The writings of Richard Kluger
The blinking light on Mitchell Emery’s office phone signaled that he had a voice-mail message—two of them, as it turned out. The first was from his wife Clara.
“Oh, hello, mister—sorry I missed you.” The tone was pleasingly low with a barely perceptible edge of wryness. “Forgot to mention before you left that I’m on for lunch with Lolly today—my treat, no less. She’s had me out three times, so I owe her—and she is your lord and master’s wife, so I’ll have to put on my best imitation of good behavior.” Clara’s good breeding and continental education indelibly shaped her speech, even the most casual remark. “Anyway, I won’t have room left for our usual gourmet dinner, so if you don’t mind, I’ll pick up some cold cuts, and we can have a sandwich or something else light. Feel free to pig out at lunch, though I know you’re heroically abstemious on workdays. Anyway, hope all’s well at your shop and—um—still love you like crazy, big guy. ’Bye.”
Mitch smiled inside. Her calling him “big guy” had become a long-standing gag between them because in her flats she was a half- inch taller than he was—and she was careful not to wear heels except when they had a dress-up occasion. Not that he minded her height; on the contrary. He had thought her statuesque from the first moment he saw her, and it only added to her appeal. Of course, if he had been on the shrimpy side himself instead of six feet even, it might have been a different story. Physically and emotionally, they were well matched—two highly independent people who had elected to blend their contrasting backgrounds and temperaments.
Mitch’s other voice-mail message was more urgent. “Something a bit out of the ordinary has come up,” said his caller. “Drop by whenever the mood suits you. Sooner would be better.”
The voice was reedy, its cadence deliberate yet fluid, with every syllable equally uninflected, and the speaker’s message typically terse and cryptic. Its imperative tone was nonetheless unmistakable. Since he owned the place, Harry never bothered to identify himself when phoning subordinates. In fairness, though, his superior air seemed neither put on nor a character flaw; to Mitch it was simply natural that anyone named Harrison Ellsworth Cubbage III would sound, act, and be like that, considering that he owned a Harvard Ph.D. in fine arts and half of Cubbage & Wakeham, the New York and London-based firm that had been in the connoisseurship business for six generations.
C&W, as the auction gallery was known in art and big-money circles, owed much of its sterling hallmark to the expertise of its Department of Authentication and Appraisal. This crack unit, now under Mitch’s supervision, included nine fulltime curators: three in the paintings and sculpture office and one each in manuscripts and documents, jewelry, ceramics and other collectibles, relics and artifacts, arms and armaments, and textiles. Every curator, moreover, was authorized, whenever it was deemed necessary, to draw upon a far-flung network of specialists in the academic, museum, and commercial worlds, so that no bidder at a C&W auction ever had to fear purchasing something less than advertised. Only the genuine article reached the house’s auction block. True, there had been rare exceptions over C&W’s 137 years in business, but in each case the full purchase price was repaid promptly along with interest, abject apologies, and the proprietors’ redfaced discomfort. The erring authenticator was dismissed summarily; there could be no margin for mistakes in such a high-stakes game.
“Sorry, just heard your summons,” Mitch said, appearing in the open doorway of the co-owner’s office at the other end of the second-floor hall. “Something interesting come up?”
“Everything that comes up here is interesting,” Harry said in mild rebuke. “I thought you knew that by now, Mitchell.” From the first, his boss had insisted on calling him Mitchell, saying he thought nicknames were undignified—except his own. Harry was big on dignity.
Mitch gave a slight nod. “I misspoke—sir.”
“I wanted to give you a heads-up on the meeting you’re booked to join us for this afternoon at three,” Harry said. “Chap from the wilds of New Jersey is coming in with his lawyer—Gordy has spoken with him and recommends that we give them a hearing. They’re bringing us a manuscript of something called The William Tell Symphony—well, it’s in German, as I understand it—the title page, that is.”
Mitch shrugged. “Is the title supposed to mean something special to me?”
“Probably not. But according to the lawyer, his client found the manuscript at the bottom of an attic trunk while cleaning out his late grandfather’s house in Zurich a few weeks ago.”
“I see. Well, yes—that would follow—William Tell—Switzerland. Probably a patriotic pastiche—and pretty dreadful.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” said Harry, twiddling an unsharpened pencil of the kind he occasionally chewed on as a pacifier, “but possibly it’s a bit more than that. Would you care to hazard a guess at the name of the composer on the title page?”
