Pure entertainment.Riveting Reviews

It was late spring, and for several weeks I had been trying to make modest inroads into the living room. Bit by bit, over several years, my wife had succeeded in exiling my fabulous collections to one room of our apartment and now the ‘study’ was where all my treasures were stored. But I had recently broken through enemy lines in order to return a few Saint-Louis paperweights to the coffee table. Not long before, a terrible accident had seen a Baccarat crystal piece fall against the side of a bronze mortar and break clean in half. Two thousand euros up in smoke. The financial damage persuaded Charlotte to grant the remaining paperweights a safe haven. We agreed on the coffee table.

The following day, I fetched my matching burgundy Gallé vases with a moth motif and placed them either side of the fireplace, as my wife looked on disapprovingly.

“Break these and that’ll be a hundred grand down the pan” I told her, anticipating any snide remarks, and quoting the value in Francs to ensure the already inflated price tag had maximum effect.

The money argument clinched it, and I wondered what else I could claim was priceless and thereby bring back to the living room.

I had not bid for anything at Drouot Auction House for some time. Auctions are more intoxicating than any drink and, in contrast to a casino, even when you lose, you still somehow feel like a winner: the money you had set aside for the lot you’ve missed out on is magically returned to your bank account; in your mind you had already spent it, so when you leave the auction house, you feel richer than when you walked in. It sometimes seemed to me that I might do well to get myself barred from Drouot, the way some gamblers have themselves banned from casinos. I pictured a big, burly bouncer, dressed like the doorman of a luxury hotel, letting everyone past until he caught sight of me.

“Maître Chaumont,” he would say politely but firmly.

“Sorry, I think there’s some mistake. My name is Smith, Mister Smith…” I would reply in my best English, hiding behind dark glasses and a scarf.

“Game’s up, Maître Chaumont. We know who you are. Off you go.”

A few hours later I’d be back with my hair dyed blond. No sooner would I approach the door than the bouncer would shake his head, closing his eyes. Never again would I step inside the auction house.

I glanced around a sale of Asian art. The sole lot consisted of a single erotic print showing a woman on very intimate terms with a giant octopus. Not being much of a one for bestiality or cephalopods, I moved swiftly on.”

For several weeks, I had spent every waking hour on Durit BN-657. A key component in the evolution of Formula 1 engines, this one small part would – so its inventor said – be the making of future Schumachers, Hakkinens and Alonsos. Two teams were disputing ownership of Durit, each claiming it had come out of its own research lab, and once again Chaumont–Chevrier legal partners had been drafted in to help. Since there was a fair bit of money at stake, Chevrier had shelved a more run-of-the-mill logo infringement case to provide back-up on Durit.

One lunchtime as he was getting his head around the case, I took a break to do what I liked best: taking a stroll around the exhibition halls at Drouot. Our office was fifty metres from the auction house – a deciding factor in the choice of premises. After wolfing down a sandwich and a bottle of lemonade, I headed inside. I glanced around a sale of Asian art. The sole lot consisted of a single erotic print showing a woman on very intimate terms with a giant octopus. Not being much of a one for bestiality or cephalopods, I moved swiftly on.

The first floor was overflowing with porcelain and rosewood chests of drawers. A weaponry sale was also taking place, drawing interest both from curious laymen and specialists in gunpowder and flintlocks. I headed to the basement. The sales down there were never hyped up in the way those held on the first floor were, and I had heard of people who bought exclusively from those auctions, reselling their purchases upstairs a few months later and living off the profits.

I wandered into a room where a collection of stamps was being exhibited ahead of a sale. My gaze meandered through depictions of the multicoloured feathers of tropical birds, the Italian lakes and profiles of the saviours of various countries. Having no great love of stamps, I carried on to the next room, which was devoted to taxidermy. From the hummingbird to the zebra, virtually the entire animal world was represented here. An anteater caught my eye, but I sensed that to take such a thing home might not be the path to domestic harmony. And yet even if I had bought the entire collection and filled every room in the house with stuffed animals, the consequences would still have been far less than what was to come.

