Chapter 1: Time: The Present
Every interesting woman has a private smile, and Lydia Dean was startled by a brief, tantalizing glimpse of her own. Its reflection suddenly flashed on the glass covering a poster as she entered her cramped attic office, then it faded. She might almost have imagined it, and certainly there was no cause to smile. Determined not to show how much the interview with Justin had upset her, she closed the door firmly behind her and contemplated the imminent ruin of her empire. Yet for the first time that day, and despite the faint dismay at the prospect of unemployment, she felt her spirits lifting. It was a wry mood, inspired mainly by her sense of the ridiculous. Lydia never ceased to be amazed at the odd way her mind worked, the portentous phrases that suddenly popped into her thoughts. Empire? Ruin of Empire? She was simply facing the loss of a job that she did not much enjoy, although it allowed her to combine a career in art with a decent income.
It was a kind of empire, she mused, as she gazed at the map of the ancient world that hung on her wall. Her territory stretched from ancient Greece back to the dawn of time, from the plains of India to the Pillars of Hercules. From Hittites to Hammurabi, she had traveled it and researched it, and could read some of its dead languages. As a student she had dug into its archaeological sites, extracted shards of pottery from harsh earth, and even sacrificed her toothbrush to scrub them clean. And now, despite her new skill at fending off passes from politically connected Ministers of Culture who could barely spell the word, she was trying, and probably failing, to make a living from it.
Why on earth had she been so self-indulgent, so intellectually lazy when she first came back to England to go to graduate school? She chided herself, an internal and critical dialogue she was conducting more and more frequently. Art history was not a real subject, not like law or computing, or even business. Perhaps she should have concentrated on archaeology, she thought, until disagreeable memories surfaced of muddy campsites, a sore back, and amorous fellow-diggers who smelled rank. Certainly she should never have given up the research at the institute into the medieval art she really loved. Money was not everything. But the mortgage had to be paid each month. And today it had been made subtly clear that the auction house was unlikely to keep on paying her handsome salary as long as the market in her field remained so dismally, so unprofitably flat. Preclassical art meant everything before the Greeks and Romans. From Ancient Egypt to Babylon, Persepolis to the Holy Land, Lydia's empire covered continents and millennia, and yet never managed to bring in the sales and commissions that even the most obscure Impressionist painter could command.
"You -- or rather your field -- hmmm -- not looking too promising, I'm afraid," the department head had mumbled over her modest list of proposals for the coming year. Like so many Englishmen, Justin spoke in irritating circumlocutions, as if grim news were best delivered impersonally. It wasn't just her field, she knew; her employers also blamed her. She had been hired not simply to trawl the market and scoop off the best for her auction house, but to find and charm the sellers with the best collections and to recruit rich customers. She understood, without any of her employers being crassly un-English enough to say so, that her youth and looks had secured her the job. But she was also expected to create the kind of buzz in her field that generated publicity and profits, and here she was failing miserably. She could offer only a few museum sales, which meant low prices, one private collection of Sumerian artifacts, and another of what could well have been looted from Scythian grave mounds, which would spell trouble.
"You are not living up to our hopes, Lydia," Justin had concluded, in that snooty way he had developed since she had declined his invitation to an intimate dinner. Justin, said the gossips in the ladies' room, was a predatory man. Lydia found him oily and distrusted his shirts, invariably blue checks or stripes, with white collars and cuffs. She was now careful to ask after the health of his wife and children.
It had been an unsettling meeting, leaving her with the distinct prospect of unemployment before the end of the year. Lydia walked across to her desk, and absentmindedly gave her usual pat to the head of the soapstone Egyptian cat that she had bought in Cairo, an evident but charming Fifth Dynasty fake, and told herself she had a right to feel miserable. Her career had stalled. Her window was speckled with a London drizzle and the mean, gray light belied the first hesitant buds of the daffodils she had seen in the park that morning. So, gloomily leafing through sale catalogs and trying not to recall that her thirtieth birthday was only months away, Lydia thought about changing her career. Evening classes, perhaps another degree through the Open University; she might consider economics or law. She couldn't afford to go back to law school in the States, even if she had wanted to. She wasn't ready to go home, nor back to mother, who was embarrassingly short of money since Lydia's father had died. And America had too many lawyers, anyway. The law here was different. Lawyers made money, and seemed always to be in demand. And David had been neither bored nor boring, and could even be quite amusing about his work as a patent lawyer. Firmly, she steered her mind away from that topic. Their relationship had been pleasant, but ultimately insufficient.
David was history. But then her career was facing a similar fate. So when reception rang to say they had a walk-in, she felt just the slightest flutter of hope. For her colleagues in paintings and furniture and jewelry, walk-ins were almost drudgery, constant interruptions to look at some battered family heirloom proffered by someone with a glint of avarice in the eye. Lydia hardly ever had walk-ins, and the handful she had seen were obvious fakes, offloaded on some gullible British soldier or sailor on leave in Cairo or Baghdad. The staff on the reception desk could usually tell at a glance but preferred to leave the official verdict to the experts like Lydia.
