One

 

 

CRYMES VILLERIE stood beside his Chevrolet Suburban in the New Orleans Garden District, looking up at a grand but ailing St. Charles Avenue manor. He squinted against the bright July sunshine, trying to read the street numbers above the door, and turned away when his vision became blurry and his eyes started watering.

Silently cursing the sun and the stifling midsummer heat, he retrieved a white linen handkerchief from his inside coat pocket and pressed the neatly folded square against each of his eyes. He shook out the handkerchief, wiped the sweat from his brow, and dabbed at his face and neck before folding it again and sticking it back in his pocket.

Holding up his hand to block the sun’s rays, Crymes gave it one more attempt, and this time he was able to read the first three numbers of the address before his eyes started watering again. He looked down at the scribbled numbers on the back of one of his business cards and felt reasonably satisfied he was at the right place. He smoothed the front of his navy blue blazer and opened the wrought-iron gate. The screeching sound of metal on metal filled his ears. Crymes cringed when the gate slammed shut behind him with a thud.

The day before, Crymes had received an anonymous cold call from someone organizing an estate sale, inviting him to preview the artwork before the sale officially began. Being an art dealer himself and the owner of a gallery on Royal Street in the heart of the French Quarter, he couldn’t pass up an opportunity to discover a rare find or simply add to his collection. The Royal Renaissance focused on southern historical art, mostly surrounding the Civil War, and with forty years of experience under his belt, Crymes knew this was exactly the sort of place where he would be more than likely to find his cup of tea.

Crymes walked up to the house, took the four steps onto the wraparound porch, and knocked on the door. When the door opened, a portly man who looked to be in his midsixties stuck his hand out.

“Good afternoon, I’m Dudley Robinette. Would you be Mr. Villerie?”

“Yes. And please call me Crymes,” he said, shaking the man’s hand.

Dudley nodded. “Please do come in, Crymes,” he said with a thick Southern drawl.

Crymes wiped his feet out of habit and stepped through the front door. The distinctive air of old money instantly overwhelmed his senses, and his heart raced with anticipation. Stay cool, Crymes. Don’t look too excited.

Casually glancing around while his eyes slowly adjusted to the dimly lit foyer, he had to stifle a gasp of delight when he saw oil paintings hanging gallery style end to end up and down the hallway, as well as up the stairway. Determined to keep his composure and remain nonchalant, Crymes cleared his throat and looked to his left and right. Much to his surprise, the rooms to either side were more of the same.

He noticed a few people moving about and perusing the artwork on display, and was suddenly anxious to get started.

“Everything is priced, but, of course, negotiable,” Dudley said. “Please wander around freely and let me know if you have any questions.” Dudley looked at his watch. “Oh. I’ve booked appointments for four dealers at a time, and you have about forty minutes before the next round arrive.”

“Thank you,” Crymes said, and Dudley turned and disappeared to the back of the house.

He felt like a kid in a candy store as he previewed the gallery walls, studying each painting very closely, determining the artist, the quality of the work and frames. Although he saw excellent art, he was disappointed none fit within his specialty.

Another dealer walked up and admired a piece Crymes was studying. “Very nice,” he said.

“Indeed,” Crymes agreed. And then the man moved on.

Crymes ended up in the foyer again and decided to head upstairs and take in the second floor before he tackled the first. He climbed the stairs and stopped dead in his tracks midway up. Hanging in front of him was a painting he’d seen before, either in an art magazine or online somewhere. He thought the painting was called The Tiny Soldier or something along those lines. The price was marked at $71,500.

Crymes took out his cell phone and called the gallery.

“The Royal Renaissance.”

“Harper! I need you to research the provenance of a painting.”

Harper Villerie Hayes was Crymes’s gallery manager, as well as his only child. She’d graduated from Tulane University with a major in art history and, after graduation, had spent some time in New York City dabbling in the art scene. She’d inherited her love for the arts from her father and, after her short stay in New York, had come back to New Orleans to follow in his footsteps.

“Hey, Crymes,” she said. “Hold on. Let me get something to write with.”

Crymes frowned at the use of his first name, but soon after Harper had started working beside him in the gallery, she’d dropped the Daddy thing and started calling him Crymes, forcing the issue that she wanted to make her own way without being referred to as “Daddy’s little girl” or “the owner’s daughter.” He still wasn’t used to her calling him by his first name, but he understood her reasoning and accepted it.

“Okay. I’m back,” Harper said. “Shoot.”

“See what you can find about a painting by Eastman Johnson. I think it’s called The Tiny Soldier. The painting is signed by E. Johnson and dated 1864 on the bottom left corner.”

“What’s the approximate size?” Harper asked.

“Hold on,” Crymes said as he dug into his pants pocket and pulled out the little tape measure he always kept with him. He measured the visible face of the painting and then the overall size, including the frame. “The painting itself is about fourteen and a half by eleven and a half. When you add the frame, it’s twenty and three quarters by seventeen and three quarters.”