With tiring eyesight, dragging my feet, I entered room eight. Wardrobes, dressers, console tables and mirrors were piled high. The assorted collection of items resembled a jumble sale or a furniture clearout, and contained nothing of style or value. I had almost reached the back of the room and was casting my eye over a display of cheap trinkets and ugly paintings on the walls when I saw it.

Sixty centimetres by forty. An eighteenth-century pastel in its original frame, of a man wearing a powdered wig and blue coat. In the top right-hand corner, a coat of arms I couldn’t make out. Yet it was not the coat of arms that grabbed me, but the face. Transfixed, I could not tear my eyes from it: the face was my own.

I felt the rush that always comes at auctions: the fast pace, the queasy combination of excitement and nerves. It was like driving at top speed with a blindfold on.”

***

“Number 46 … Restoration mercury-gilt mirror…” called the auctioneer.

“Very handsome piece with angel motif,” added the expert alongside him, speaking into the crackling microphone in a dreary monotone.

Standing in my usual spot at the back of the room, I waited for number 48 with pounding heart. Once again I felt the rush that always comes at auctions: the fast pace, the queasy combination of excitement and nerves. It was like driving at top speed with a blindfold on. Would I get what I had set my heart on, my prized portrait? Did I have the funds to fuel the race?

I had hurried back to the office and cancelled all my afternoon meetings giving no explanation. I was certainly not prepared to leave a written bid and risk seeing the picture go to another buyer.

The portrait and I had been locked in a long, wordless showdown, as I stood facing it, my reflection almost imprinting itself on the protective glass, before I went into the office to enquire about the price. I looked expectantly at the young intern behind the desk, waiting for her to notice the uncanny resemblance. While she scrolled down the photocopied price list, I tried to attract her attention.

“This portrait… is astonishing! And so lifelike!” I raved.

She was too preoccupied to notice any likeness.

“Number 48 has an estimate of between 1,500 and 2,000 euros, Monsieur.”

Not cheap, but I could afford it. And I absolutely had to have it.

“Do you really not know who the sitter is? There’s a coat of arms after all…” I went on, still apparently staring at the girl a little too intently, as she immediately looked away.

“No, our expert hasn’t researched it.”

“What a shame. I’ll have to do it myself.”

“Would you like to leave a bid?”

“Certainly not. I’m coming to the auction,” I said, still not averting my gaze.

“Anything else, Monsieur?”

“No”

I left, giving way to an old man with a hearing aid. The girl had to raise her voice to tell him about the porcelains. I returned to my portrait and stood directly beneath it, propping my arm up against the red velvet ledge that ran along the wall and trying to catch the eye of other visitors. Without success.

***

“Seven hundred!”

The mercury-gilt mirror had just gone under the hammer.

“Number 47, a pair of girandoles. Would you show them, please?”

The assistant clumsily waved the candlesticks around like bundles of leeks.

“Five hundred! No takers at five hundred? That’s a steal for girandoles! Four hundred, then! Fifty, now you’re waking up, five hundred, we’re getting there, fifty, six hundred…”

“Monsieur Steiner?” the auctioneer turned to a dealer, who shook his head.

“Six hundred on my right,” the auction caller went on. “The gentleman with blond hair,” he added under his breath.

The hammer struck. The auction caller headed towards a blond gentleman holding a slip of paper in his hand.

“Number 48, portrait.”

My turn was up. The pastel was being carried in by the assistant.

“Now that’s lovely!” the auctioneer exclaimed at once.

Hearing him talk it up like this made me suddenly worried.

“And we haven’t tried to identify the painter or sitter?”

The anonymity business seemed to niggle him too.

“No, we have not. We haven’t had time,” the expert replied curtly, visibly put out by the auctioneer’s remark.