She walked down the stairs to the front hall -- a tall, fit-looking man in a tweedy country suit and heavy brogues was being shown into the waiting room. His age seemed to be somewhat less than forty, but he dressed as if he were closer to sixty. The parcel he carried, carefully wrapped in brown paper and string, was obviously heavy but did not affect what Lydia suspected was a military stride. The tie was an anonymous heavy silk. His hair was short, his manner affable but brisk, and he smelled faintly of carbolic soap, a distinct improvement on Justin's musky cologne. He put the parcel on the table, gave her a smile with an amused twinkle in the eyes, held out his hand, and said, "How do you do? My name is Manners. I have just inherited this from my father and want to know if it's worth selling."
Lydia knew the country well enough to recognize from his speech and his dress a member of England's comfortable classes, old money and older schools. She shook his hand, introduced herself, and opened a drawer in the table to offer him a knife or a pair of scissors, but he was carefully unknotting the string. "I think it was an heirloom from the war," he said. "India, the Middle East, that sort of place. That's where my father served, mainly. He was a regular soldier, and retired to live quietly in Wiltshire for the past thirty years. This rock has been at home for as long as I can remember."
Lydia felt her face muscles tighten as the brown paper was unwrapped and the wooden case emerged, three or four times thicker than the usual picture frame to display something that shocked her. It was beautiful. There was no other word for it. Whenever and wherever this had been done, last week in some forger's garret or millennia ago, this assemblage of shape and color and texture punched her with a palpable force. Deliberately clamping down on the rush of wonder, she closed her eyes, freezing her excitement with a cold sense of professional duty. She must not jump to conclusions, but the usual checklist of culture, period, location, and style would not help her much here. One likely candidate leaped to mind, and she firmly repressed the thought. Remember the rules, Lydia; this had to be a logical process. The Hagar mountains of the Sahara might be a possibility, she was thinking, or part of a frieze from one of the rock churches of Cappadocia. She was trying to remember what little she knew of the rock art of Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, but Africa felt wrong. And it was certainly not from Australia. Possibly it was Yemeni, or perhaps India from the Deccan caves. But this beast was too fierce for any Hindu culture. The jaw was far too powerful, and the horns were curved like offensive, not defensive weapons. It was not just a kind of bull, she told herself as she opened her eyes again and focused on the power of that massive neck, the lethal swoop of horn. It was the essence of the beast. Fleetingly, an image surfaced from a holiday in Spain, the corrida of the feast of San Isidro in Madrid, prancing horses and a bull such as this, and blood in the ring.
But even as she tried to organize her thoughts, she felt a kind of outrage. It was a desecration of what had been a much larger painting, a chunk of rock just over a foot square and of uneven thickness, which had clearly been chiseled or levered with a crowbar from a rock face. Something marvelous had been defaced. This was the worst kind of loot, wrenched greedily from its setting, as if the looter had destroyed an ancient church to steal a single fresco. She looked up coldly at her customer. But Manners was oblivious to her reaction. He proudly displayed his heirloom, mounted on a dark velvet backcloth inside its thick wooden frame, and stood back, gazing hopefully at her as if expecting approval.
Lydia took a deep breath, wondering how to begin this conversation. She looked down again at the crude but somehow noble outline of an elongated horned animal in faded red and black, with some other scrawls on the edge of the rock, where the rest of the painting had been broken off and ruined when this slab of rock was wrenched free. She had to touch it, sure that some kind of illuminating force would flow from the rock into her fingers, explaining its origins and its power. Unsure of what it was or whence it came, all her instincts told her that this was the real thing. How could she ever have thought about changing her career? No lawyer ever felt like this. Perhaps doctors felt this sense of exultation when they saved a life, or perhaps teachers when a pupil suddenly surged into a new state of knowledge. She had not felt like this for a very long time.
"Do you have any more of this at home, or is this the only piece?" she asked.
"The only one," he replied. "My father had it in his study, standing on a bookcase. He never mentioned it, except to say it was a souvenir of the war -- of the most dangerous part of his war. And that he had made the case himself. The only other thing he ever said was to my mother, and he told her that he knew it was at least seventeen thousand years old."
"Hardly," said Lydia politely. Her voice sounded almost normal, as her brain began to work again in its accustomed grooves. "If it is from North Africa, the Hagar paintings were still being done just a few hundred years ago. Cappadocian work might be seventeen hundred years old, but seventeen thousand years would predate whatever we now think of as the kind of civilization that could produce this kind of work. If it is genuine."
There were swiveling brass arms on the rear of the case. She pushed them sideways to remove the glass and with a brisk "Allow me," her visitor lifted the large and not quite flat chunk of stone free from the velvet. She took a magnifying glass from the drawer, and turned a spotlight onto the edge of the rock, studying what seemed to be a long scorch mark along the side of the rock. Perhaps the burning from some sort of thermal lance that had cut it free? Seventeen thousand years, she was thinking. There was one obvious candidate, too obvious to be possible.
"Did your father serve in France or Spain at all?" she asked quietly, her brain quickening but her stomach lurching at the thought of Lascaux or Altamira. Nobody could ever have done this to Lascaux. The French would bring back the guillotine for anyone who tried. So they should. She would even volunteer to sharpen the blade.