“Got it. I’ll get right on this.”

“Oh, and Harper. I’ve only got about thirty-five minutes before the next set of dealers are scheduled to arrive, so call me as soon as you get something.”

“Will do.”

Crymes continued up the stairs and wandered through every room on the second floor. The collection there was as impressive as that in the downstairs hallway, but he found nothing that would fit in his wheelhouse. He went back down to the first floor and turned left into the formal dining room. There were three or four artists he recognized and a few scenes of New Orleans and Canal Street, but nothing he considered of any real value.

Crymes heard footsteps and an occasional hushed voice as the other dealers milled about on the first floor. He stepped through the swinging door into the kitchen and found Dudley seated at the little table flipping through a magazine. When Dudley saw Crymes, he immediately closed the magazine and jumped to his feet.

“Oh, Mr. Villerie?” Dudley asked nervously. “Is there something I can help you with?”

“Oh no, not really,” Crymes said. “I’m still looking around, but I did see something I may be interested in. I have my gallery manager looking up its origin as we speak.”

“Oh? Which one would that be?” Dudley asked.

Crymes pointed over his shoulder. “The Eastman Johnson hanging in the stairway.”

Dudley smiled. “Oh yes, that’s a lovely reproduction. One of only a few, I’m told.”

Crymes cleared his throat. “Yes, but it will need some restoration work done to it before it can be resold,” he said, doing his best to remain calm and looking around for a way out of the kitchen.

“Right this way,” Dudley said, gesturing to another door. “There’s a maid’s quarters through that door,” he added, looking over his shoulder, “but it’s empty. However, through this door is a study, a music room, and a parlor, and then you’re back to the foyer.”

“Thanks,” Crymes said. “I’ll call you if I have any questions.”

Dudley smiled again. “Very well.”

Crymes walked through the study, paying special attention to every piece of art as well as the fixtures, but again saw nothing that fit his specialty. He thought about picking up a few pieces to resell to other dealers, which would turn a small profit, but he didn’t want to tie up his money in something out of his comfort zone that might take a while to sell.

He proceeded to the music room and saw it was adorned with paintings from various artists depicting Mardi Gras at the turn of the century. There were colorful paintings of horse-drawn floats from the Krewes of Rex, Momus, and Proteus, all with various themes such as Robin Hood, Pinocchio, and the World of Magic. But the most impressive piece he saw was an excellent reproduction of Le Bal Masque´ or The Masked Ball by the Peruvian painter Albert Lynch. He stood and gazed at it for a few minutes.

“Lovely, isn’t it?” a gentleman said, walking up and then stopping next to him, folding his arms across his chest.

“It is,” Crymes replied. “It’s not my specialty, but I’m debating on whether to try and negotiate the price down and try to turn a quick profit.”

“I’m Emanuel Della Penna, by the way,” the man said, unfolding his arms and extending his hand. “Are you a dealer?”

“Crymes Villerie,” Crymes replied. “I own The Royal Renaissance gallery on Royal Street.”

“Ah yes. I know it well,” Mr. Della Penna said. “Very nice gallery.”

“Thank you,” Crymes said, looking back up at the painting. “Then you know it’s not really my specialty,” he added.

“Your emphasis is on Southern and Civil War art, if I’m not mistaken.”

Crymes nodded. “Very good. Are you a dealer?”

“Not really,” Della Penna replied. “But I do dabble here and there.”

“I see,” Crymes replied, handing him one of his cards. “If you ever come across anything you think I might be interested in, please feel free to give me a call.”

Della Pena nodded. “Surely.”

“It was very nice chatting with you, but if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to preview the rest of the collection before the other dealers get here.”

“Understood. Good day, Mr. Villerie,” Della Penna said as he walked in the opposite direction.

Crymes stepped into the parlor and grabbed the doorframe to steady himself when he saw what was staring back at him from above the mantel. It was a very old painting of Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Chancellorsville. From experience, he knew a French painter named Louis Mathieu Didier Guillaume had painted the original, and he held his breath as he tried to make out the signature at the bottom of the painting. Guillaume always signed his paintings as L.M.D. Guillaume, and Crymes ran his finger gently over the oil, which was starting to flake just a bit, and squinted to make out what he thought was a L and then an M, and then his heart started pounding when he saw a D and what he thought was a G, but it was hard to tell as the painting was deteriorating badly.

“Oh my God,” Crymes mumbled under his breath. “This couldn’t be the original. Could it?”

His phone rang and startled him out of his thoughts. He glanced at the caller ID and saw it was Harper. “Harper! You won’t believe this,” Crymes said in a shaky voice, covering his mouth as he spoke.

“What?” she asked.

“I’m looking at what I think is the original of General Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Chancellorsville by Guillaume.”

“No way,” Harper replied.