The girl who had helped me earlier was discreetly chewing gum and looking over at me. She glanced down at a notebook, picked up the phone and dialed a number.

I had decided my strategy would be to hold back in the early stages before jumping in around the fifteen hundred mark, taking the other bidders by surprise.

“Let’s start at one thousand. One thousand euros! One two, one four, one five…”

I locked eyes with the auctioneer and my hand shot up.

“Eight,” he said when he saw me.

“Two thousand,” the auction caller shot back.

“Two two,” the auctioneer continued at my nod.

“Two four,” he added immediately, turning to his left.

“Two six, eight.”

“Three thousand, written bid,” the expert announced.

“Three two,” the caller went on, having just clocked a new bidder.

“Three four,” the auctioneer called out as I raised my hand.

“Three thousand four hundred!”

“Three six, three eight.”

“Four thousand by written bid,” the expert carried on.

“Five,” the girl on the phone suddenly threw in.

If a new bid was placed, I could not raise it. I wanted to throw myself on him, bend his arm to the table and force him to bring down the wretched hammer.”

I glared at her as if the poor woman was responsible for the instructions she had been given. The auctioneer turned and tilted his chin in my direction.

“Seven,” he said at my nod.

“Five thousand,” the girl replied.

I nodded again.

“Five two,” the auctioneer continued.

There was a pause while the girl talked into the phone.

“Five thousand two hundred euros!” the auctioneer cried.

“Six thousand,” the girl came back.

“Do you want to go to six five?” the auctioneer asked me.

I agreed.

“Six thousand five hundred euros!”

“Seven,” the girl replied.

How high could I go? I was beginning to feel uneasy.

“Five!” I said aloud.

“Eight thousand,” the girl responded.

“Two!” I shouted, trying to slow things down.

“Five!” she added.

“Seven!” I responded.

“Nine thousand?” the auctioneer asked her.

She agreed.

“Nine five,” I shot back.

My inhibitions had floated away and there was a strange feeling of lightness about me. Nothing else mattered now; I was acting as if this day might be my last.

“Nine thousand five hundred,’” the auctioneer repeated.

“Six,” the girl replied.

“Eight,” the auctioneer came back when I blinked my assent.

The girl repeated my bid down the line, I saw her lips moving, and then she looked up at the auctioneer and shook her head.

“Nine thousand eight hundred going once!” the auction caller repeated as the girl put down the phone.

“Nine thousand eight hundred going twice!” the auctioneer announced to the room, loud and clear.

Bang the bloody hammer, you bastard, I said to myself.

He held it in midair. I was dripping with sweat and having difficulty breathing. Nine thousand eight hundred euros. There was no way I could go any higher. With the fees on top, I was already looking at a bill of nearly twelve thousand euros. If a new bid was placed, I could not raise it. I wanted to throw myself on him, bend his arm to the table and force him to bring down the wretched hammer.

“All done at nine thousand eight hundred euros?” he asked, drawing out every word.

At last, I saw the gavel begin to move. There it went, whooshing down towards the table. Any second, it would strike. Now… now… Yes! The portrait was mine.

From The Portrait, translated by Jane Aitken and Emily Boyce

 

Antoine_Laurain_290Antoine Laurain was born in Paris, where he still lives. He wrote The Portrait while working as an assistant to an antiques dealer. The French edition, Ailleurs si j’y suis, won the Prix Drouot for art book lovers in 2007. He now writes full-time and continues to collect antiques. His other award-winning novels include The President’s Hat, The Red Notebook and French Rhapsody. The Portrait is out now in paperback and eBook from Gallic Books.
Read more
antoinelaurain.blogspot.co.uk

Author portrait © Jean-Luc Bertini

Jane Aitken is the publisher and co-founder of Gallic Books and Aardvark Bureau – part of the Belgravia Books Collective – and a translator from the French.
Emily Boyce is in-house translator and editor at Gallic Books.
belgraviabooks.com/gb
@BelgraviaB

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