"Yes. As a matter of fact he was in France. Not for long. But in 1944, around the time of the invasion." She was suddenly aware of a sharper note in his voice, and a concentration as he looked at her.
"The Périgord, perhaps? The Dordogne region?" Through the magnifying glass, the lines of the bull looked coarse as well as decisive. Clay, she thought. Not finger-daubed, but a shaped point of tinted clay used as a kind of pencil. The muscles of the neck had been given force by a thinner layer of dappled color. How could that have been done? She curled her hand into a loose fist and put it to her mouth, remembering some long-ago lecture. Yes, this must be an example of the blowing technique. A wash of color in the artist's mouth, half-spat and half-sprayed through a half-closed fist would produce that effect. The rock had to be limestone. She was no expert on the oldest cave paintings of prehistoric man, but she knew that the bulls at Lascaux were ten, even twenty times larger than this. And she was certain that a painting such as this was never found outside its cave, and there was nothing of such size in any museum she knew. But if the rock were from the Lascaux culture, it would be priceless, and even historic. Unbidden, the thought came that this could be the very item to save her career. Properly handled, she told herself. It could also unleash the kind of scandal that could ruin her.
"Yes, I think he was in the Dordogne area," said Manners. "He was attached to Special Operations, with the French Resistance and all that. The summer of 1944, around the time of the D-Day invasion, I know he was in Périgord. He got a French decoration, the Légion d'Honneur. But this isn't French, is it?"
"I don't know," she said automatically, playing for time as the excitement surged through her again. "I'll have to check. If it comes from one of the French caves, then it could be seventeen thousand years old, or even older. But it would be about as illegal as any artifact could possibly be. We couldn't possibly sell it," she said, straightening to look gravely at the man. There was no twinkle in his eye now, indeed, no expression at all, which irritated her. "This is not portable art, in any event. It has been cut from the living rock, from a rather larger painting. In artistic terms, and probably legally, this is a crime."
He looked at her silently, his head cocked slightly to one side as if he were about to speak. His self-confidence made him quite an attractive man, she thought. She felt herself blushing, and he carefully took the string he had unwrapped from the parcel, wound it into a small skein, neatly tied the loose end, and tossed it onto the table. Then he carefully folded the brown paper, drew a very clean handkerchief from the cuff of his jacket and wiped his hands before picking up the magnifying glass and looking carefully at the rock's edges. He had very finely shaped hands.
"If you walk out with it now and take it home and put it back on the bookshelf, there is nothing that I or anybody else could do," she said, wondering if this were the right argument to make to this stranger. The last thing she wanted was for him to walk out with his rock. But if it stayed with her, she would have to contact the proper authorities. This conversation with a potential client had suddenly become very complicated. "I don't think you should do that. Not because you could make much money out of this, but because I don't think it would be right."
"Well, it's not my fault. I just inherited the damn thing," he said, squinting at the side of the rock. He straightened and then looked squarely at her. "I don't mean that. It's not a damn thing. I think it's marvelous. I always have, even as a boy. I used to go from looking at it in my father's study out to the fields to look at the cattle, wondering why this felt more like the real things than the Buttercups and Jennies I'd take to the milking shed." His voice trailed off, and he cleared his throat. "How can you tell if it is real? Carbon-dating?"
"Carbon-dating only works on organic material like cloth or vegetation. This is rock," she said, her voice crisp. "I would have to consult with an expert or two, send them photographs, see if any caves have been vandalized of paintings like this. But I can tell you there is no market in this kind of work, if I am right about its provenance. This is not a conventional item of preclassical art, this is prehistory from the very dawn of primitive man. Governments take this kind of thing very seriously." He was not reacting at all. Perhaps he did not understand her sense of outrage.
"Imagine if somebody tried to sell one of the stones from Stonehenge," she went on, thinking the English parallel might stir him. "If your father took this, even if the cave had collapsed and this had been plucked from a pile of rubble, then I think the French government would want to revoke whatever medal they gave him." He was nodding gravely, but without real comprehension. In fact, he was looking at her in that appraising, male way, that made this even more complicated. She would have to be blunt. "I understand you brought this here in good faith, hoping it might be worth money. But I have to warn you that it could land you in serious legal trouble if you tried to sell it. Not a windfall, sir, but quite possibly a prison sentence."
"So, none of this kind of thing is ever sold, nor ever appears at auction," he said. "There is no market, and so no value. I am left with a curious and highly unsavory family memento, and the thought that my father may have been a bit of a rogue."
"You are left with an obligation," Lydia said. "I think we ought to try to find out if this is real, and if so, where exactly it comes from. There may be a hole in a cave painting, although I don't know of one offhand. Anyway this probably belongs in a museum. Sometimes there can be a finder's fee, but in this case, which looks like the result of an act of vandalism, that might be difficult."
She looked at it again, noticing the way the curve of the jaw and of one of the horns followed carefully the folds and indentations in the rock, using the shape of the stone to give a sense of force and muscle in the beast. Where the jaw met the neck, the painter had suddenly blurred his line, as if to suggest movement. She had not seen the real Lascaux cave, only the copy that the French government had built when the breath of too many tourists threatened to damage the original. But she remembered this trick of the blurred line to suggest movement, and the way that artists would try to follow the shapes of rock on which they drew. If this were a fake, it was a remarkably fine one.
