Sample Translation: Drei Frauen und die Kunst - Three Women and Art


Ten minutes after landing at Berlin’s Tegel Airport, I had made it through passport control and – legally speaking – just set foot on German soil, when I heard my name through a loudspeaker, first in German, then in English: “Elisabeth Gardener, Elisabeth Gardener: Please come to the information desk.”
So I went over to the information kiosk and announced myself to the friendly person above whose head a white “i” on a blue background floated like the sword of Damocles. She responded briefly and handed me a telephone receiver, from which the nagging voice of my boss emerged: “Where are you?”
I took a deep breath. I had just arrived from New York. “I’m at the airport. But since you called me here, you must know that.”
“Well, hurry up, can’t you? We’ll wait with the briefing until you’re here.” This was followed by the noise of the receiver being banged down. I was startled and then enraged at the rudeness, but I merely collected my suitcase, headed through a door that promised a taxi on the other side, and told the driver to take me to the Europa Center.

When I walked into his office, Herb Angerich was sitting tipped backwards in a brown leather executive chair, his feet on the desk. He did not bother to remove them when he saw me, and I stopped just inside the doorway without greeting him. It was a silent battle of wills that appeared to last an eternity. Herb is even heavier than I am, and as I saw him lounging there, fleshy in his roomily-cut, wrinkled trousers, sweaty shirt and brightly incongruous tie, I resolved firmly to change my eating habits. I never wanted to look like that, never! Whether I put my feet on the desk or not. For me, Herb was the personification of the worst excesses of the corporate type. He climbed over people on his way to the top, stomping on those below him and kissing the private parts of those above him. This had worked so well that the directorship of the Berlin offices of our employer, the insurer Ars & Vita International, had been entrusted to him.
He must have arrived from the U.S. about a week ago, I calculated mentally. And in that time, he would have inspected his estate and doublechecked that his coffers were nicely filled, and was now receiving the peasants as they trickled in to hear their new duties.
“Toby’s here.” Herb ended our power struggle without losing a single point. He was very good at that. He stood up, moved past me through the doorway, and left me standing in his beautiful office on the tenth floor of the Europa Center with its view of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. I followed him. We went down one flight to the conference room, which looked out over the building’s atrium. Tobias Hardcastle, CEO of Ars & Vita, was waiting for us there.
We said hello and sat down at the large conference table. Herb took the armchair at the head of the table, and Toby and I sat facing one another on either side of him. “Wie geht es Ihnen?” Toby asked. “Sind Sie froh, wieder in Ihrer Heimatstadt leben zu dürfen?”
My mouth fell open. “You speak German?” I asked him, forgetting in my astonishment to answer his questions about how I was and whether I was pleased to be back in Berlin.
We stared at each other. Toby’s eyes smiled while the rest of his face retained a serious expression. I like men who can communicate with their eyes, even if it’s only a smile. Of course Toby spoke German. And probably French, too. Spanish, maybe? He was a very attractive man, and obviously intelligent. Each of us inspected the other, carefully, reservedly, but not unkindly. Both of us were minorities in the American corporate world – he black, I female. That meant we had to be twice as good as the likes of Herb Angerich, whose character left a great deal to be desired, but who maneuvered in this world much more effortlessly than we could. Toby had gone to Harvard, according to the New York rumor mill. When he was appointed CEO of the International Department, whiners had intimated that Ars & Vita wanted to expand in Africa and that was the only reason he was chosen. And now he sat across from me in Berlin. “I’m really very pleased to have you here in Germany’s new capital,” he went on in German. “I want you to know how fortunate I feel that you’ve agreed to work for us here. It’s a big plus for the Ars & Vita International team.”
Herb smiled sourly. It was common knowledge that his German was weak at best, and that the gestures of courtesy and welcome that were increasingly common in diplomatic circles in Berlin were not his strength.
“I have no idea what you’re expecting of me,” I said, fixing my gaze on Toby and ignoring Herb.
“Nobody except the top five, Mr. Angerich and I know why you’re here. Officially you’ve got six months of unpaid leave for reasons of health and until you’ve gotten used to Berlin again. That’s what’s in your personnel file.”