Crymes heard fingers frantically typing away at a keyboard. “Can you look up the origin and size and see if there are any reports about the original and its location?”

“I’m already on it,” Harper said, mumbling as she read.

Crymes reached for his tape measure again.

“Crymes,” Harper said.

“I’m here.”

“The original is forty-one and three quarter inches by thirty-four inches.”

Harper started mumbling again as she continued to read whatever document she’d found.

Crymes climbed on a chair and held his tape measure against the canvas horizontally. Goose bumps formed all over his body. Oh my God! Then he got up on his tiptoes and did the same vertically, and he felt weak in the knees.

The canvas was a hair smaller than the measurements Harper had just given him, but he had no idea how much of the canvas was actually hidden behind the frame. The gold-leaf rococo frame was at a least a foot in width, and it was in better condition than the painting.

He stepped down off of the chair on shaky legs and gave Harper the details. The price on the painting was $195,000, and Crymes was confident enough in his abilities to know that even if this wasn’t the original, it was still worth a shitload more than two hundred grand.

“Crymes,” Harper asked again.

“Yeah.”

“According to this document from the Museum of the Confederacy, the original is rumored to have been stolen by Union soldiers just before the war ended, presented to Grant as a gift, and hasn’t been seen since.”

“Until now,” Crymes whispered into the phone.

“Oh my God,” Harper said. “How much?”

Crymes looked at the price tag again. “A couple hundred grand.”

“That’s a steal,” Harper said. “Oh, I almost forgot. The painting you called about earlier is called The Little Soldier, and the last record of sale was in 1903 for seventy-five hundred dollars. It is currently valued at between six hundred and eight hundred and fifty grand.”

“That’s all I need to know,” Crymes said. “I’ll call you in a bit.”

Crymes again wiped the sweat from his brow with his handkerchief and tried to put on his poker face before he found Dudley.

When he walked back into the kitchen, Dudley was just where he’d left him, looking through the same magazine. “Mr. Robinette?” Crymes said.

Dudley jumped to his feet. “Yes, sir.”

“I do believe I’m interested in the Eastman Johnson in the hallway and the Robert E. Lee hanging in the parlor.”

“I see,” Dudley said.

“I’ll give you two hundred thousand for both,” Crymes said in the calmest voice he could muster.

“Let’s see,” Dudley said, picking up his calculator and punching in numbers. “I believe the Johnson is priced at $71,500 and the Lee is $195,000. That’s $266,500.”

He frowned. “I’m afraid I can’t go that high.”

Dudley punched his calculator a few more times. “The lowest I can go is $247,500.”

“I’m afraid that won’t work,” Crymes said. “The Lee needs a lot of restoration, and the Johnson will need some work as well. The best I can do is $210,000.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Villerie, I’m just not authorized to go any lower. And I still have eight other dealers to consider.” Dudley looked at his watch. “Four in about ten minutes, to be exact, and the other four about forty-five minutes later.”

“Do you really think that between eight dealers, they are going to buy all of this artwork?” Crymes asked. “I do believe that’s being very shortsighted on your part. In fact,” Crymes added, “they may buy a few pieces, but you’re going to have to take nickels on the dollar if you have to rely on the general public to buy this stuff.”

Dudley chewed on his bottom lip, and Crymes saw his opportunity. “Good day, Mr. Robinette. And thanks for the call.”

Crymes turned on his heels and was halfway down the hall when he heard Dudley scream his name. “Mr. Villerie. Wait! Give me five minutes to make a call.”

Crymes smiled and turned. “Certainly, Mr. Robinette. You do that.”

A few minutes later, Dudley reappeared in the foyer, smiling broadly. “We will accept your offer, Mr. Villerie.”

“Wonderful,” Crymes said. “I knew you were a very smart man.”

Crymes asked for the required bank-routing and account numbers, called Harper, and had her wire the money directly to the law firm handling the estate before anyone could change their minds.

“I’ll wait, and as soon as you can verify the bank wire, I’ll take both paintings with me,” Crymes said.

“Are you sure?” Dudley asked. “I can certainly have them delivered later today or tomorrow.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Crymes said. “I’m headed to my restoration expert right now, so it will save me a second trip.”

The Eastman Johnson was easy enough to handle, but it took both men, because of the frame, to get Lee down from over the mantle. By the time Crymes was closing the back of his Suburban, both men were sweating and breathing heavily. Crymes stuck out his hand. “Thank you very much, Mr. Robinette, and please keep my number if you have more artwork from future estate sales.”

“I’ll do that,” Dudley replied. “And thank you.”

Crymes got in his car and pulled away from the curb. He felt a little twinge of guilt, but the estate got nearly asking price for the paintings, although they really didn’t know what they had. “That’s the art business,” he said out loud.

Besides, he wasn’t even sure the Lee was an original, and if it wasn’t he might very well lose money on it after restoration. The Eastman Johnson he knew was a sure thing.