"What do you suggest I do? Take it home to Wiltshire and put it back on the bookcase?"
"No," said Lydia firmly. "I strongly suggest you leave it with me, and I shall give you a receipt, and ask one or two experts in the field where it might have come from. If your father found it in 1944, there were then very few painted caves. Lascaux was only found in 1940. If it comes from this region, or from the Spanish caves at Altamira, they'll identify it quickly enough. If not, we'll have to think again about its provenance. But the style says Lascaux, and so does your father's estimate about its age. But even if it comes from somewhere altogether different, I don't think you would be able to sell it, not publicly at least."
"How long would these consultations take?" he asked. "And how long would you want to keep the rock?"
"I'll photograph it digitally, and send that with an e-mail to two or three people. I should hear something within a day or two. Just to be sure, I'll send copies to an expert on the Hagar paintings, and check out one or two more possibles. I'm not an expert on Cro-Magnon man, but I know the people who are."
"Cro-Magnon, was he the one with the low, thick forehead, the missing link back to the apes?"
"No, absolutely not. Cro-Magnon man had a skull and brain cavity not unlike our own, and in creating these cave paintings he gave us the first recognizable human culture. He replaced -- and we are not sure how -- Neanderthal man, who did have a low, thick brow. But even his brain capacity was just as big as ours -- even bigger, I seem to recall. I'm not even sure we know whether or not the two types could interbreed." Lydia was suddenly aware that Manners was watching one of her more irritating habits, twisting a lock of her hair around and around a single finger as she talked. She only did it when she was nervous. She dropped her arm to her side and spoke quickly. "Would you like me to give you a receipt for this, or do you want to take it away with you? I'd like to photograph it anyway, if I may."
He leaned back casually, perched on the table, and for the first time he smiled openly at her. It was a very agreeable smile, with no guile in it. "But if you can't sell it for me, why would you want to go to all this bother? Why not just refer me to a museum and save yourself the effort?"
"Perhaps I should," she said, and gave her coolest, most professional smile in return. "I suppose that having come across this, and suspecting what it might be, I feel rather responsible. If it has been wrenched away from a cave wall, I think we ought to try to get it back."
"Do you feel the same about statues from Egyptian temples and giving the Elgin marbles back to Greece?" His tone was curious, rather than aggressive.
"There are few hard and fast rules about this. The Elgin marbles were bought and exported under the legal rules of the time, and have been better cared for in the British Museum than they might have been in Athens in the past. And that is a case where political issues will probably outweigh any artistic argument. But if somebody in my profession knows something had been taken illegally from a tomb or a temple -- or a cave -- then we have a sort of ethical code that says we do not deal in it and alert the proper authorities. The laws against trafficking in stolen goods certainly apply to the art world, and there is also a moral consideration, particularly about something such as this." She gestured at the rock.
"Would all your colleagues here, or at other auction houses, take the same attitude? Or is this a particularly American ethic, to do with fear of lawsuits?"
"I certainly hope my colleagues would take the same view, on either side of the Atlantic. This is not about lawsuits, but about fair dealing," she said crisply, suddenly wondering whether the whole thing had been some kind of test arranged by her management. "Now, would you like that receipt?"
"Yes, please," he said. "And I have to be back in town on Friday. If I came in at about midday, perhaps I could take you to lunch?" He smiled again. "You have been helpful above and beyond the call of duty."
"I'm afraid we tend to be rather busy on Fridays," she said automatically, pulling a receipt form and a ballpoint pen from the drawer and starting to fill it in. "But I'll certainly see you here at noon. And if you leave a phone number, I can let you know if some firm information comes back to me before then."
Lydia took a dozen digital photographs of the rock, and weighed and measured it carefully before asking a janitor to take it up to her office. Then she sent e-mails and the digitalized photos to Professor Horst Vogelstern in Cologne and to the National Museum of Prehistory at les Eyzies in the Dordogne, in the heart of France's cave region. It had been founded by Denis Peyrony, the French scholar who had first identified the frieze of the horses in the Font-de-Gaume cave, and ever since had been the main center for the study of early man. She marked the museum e-mail for the attention of Clothilde Daunier, a curator renowned for her encyclopedic knowledge of Lascaux and the surrounding caves. Lydia knew her only by reputation. She had heard of Horst as one of the leading authorities on prehistoric art even before she met him at a reception after he had given a lecture at the Courtauld Institute when she had been studying there. As a courtesy, she sent another e-mail to her old professor at the Ashmolean in Oxford. It was not his field, but she thought he might be interested. At least he could confirm that it was not African. She pondered sending more e-mails to some of her classmates who were still working in the field. There was a boring Irishman, now teaching in Australia, who had been interested in cave painting, and that insufferable Californian who had gone into paleoarchaeology. No, she thought firmly. No need to reopen those old connections. She pulled out Ann Sieve-king's The Cave Artists and André Leroi-Gourhan's Dawn of European Art, and increasingly fascinated, she read until the night watchman found her just before ten. She climbed the stairs again to her small office, just to look at it once more. The night watchman followed her, a rather dear ex-serviceman with a carefully tended long white mustache.