“And unofficially?”
“You’re working for Ars & Vita International’s New York office and your salary will be deposited in euros in a bank account in New York. Here in Berlin you won’t be carried on the books as our employee, and it will stay that way at least for the next few months.”
“And what will I be doing?”
Toby smiled. “You studied Art History at Columbia University…”
“Yes, but I only have an M.A., I never finished my doctorate.”
“I know. But then you went on to New York University, studied Computer Science and Economy, and finished that degree with honors. I’ve always assumed you realized that the United States is not yet in a position to offer employment to an unlimited number of art historians.”
Toby said this without sarcasm or irony, and I could have kissed his brown cheek in gratitude. I also liked the way he used the formal German “Sie” when he spoke to me and his critical distance to the United States, which I shared, even if – or maybe precisely because – I had an American passport. I still had a German passport, too, I thought.
Our conversation was making Herb restless. “You’re supposed to investigate!” he interrupted us brusquely.
I said nothing, just sat and looked patiently at Toby.
“Your cover is that of a freelance journalist of modest means living in an anonymous high-rise apartment building here in Berlin. You’ll write articles about gallery openings, museum exhibit openings, that sort of thing, and you’ll visit a professor of medicine who lives here in Berlin, whose collection of graphic art by modern classicists contains a number of forgeries. You want to do an article on art forgeries for a well-known New York newspaper. Here’s your letter of confirmation.” He pushed a document across the desk toward me. The letterhead was indeed that of a prominent New York newspaper and the contents commissioned one Lisa Wolf from Berlin to write a background story on art forgery.
“I’d like to find my own apartment…”
“Initially we’d like you to take the furnished apartment we’ve found on the Rathenauplatz, since you’re a German-American widow without a lot of money. You’ve taken your maiden name again. Your story is that your husband’s life insurance carrier is still dragging its heels with regard to certain aspects of payment, and you’re in dire straits and mad about it.”
That sounded ironic, but it wasn’t far from the truth. James’ pension, at least the amount I’d received after his death in a traffic accident, was too little to live on and too much to die on.
“But I could run into people who know who I am, who know me from New York, know where I’ve worked…” I countered.
“That’s why you shouldn’t use a false name, just your maiden name. You’re worried because your future is financially uncertain and you just might not be averse to earning something on the side…”
“I refuse to do anything illegal!”
“We don’t expect you to. Let me explain the background to the job we’re asking you to do.” Toby leaned back in his chair and stared at the ceiling. I followed his example because it meant that I didn’t have to look at Herb.
“On the east coast, early in 1991, the police closed down the largest printing operation for forged graphic art, one with its own worldwide distribution network. I know that’s not news to you.”
I nodded. Sit and listen, that’s the approach I was taking.
“After the destruction of the distribution network that was headquartered in New Jersey – and which your husband James, a criminal investigator for the United States Postal Service, was so successfully involved in uncovering – the art forgers appear to have set up shop elsewhere.”
“And where would that be?”
“Presumably somewhere where a large number of well-trained artists without commissions, and without a chance of getting any, can be found within a relatively circumscribed area.”
“You mean the former East Germany or one of the other eastern block countries?”
“We have no idea! But during the last few weeks, three suspect Picasso prints have turned up in Germany and four in France. All of them were sent directly to their buyers by postal mail. With payment in advance, naturally. A comparison revealed that they were prints of the type impounded in New Jersey in 1991.”
“But you know that modern printing techniques make it possible to forge these prints over and over!” I interjected, objecting to the connection with a case from so long ago.
“Yes, we do know that. But an analysis of the paper on which these new prints were made and the paper that the Schnyder family used until 1991 had an astonishing result: they’re identical.”
“It’s just remnants that somebody’s selling off,” dismissed Herb, for whom Toby’s explanation was obviously taking too long. “What else could it be?”
“This very high quality paper that the Schnyder family used to produce the prints was not manufactured in the United States. It may come from an eastern block country, according to experts.”
“I’ve never been to Budapest, so I’ll take Hungary!” said Herb, and laughed scornfully.
We ignored him. “But what makes you think that another warehouse with forged prints from the New Jersey production site could be here in Berlin or its surroundings?”
