One of the dreams of any antiquarian-cronopio is to have a client-fama visit their shop and buy everything.

The possibilities are minimal but, in this business, like in life, it could happen. In fact it did happen to a colleague of mine the day that a client visited his stand at a large international fair and bought all his best paintings: a Portrait of a Girl with Dove by Simon Vouet, a Susanna and the Elders by Guercino, a View of the Grand Canal in Venice by Bernardo Belloto  and a Saint Sebastian by Ribera, if I am not mistaken. He will never forget the feeling of pure happiness that he experienced on closing the deal with that distinguished lady who could have been straight out of a Henry James novel. Slender, with a head the shape of Our Lady of Mechelen and straight, jet black hair pulled up in an old-fashioned bun, the grey eyes of an exotic cat and the kind of parchment skin which is only normally seen on the arms of a child. She was dressed as great ladies tend to dress: a plain tailored jacket, nothing fancy, grey tones, in the knowledge that the ostentation of luxury and the flaunting of brands is only for the nouveaux riches.

Anonymous, Venetian Lady, Mid XVII century. © Museo Nacional del Prado.

Experiencing a sale brings to us antiquarians a kind of spiritual comfort, a feeling of calm, the excitement of having renewed funds to make more purchases, which is what we most enjoy doing. In fact, for a true antiquarian a sale is nothing more than the natural consequence of a buying process but what really impassions us is doing the same as our fames-clients, building up a collection and what makes us different from them is that sometimes we take less time before we split it up.

The lady in questions noted her name down on a card – Caterina Prospero-Romallino – along with her address (a palace on the Grand Canal in Venice) while my colleague calculated the value of the ruby she wore on the ring finger of her left hand, left-handed as she was. They agreed that he would take the paintings to her house personally during the fair (he couldn’t make the lady understand that her capricious decision had left his stand bare and he had nothing at the same level to replace the works with). But the customer is always right and even more so when she is prepared to spend almost ten million euros in one fell swoop. So, they arranged on a meeting and while the lady walked down the central aisle of the fair leaving after her the sparkle of money and glamour, the antiquarian did not waste even a second before he was looking up the name of this mysterious client on his computer.  He went straight to images and the photos he saw were her for sure: the same wrinkled skin and cold eyes, he even thought she was wearing the same ruby although he couldn’t be sure that it was not a figment of his imagination. He asked a discreet colleague who confirmed that this was a wealthy lady who could buy all of that and more and he went on with more details that completed the portrait of the lady and left him feeling reassured.

Bernardo Bellotto, Venice: Upper Reaches of the Grand Canal facing Santa Croce, c. 1740s. 
Salting Bequest, 1910. National Gallery, UK.

He spent a few intense days organising the logistics of sending the paintings which was neither easy nor cheap. He found an efficient professional transport company which organised everything ahead of the transfer. And that is how our cronopio found himself on a water-taxi on the Grand Canal one sunny day at the beginning of spring, and right in the centre of the fair, after packing up his stand as best he could. It was then that he thought about how unpredictable our business is. Many colleagues began to protest at his lack of commitment to the fair, saying that it wasn’t professional to remove the paintings before it was over, that he could have waited, that they would never have done that and other curses typical of the trade where jealousy is the driver of all human relations. Some people were already running around collecting signatures to demand that the organisers expel him, with the vehemence of those cronopios who understand the trade as a was among competitors or with a Darwinian view of the species. These are the ones – believe me I know a few – who most revel in closing a deal.

Our antiquarian arrived punctually at the appointed time and place. The façade of the palace was impressive with its Palladian doorframe decorated with two lions’ heads reflected in the dark, oil-coloured waters of the lagoon. He knocked on the door impatiently, rang the bell three times, no answer. As he was taking out his mobile phone to call Davide, the lady’s butler, a girl of about twenty answered the door, anorexic, tears streaming down her face. She introduced herself as Mariana, the daughter of Lady Caterina, and told him that that night her mother had had a stroke and was in hospital. It had all happened very suddenly and they hadn’t been able to warn him. As she spoke, she could not stop crying and the antiquarian, paternal as he was, gave her a hug and told her not to worry, that her mother’s health was much more important than all the paintings in the world (a great antiquarian-cronopio is an expert in white lies); maybe all the paintings in the world but not his, which were on the point of arriving. And so it was, while she continued to weep almost without taking a breath and waving her hands as Italians do, the transporters arrived – giants who in just a moment had unloaded the perfectly boxed paintings and left them in the palace entrance where a Louis XV commode took pride of place, crowned by a mirror in homage to gold and the style rocaille.  You couldn’t see any beyond it except for a carved wooden door which looked original, from the eighteenth century, and beyond that the promise of a world of paintings, tapestries, furniture and other objets from the Prospero-Romallino collection which was one of the most valuable in Italy and Lady Prospero-Romallino one of the greatest collectors.

Simon Vouet, Portrait of Girl with Pigeon, 1615-1627. © Museo Nacional del Prado.

Our antiquarian was confused and without realising put on an expression of a cronopio – in other words a mixture of strange melancholy and incredulity. He had the delivery note in his leather case, more like an encyclopaedia salesman than a professional of the art world, and he took out another document with a description of the works and their values, asking the crying girl to sign it. Mariana did as she was asked and before saying goodbye, they agreed that he would stay in Venice until her mother had recovered and was able to transfer the cost of the paintings that he had left. They exchanged numbers and shook hands (the antiquarian wondered whether to kiss her watery face but then thought the better of it). When the door of the palace was closed, my colleague decided that he was a lucky man. He had made the sale of a lifetime and he was ready to visit Venice in the style of an eighteenth-century visitor on the Grand Tour rather than the poor tourists of today.