"Should I put that in the storeroom for you, miss?" he asked. Then he looked at it. "That's special, isn't it?"
"I think it is, Mr. Woodley. I think it could be very special." She smiled at him, feeling comfortable with the elderly man.
"Funny how you can always tell the real thing, the quality," he said, turning her desk lamp to illuminate it more clearly. "Very old, is it?"
"Probably seventeen thousand years old, if my guess is right."
"Crikey. Funny how you never think of art before the ancient Greeks. But it passes my test, miss."
"What's that, Mr. Woodley?"
"I get it now and again. First week I got this job, we had that Rembrandt in, and I got this shiver. I'll never forget it. I'd never thought much about art before. Never seen much, I suppose. But I got it then, and I got it with that El Greco we had last year, and I've got it now." He shook his head in solemn admiration. "Seventeen thousand years. Makes you think. I suppose that's what makes us human, making art, just for the beauty of it."
They looked at it together in silence, feeling the strength and nobility of a long-dead beast, and wondering about the mind and eyes and hands that had crafted it into something more potent than life. Those horns could kill, those haunches could breed, those legs could charge. Mr. Woodley was right to shiver, she thought. Less than two feet square, but it was an awesome beast. She felt a sense of sympathetic terror for whatever distant ancestors had gone up against it with spears and rocks and flint axes. In ennobling the bull, the artist had somehow ennobled the early men who had hunted it.
"You're quite right, Mr. Woodley," Lydia said quietly, thinking how foolish she had been that morning, to think of giving up a career that could give her moments such as this. "It's what makes us human."
"I'll take care of it for you, miss. Put it in the storeroom overnight. You'd better get on home."
She took the tube home to the small flat in Fulham, thinking about the great cave of Lascaux as she opened the door, and how much she would prefer a poster of those bulls of Lascaux on her wall to the insipid Monet print that now greeted her. She did not much like her apartment, given what it was costing her, but duty insisted that her living room and kitchen were always left tidy. Her morning coffee cup and juice glass were now dry on the draining board. She turned on the radio, tuned to the usual Classic FM, and put them away as she tried to identify the music, but it was some generic baroque chamber ensemble and she gave up. Her father would have been ashamed of her, after all the music he had played in her childhood. The small bedroom was as messy as the other rooms were neat, and she shoved tights and jeans and T-shirts and bedclothes into a great pile, and took them down to the communal washing machine in the basement of the converted old house. She had thirty-five minutes before she would have to load them into the dryer. Time to watch TV? To eat? The refrigerator held ketchup, one bottle of wine and two of fizzy water, some yogurt, and a wizened lemon. She would have to start planning her life better than this.
Lydia ate the yogurt, told herself she could put the clothes in the dryer tomorrow and went to bed. Ignoring her bedside copy of The Hittites, she was asleep almost at once. Her last thought was of the oddity of time. The oldest cave paintings, at the Grotte de Villars, had been dated by that legendary prehistorian Abbé Breuil to about thirty thousand years. The carbon dating of the charcoal they used in the Lascaux cave suggested the great paintings had been done seventeen thousand years ago. Which meant fifteen thousand years B.C., she thought. She could never teach herself to use that politically correct term B.C.E., Before the Common Era. So for fifteen thousand years before Lascaux, humans had lived around the valleys of the Vézère and Dordogne rivers, hunted and painted in caves, and carried on doing what their ancestors always had. And then came a the sudden explosion of talent and genius that created the stunning achievement of Lascaux. As the explosion faded, people embarked upon the next seventeen thousand-year march to the present day. The human race launched into agriculture and metals and towns and ships and politics; everything began to change as life seemed to shift into a higher gear. Like a video, thought Lydia, fast-forward. Instead of B.C. and A.D., you might call it B.L. and A.L. Before and After Lascaux. Before and after art.
The first response to Lydia's e-mails came the next morning as she was sipping coffee at her desk and taking detailed notes on the rock, perched on a chair at her side. Beyond its weight and dimensions, the colors and the shapes, there was not much to say. Not, at least, that could be put into plain words. The bull was in black and dark red, with muted shadings of red and yellow to give depth. There were some other lines, suggestions that the designs continued beyond the edge of the broken rock, but nothing she could begin to describe. And there was a line of three dots, and perhaps part of a fourth on the edge of the rock, equally spaced, in a reasonably straight line. Such patterns had also been found at Lascaux, but nowhere else, from her superficial researches of the previous evening. But there was no reference that she had found to any damage to the caves at Lascaux, no gaps in the drawings where the Manners rock might have been wrenched free.
She sat back, trying to assess whether she responded to the bull as a magnificent but crude drawing, or whether she simply felt awe at something so old, when the phone rang, and she recognized Horst's voice. He was speaking an English as precise and fluent as her own, with barely a trace of German accent, asking her warmly how she was and sounding much more friendly than one evening of pleasant chatter at a reception would explain. It was soon clear that he was excited by the photographs.
