the Twombly once hung.

 is the author of the novels In the Distance and Trust.

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March 2023

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