He went directly to the Riva degli Schiavoni and reserved a suite in the Hotel Danieli at three thousand euros a night (when you have a lot of money it becomes an abstract concept). On entering his suite, he stretched out on the linen sheets and gold counterpane and it pained him to be alone as he contemplated the Tiepolesque-inspired frescoes on the ceiling.  Afterwards he opened the window to see the Grand Canal right in front of his eyes like a Canaletto in motion. He went out onto the terrace and the evening bathed the smaller dome of the Salute in an orange light. He ordered a Negroni which he gulped down, knowing that he was a lucky man, the luckiest and happiest man in the world, the James Bond of the art world, the brightest in the class, the tops. The following day he wanted to give his stricken client some time to recover and he didn’t call her (he was a gentleman and health is more important than art) and decided to visit the city.  Tintoretto, Veronese, Titian, Giorgione, Bellini, Carpaccio, Tiepolo, ….a cartography of colour in painting which he enjoyed slowly like the best gourmand. In the afternoon he stopped off at the terrace of the Florian café in the Piazza Sant Marco watching with superiority the kind of tourist that queued up to enter the basilica while the sad music of street musicians sounded, dominated by the spasmodic drone of an old accordion. He wanted to end the day at Harry ‘s Bar. He was rich and he could afford it.

Guercino, Susan and the Elders, 1617. © Museo Nacional del Prado.

After forty-eight hours he decided to call Marianna, the Giacomettian daughter of his client, and tried several times unsuccessfully. A recorded female voice from Telecom Italia announced that the number was no longer in operation. He insisted with no luck and in desperation returned to the palace on the Grand Canal. He rang several times, but nobody opened. It seemed to be abandoned. He found some workmen in a nearby building as asked if they knew where the owners of the palace were.  When they told him that nobody had lived there for years and that they often used the building as a set for television or advertising he felt the entire weight of his body and his blood froze, and it was just like in the film where they say that before you die your see your entire life pass before your eyes: the lady with the cold eyes, the anorexic daughter who seemed to be desperate and all of a sudden he realised it was all a lie, a scam. He couldn’t breathe, his body froze, his legs turned to jelly. When he awoke he was in a cafeteria run by some Chinese people who had picked him up after he collapsed in the street and he could smell that he was breathing in alcohol on cotton wool as he sat in the lap of an unknown Chinese woman, the sign of postmodern Pietà. He knew that he was ruined – an antiquarian-cronopio could never recover from a scam like that. He felt the arrogance of the last few years when he had felt so superior fall away instantly and change everything. From the undercurrent of his subconscious he heard the rough voice of his competitor amid the laughter: Too late! He couldn’t bear to think how the news would already have flown to the fair and how his colleagues would have been so delighted to hear it: there is nothing that they like more in the trade than to kick a man who is down.

He spent his day publishing stupid posts on Twitter and defending fascism.

He thought about suicide but the thought of his little twin sons waiting for him to come home quickly put him off that idea. He couldn’t stop asking himself how he had fallen for it. He was a cautious and reasonable man. How could he not have seen that it didn’t bode well, that it might be a scam. How had he been so naive to leave the works before he had been paid or not to sign a contract.  And he found no answers to comfort him in this personal and professional tragedy because to find them would have meant recognising the many weaknesses of a selfish and ambitious man. He was someone who thought too much of himself, who thought he was impervious to everything, an alpha male who had no training in ethics or in aesthetics, but lectured everyone else. He was a man who spoke of morals being immoral himself and of art without any feeling for it other than as a means of trade.  He always claimed to have eyes of steel thanks to years of experience and error – better than any expert – and being as shrewd as a fox in business. He was someone who looked down on intellectual effort and beat his rivals in the auction houses with his chequebook; he played down other people’s victories and got angry because he didn’t know how to lose. He was a man without class, without education, a vulgar man dressed as a great man with tight suits and a handkerchief in his jacket pocket. He spent his day publishing stupid posts on Twitter and defending fascism. He was like someone from another time with his brilliantine hair and absurd Franco-style moustache and he liked to listen to Wagner in the summer and re-read Hitler. He was a man who only trusted himself and his own instinct and did not want to recognise his humble beginnings, how he had grown up overcoming adversity and the contemptuous looks of the other boys at school and how he had become obsessed with becoming like them one day, becoming wealthy, becoming equal. He could barely remember how he had married into society, a woman he had never loved and how they had had twins who he did love, but in his own fragmentary and selfish way. And how he had done everything possible to break into a world that was not his and turned his social resentment into uncontained ambition to appear somebody that he would never be.

José de Ribera, Saint Sebastian, 1636. © Museo Nacional del Prado.

This episode was the last chapter in a life of lies, the final abyss at the end of the path of a fool who talked too much, a windbag and an imposter, an amateur swindler who had just crossed paths with the real professionals. And so he left Venice swearing that he would never return, because it was there that his dreams and his life had gone up in smoke as if it were a game of Risk – he was once again on home territory, kicked back to his origins, which maybe he should never have left and from where he would now obviously never take off. That same night he had a nightmare where amongst the laughter came the tremulous voice “Game over, my fucking friend”….