Yes, she still had the rock in her possession, she told him. It was on her desk. No, she had not yet heard from the museum at Les Eyzies, but she felt it possible that it was from Lascaux, even though it was so small. No, her auction house did not intend to put the piece on public sale, but simply to establish whether it was real and where it might have come from.
"I know where it's from," said Horst. "It is from Lascaux, the style and detail are unmistakable. But this is different. It is a miniature, by far the smallest of any bull that I have seen and it is not from any cave I know of. This could mean that somebody has found a new cave, with Lascaux-style art. But why would they be so foolish as to approach an auction house if they want to make some money from this? They must have known you wouldn't put it on open sale. Who is this person who brought it to you, do you know anything about him?"
She described Manners, told Horst of his father and the inheritance, and the possible connection to the Périgord region in 1944, and added, "I don't think he knows the first thing about cave paintings. He was happy enough to leave the piece in my care, and for me to make inquiries to trace it. He seemed genuine and rather innocent. I don't think he's the type to trade in looted goods. And if he were, he would hardly have come to us. But I can quiz him some more when I see him -- he's coming in again on Friday to see what I have found out."
"If I came over, would you introduce him to me?" Horst asked. There was a sound of rustling down the phone as he leafed through a calendar. "I can change a lecture, put off a student or two, and fly over on Thursday in time to take you to dinner. By then, we should have confirmation from les Eyzies that this comes from an unknown cave."
"I haven't got my diary to hand -- I'm not sure I'm free on Thursday," she said quickly. "Perhaps we'd better wait until we do hear from les Eyzies."
"I'm not giving up the opportunity to see this piece, and Friday morning may be my last chance, if your mystery man decides to take it away with him again. I'll call you again after I hear from Clothilde at les Eyzies."
Within the hour, the Frenchwoman was on the line, more formal and much more cautious than Horst. No, she could not be sure from the photographs she had seen that this was Lascaux work, but it certainly looked interesting. And no, it did not come from any known site. A lot of caves were damaged in places, or eroded, but she knew of no rock scar from which Lydia's exhibit might come. Then she wanted to know if Lydia or her company had informed anyone else.
"Only Horst Vogelstern, in Cologne, and Professor Willoughby at Oxford," said Lydia. "Horst phoned me this morning to suggest that it might come from a new cave, not yet discovered or known about. He seems very excited. He wants to come and see the rock, before the owner comes back on Friday."
"Horst and his theories," sniffed Clothilde. "He is so ambitious to make a big coup and become famous. You know he is trying to persuade people to finance a TV series on prehistoric art. Some theory about an undiscovered cave is the kind of thing he could put into the newspapers and magazines, and then he could make his TV show and write a best-seller and get rich. Horst was a very good researcher, but he gets carried away by his dreams."
"It sounds as though you know him well," Lydia ventured, intrigued by these personal dynamics between scholars.
"Too well," snapped Clothilde, and then went on, almost apologetically, as if Lydia were owed some explanation. "He worked with me here at les Eyzies for two years, and we were very good friends. We were very happy. Then it ended. You know how these things are."
Lydia supposed she did. Or had once, but not for quite some time. David had been almost a year ago.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I had no idea. Look, if this is embarrassing for you I can tell Horst I have put the entire thing in the hands of your museum."
"No, not at all. It was all some time ago, and Horst and I are good friends and colleagues. But I do know how much he is driven to succeed, to make the splash. So I have my doubts when he jumps at conclusions about new caves. We have not fully investigated all the old ones. Remember it took many years even in the well-known caves for the right people with the right lighting to see that there were paintings and carvings. The caves are very big, Lydia. The one at Rouffignac has it own railway line inside, you know, and it was only forty years ago that people first realized that there were cave paintings under the walls and ceiling where the tourists used to carve graffiti." She paused. "But, Lydia, there is something much more important now," she said. "You cannot let the owner take this away. We may never see it or hear of it again. This is French national patrimoine, you know, national heritage, like your Crown Jewels in the Tower of London."
"Not my Crown Jewels. I'm American."
"All right, like your Constitution, or George Washington's house. It is the oldest thing that makes us what we are. This belongs to France. We shall have to get some legal document over to you to stake a claim, I suppose."
"You seem pretty sure it's genuine, and French," Lydia said, startled. "I think all that is premature. The owner seems quite happy to leave it in my hands, even when I said that it was my duty to get this item back where it belongs."
"Well, he may say that now, but he could change his mind. We have to put this on a proper footing. I want to come to London this week to make a visual identification, and file a statement for our Embassy legal officer. We are checking with the Ministry of Culture in Paris and with the Foreign Ministry. Nobody here at the museum knows the procedure."
"I think you all ought to calm down," Lydia said. "Legal procedure and all that sounds as if you suspect a crime, but the current owner has obviously been acting in good faith. And if it cannot be shown to be stolen property, I'm not sure if the law comes into it. But I'd better check with our own legal department and see what they say. Why don't we talk again later today or tomorrow, when we both know what the legal position is?"