“Swiss composers are not really my thing, to be honest. In fact, I don’t think I can name a single one.”
“Me, neither, to be equally honest. But the listed composer definitely wasn’t Swiss.” Harry savored being in charge of any exchange, especially with an underling.
“All right,” said Mitch. I’ll play your silly game. How about— Duke Ellington?”
Harry snorted. “You might have tried Rossini—since he did the—”
“Rossini didn’t write symphonies, so far as I know—only operas.”
“The Jersey lawyer told Gordy that this symphony has singing parts.”
“That,” said Mitch, “would probably qualify it as an opera.” “Nevertheless, the composer apparently called it a symphony—and he should know.” “And why is that?”
“Because,” said Harry, “the name on the title page is Ludwig fucking van Beethoven.”
Harry was allowed to say “fucking” whenever he chose as a kind of droit de seigneur, even if everyone understood it was not entirely dignified for him to do so.
A small, quick intake of breath betrayed Mitch’s momentary loss of nonchalance. “Well. him I’ve heard of.”
“Hold on—didn’t Sotheby’s auction another Beethoven manuscript a little while ago—it supposedly just popped up in an old filing cabinet at a Philadelphia seminary or someplace? The story got a lot of print and air time, as I remember.”
“Not to mention a couple of million bucks for the finder,” Harry confirmed. “And that wasn’t even a new composition—I checked it out online right after the call came in from New Jersey yesterday. The manuscript was Beethoven’s attempt to adapt his Grosse Fuge for the piano—which is pretty small potatoes compared with a purported whole, spanking-new symphony by the all-time world champion of that musical form.”
Mitch wondered if Harry was pulling his leg as a kind of playful test of his gullibility. “What if that recent episode inspired a copycat or two to start digging around the old homestead for an inexplicably abandoned Beethoven manuscript? Or maybe this New Jersey gentleman will also be bringing us—for good measure—Saul of Tarsus’s left sandal, found by a passerby after a sandstorm near the northern end of the Sea of Galilee—”
“Possibly.” Harry flipped his chewing pencil onto his desk top. “But that would interest me a lot less than a lost Beethoven symphony. Sandals are a dime a dozen.”
Mitch struggled to regain his cool, though the enormity of the Beethoven fish story had plainly caught him off-guard. “Is there any reason whatever to suppose that this character isn’t totally off-the-wall and the little goody he’s favoring us with isn’t a complete crock?”
“None that I’ve heard about so far. He’s almost surely a loon—or an arrant charlatan.”
Mitch was surer now that Harry was toying with him, so he played along. “But it would be an immense sensation if the thing miraculously proved to be authentic—and earn us a very handsome commission and worldwide attention.”
“Quite true—which is why we always keep our door—and minds—wide open.”
“But why,” Mitch asked, “would Beethoven ever have written a symphony to honor William Tell, of all people? Attila the Hun, maybe—but a Swiss folk hero? Seems preposterous.”
“Beats me,” Harry said in his best blasé manner. “If we don’t toss this Jersey fellow out on his ear this afternoon, it occurs to me that you may want to run this whole subject past your better half. Isn’t Clara’s Columbia dissertation more or less concerned with Beethoven and the German Romantics?”
“Mostly less. It deals primarily with Franz Peter Schubert.”
“Well, close enough,” said Harry. “All those German biggies must have known one another and their work. Weren’t Schubert and Beethoven contemporaries?”
“They were a generation apart, I believe—but both lived in Vienna. I think Clara told me that Schubert was one of Beethoven’s pallbearers.” The subject suddenly ignited another weird recollection in Mitch’s head. “Say, here’s a funny thing I just remembered—Clara also told me that the manuscript of Schubert’s great symphony, his Ninth, was found among a bunch of his overlooked papers some years after his death.”
“Mmmm,” said Harry. “So you see, strange things happen—and always have. You’re right, of course, Mitchell, to be supremely skeptical about miraculous discoveries of this sort—and especially of this magnitude—it’s what we pay you for, as I recall. But prejudging any claim, however farfetched, isn’t really good for our business. Let’s give our New Jersey visitor his day in court.”
His boss’s tone left Mitch in no doubt he was about to face his sternest test at C&W.
©2017 Richard Kluger