"For me, that is fine," said Clothilde. "I think it is getting beyond just me and you. Lawyers and government officials and diplomats are already starting to get involved in this. And then the politicians cannot be far behind. Our President comes from this part of France and takes a personal interest in Lascaux. But you are right, let us wait and see what these officials want to do. In the meantime, I want to come to London tomorrow to see the piece. I can hardly give anyone a serious opinion from just your photos. I can get an early flight from Périgueux to Paris and be at your office before lunch. Will that be O.K.?"
It was, of course. But then Lydia had to think about explaining this sudden international incident that she had unleashed to her department head, to the legal department, and probably to a director or two. And all of them would be glumly aware that none of this fuss and bother would have the least financial benefit to the auction house. Ten minutes with the legal department left her convinced that this could become an expensive mess for the company. There was no sale in view, only embarrassment.
She rose, and then checked herself. That would never do. She would have to think positively. What was Clothilde saying about Horst suspecting that an undiscovered cave could be just the break he needed? Perhaps the break could benefit her and the auction house. After all, she had been the one who first identified the rock as a possible example of Lascaux art. The publicity department could certainly do something with it. She picked up the phone to call them, but checked herself again. She should at least call Manners. It was his rock. She looked at the card he had left her, with a country phone number that gave no reply. The London address was the Cavalry Club, and when she rang she learned that he was Major Manners, and he was summoned from the bar. He sounded pleased to hear from her.
"It looks like the real thing," she told him. "Two of the top experts in Europe are coming in this week to look at it on the basis of the photos I sent them. They both think it is from the Lascaux time and period. One suspects that it comes from an undiscovered cave. The other thinks it comes from part of a known cave that has not yet been fully explored. But I think you'll find the French authorities very determined to recover it, since they are convinced it comes from one of their caves."
"You have been working fast, Miss Dean. I'm very grateful to you, and think I owe you that lunch I offered. But when you said the French are very determined, you sounded a touch ominous."
"Well, Mr. Manners, the French museum experts naturally told the Ministry of Culture, who are considering their legal position. They would have to show that your rock came from France, and while most experts would probably agree that it does, there must be some doubt about that so long as they cannot point to the cave from which it is supposed to have come. Then they have to show that it was removed from France at a time when it would have been against the law to do so. And if your father obtained it in 1944, there was then no such law in France. And as the Dordogne region was then territory under German military control, different courts might find that your father's souvenir is legitimate war booty, or legally the property of the British Army. Our own legal department says it's a bit confused. It is clearly in your hands, and you are equally clearly blameless. This is a case where possession is a large part of the law."
"Do I need a lawyer?"
"I think you might want some legal advice. If you want to hang on to the painting, you'd find that fighting this kind of case could be expensive. But you may want a lawyer who can negotiate a settlement, or our auction house can act for you. If the French calculate the costs, they will find an uncertain legal action far more expensive than paying you a finder's fee or an honorarium."
"What sort of sum might that be?"
"Negotiable. But if the French are convinced that it is real and they want it, they may be persuaded to offer ten thousand pounds or so. Perhaps rather more."
"If you were to act for me, your commission would be what?"
"The standard rate is twenty percent. But that would be the firm's commission. It's the firm's expertise you would be hiring."
"What if I were to hire someone privately to act for me?"
"Still twenty percent. I can give you the names of some good independent agents."
"I've got one. The deal is done. You are appointed my agent. I'm quite happy for it to go back to the Frogs, but the more they can be induced to pay, the better. And now you really must let me buy you lunch."
"Thank you, but probably not this week, which promises to be rather hectic. And I couldn't just take off my company hat and act for you privately. It doesn't work like that. Now, how do you feel about publicity? I think it might help. Sensational find, British war hero, that kind of thing. Since we both know that we want the painting to go back to France, what we want to do now is jack the price up, which is where publicity comes in."
"Fine by me. It's in your charming hands, Miss Dean. But take care of the dear old rock for me, and get the best price you can. And I'll see you on Friday at twelve, and possibly your European experts too."
She rang down for a janitor to take the rock to the strong room, filled in the deposit slip, and where it asked for an estimated value, she boldly scrawled "ten thousand pounds." She saw it removed and signed for, and then feeling far more confident than she had for some weeks, walked into Justin's office without knocking to inform him that she might just have the publicity coup he had been looking for. Finally, after a busy half hour with Justin, a lawyer, the publicity manager, and two interested directors, she left them telling the janitor that they wanted the rock brought back up so they could all look at it, while Lydia went off to ring the Arts correspondent of The Times.
Clothilde Daunier stood five feet tall, with an extra three inches for a splendid skein of auburn hair piled atop her head so carelessly that the cut must have been expensive, and she was dressed to match. She had a bustling manner, a wide grin, and despite some envy at her clothes, Lydia liked her at once.
"I expected you to bring the French ambassador, the Foreign Legion, and half the lawyers in Paris," she began, pouring coffee. Lydia's tone was friendly and confident after the compliments she had heard from her colleagues that morning. One of the directors had come up to Lydia's attic to congratulate her on the excellent publicity, so she was feeling highly confident about her job.
"I am sure they will come if required," laughed Clothilde, and rummaged into a deep Hermès bag to bring out a bottle and a small glass jar, sealed with rubber. "For you, some foie gras from Périgord, and a bottle of Monbazillac to drink with it. Forget your English rules about leaving sweet wines till the end of your meal and drink it slightly chilled with the foie gras."
She sat down, brought a thin file of photos and photocopies from the bag, lit a Marlboro before Lydia could explain about the No Smoking rule, and said, "You know I worked with Monique Peytral, the artist who reconstructed all the paintings at Lascaux?" Lydia shook her head. She knew the precise and life-size copy of the original cave, built to protect the original from the damaging microbes and carbon dioxide brought in and breathed out by an endless trail of visitors.
"I was the technical adviser on the project, re-creating the Hall of the Bulls and the Axial Gallery. We did a good job, and half the tourists who come have no idea that they are seeing a very clever copy. But what this really means is that everything at Lascaux is engraved onto my brain. I know it very well, and your bull is a Lascaux bull. Your row of dots are Lascaux dots, from a common Lascaux design. This rock is probably from Lascaux artists. I would almost swear to it -- except that the bull is so small. I have no idea where it is from. We surveyed that cave fully. There are no unexplored parts to it, and I know your rock does not come from the Lascaux cave. So it may be a copy, just like the ones Monique made, or Horst may be right and it comes from a cave we do not know about. That would be revolutionary. Or it comes from one of several caves nearby, which would be very interesting to a few scholars, but a lot less dramatic. Unless, of course, your rock was surrounded by similar paintings and we have a whole new cave gallery we never knew about. All these things are possible, but first I must see it."
Lydia rang down to the janitors' department, asked for the painting to be brought up, and in the meantime handed to Clothilde a copy of that day's Times. There was a small paragraph on the front page, and then a much larger story on page 3, alongside one of Lydia's photographs of the bull, and a headline that read MYSTERY OF FRENCH CAVE MASTERPIECE IN BRITAIN. Tucked into the middle of the story was an extremely flattering photo of Lydia, taken by the publicity department. Clothilde looked at the story, at the photographs, looked back more closely at Lydia and grinned, and then the janitor rang to say they didn't have the rock. It had never been sent down again to the strong room after the directors called for it to be brought to them in the boardroom the previous evening.
"Who signed for it?" Lydia asked, irritated.
"Mr. Justin did, miss," came the reply. "He just kept it up there, and it was never checked in here again last night. It must still be with him."
She rang off and called Justin, whose line was busy. She went down the corridor to his office, suddenly aware that she was walking into some kind of crisis, and his usually impeccably dressed secretary was looking disheveled as she tried to speak on two phones at once. Lydia looked into the office. No Justin. She went back and stood squarely in front of the secretary, who mouthed at her "boardroom."
She took the stairs and found two uniformed policemen standing in the corridor. The boardroom doors were wide open, and she heard the sound of raised and angry voices. It was crowded with several people she did not recognize, two of the auction house directors, and messy with a great deal of paper on the floor. There were champagne glasses on a Regency table, a couple of empty bottles on the priceless carpet, and the smell of a party nobody had bothered to clear up. So there had been a celebration here last night to which she had not been invited. Typical Justin, she thought grimly. Then she saw the firm's security officer standing over Justin, who was sitting at a disarrayed Georgian desk with his head in his hands. He looked up as she stood hesitantly at the door.
"It's your damned rock, Lydia," he said over the hubbub. "It's gone. Disappeared overnight. We've been burgled."
"What do you mean, burgled?" she demanded in the sudden silence. "Why wasn't the rock put back in the strong room?"
"The boardroom was locked, somebody forced the door. Your bloody rock is the only thing that has gone," Justin said.
"That's not the half of it. The police are here, with more coming," said the publicity director. "And we have half of Fleet Street and the BBC on the phone, all wanting to do their own versions on this" -- he looked down at a copy of The Times -- "this place that you call the Sistine Chapel of prehistoric art."
"I didn't call it that," Lydia snapped. "That was the phrase used to describe Lascaux by the great French historian the Abbé Breuil. He was a churchman. I suppose we would have called him an abbott."
"I don't give a toss about abbots. I do give a toss about the fact that The Times Arts correspondent is rather cheesed off that he was given only half a story. He only found out this morning that the late Colonel Manners who was the original owner of this chunk of rock was so highly thought of in Paris that the current President of the Republic came over two weeks ago for a private visit, simply to attend his funeral. This is going to be an even bigger story tomorrow. Thanks to you, we've got a very nasty scandal on our hands."
"In more ways than one," Lydia snapped back, furious at this attempt to shift blame toward her. "I have a French expert from their national museum sitting in my office waiting to see this piece of prehistoric art. And I have an eminent German expert about to fly in to see what I believe to be the most important and unique work of art that this department has found in living memory. From the signs of celebration in this room, you seem to agree with me. And in the midst of guzzling your champagne, you gentlemen seem to have lost it."
"Not lost it," groaned Justin, his nervous hands smoothing out the storeroom receipt that carried his signature and made him responsible. "Burgled."
Copyright © 2002 by Martin Walker