“Because all the rolled prints that went to France or to addresses in Germany were postmarked at the post office in Budapest Street, here in Berlin!”
“I could have mailed them myself!” said Herb, and burst out laughing again. “That post office is right across the street from here,” he explained to me, a native of Berlin. I said nothing.
“Naturally, none of the postal workers can remember the person who mailed those seven prints,” Toby smiled at me.
“That would be too much to expect,” I replied briefly. “So where should I start?”
“Here in Berlin. We noticed that one of our clients, Professor Severn, who began collecting art back when East Germany still existed, has an above-average number of forged prints in his collection. He asked us to estimate the value of his collection prior to insuring it, and that’s how we found out. Evidently he didn’t used to be afraid of break-ins or art thieves, but now he is. Anyway, the news came as a shock to him. He’d used his royalties from academic publications in the West to buy Picasso prints. How he did it, and then managed to get the prints into East Germany, is a story he’ll tell you himself. He lives not far from the Nicolai Church,” said Toby, handing me Severn’s address.
We looked at each other and smiled, and then I got to my feet. I had my instructions and the file he’d given me, and that meant the meeting was over. I said goodbye, and Toby walked me to the door of the conference room and shook my hand like a good German. As the door fell shut behind me, I knew I was on my own.
“You’ll come up with the answers!” the CEO of Ars & Vita International had said. And if I had the choice between employment at a German company with five weeks of paid vacation and generous health insurance benefits and a great pension and precise instructions on how to do my job, or working for an American company without all these perks but with the single direction “You’ll come up with the answers!”, then I’d choose the American company every time.

At the Bahnhof Zoo subway station, I bought a monthly public transportation ticket for the subways, trains, and buses of Berlin. The new poverty my employer had prescribed as part of my cover ruled out any chance of my zipping around Berlin in a taxi. The situation made me glad that I had spent my school years here and knew my way around the western half of the city quite well.
A bus took me to Rathenauplatz, where I stood with my luggage in front of the only high-rise apartment house there, in which a furnished studio apartment was waiting for me. I looked up at the building. There are architects who should be punished for their designs with a minimum of a year in jail, I thought as I let myself into the lobby.
“The name’s Rudi Sperling, building super. What’s your business here?” said a voice suddenly from behind me. I turned around quickly, torn from my thoughts about grimy, unappealing high-rise apartment house lobbies in general and this one in particular. There stood a short, compact man staring at me expectantly. He had on jeans below a plaid wool shirt stretched tightly across a beer belly of generous proportions. Two bright, tiny eyes looked out at me with evident curiosity from among the folds of fat that spoke of bad eating habits.
“Lisa Wolf, I’m a new resident here. My apartment’s supposed to be on the 20th floor,” I introduced myself.
“Whaddaya mean, ‘supposed to be’? Don’t you know for sure?”
“Someone’s rented it for me. I just arrived today…”
“Are you the lady from America? From New York?”
“Yes, and maybe you can tell me which…?” Gently I jangled the keys I was holding.
“Come on, I’ll show you.” Rudi the Super went over to the elevator and stepped in, leaving me to follow him with my suitcase and my bag. “We two skinnies’ll fit in here!” he announced with a scornful look at my waistline and his belly. The elevator began to move. After a relatively long ride upward, it came to a stop and Rudi led me down a long open walkway that offered access to the individual apartments. The traffic thundered across the intersection of the Rathenauplatz twenty floors below us.
“Nice view you got,” said Rudi, and looked out at the city. “The radio tower’s bound to be all lit up at night.”
“That will hardly reduce the noise.”
Rudi took my keys and opened the door to the first apartment of my own I had ever had in the city where I was born and grew up. I stepped in hesitantly. Whatever I was expecting, it wasn’t a collection of monstrosities like this one. A double bed stood in the middle of the room. The bedspread and the curtains at the window glowed in a hideous glittery red fabric that dominated everything else. The carpet was beige; I was thankful to the previous tenant for that. There was no desk. I stepped out onto a tiny ledge that was barely entitled to call itself a balcony, and looked across the trees and allotment gardens toward the district of Wilmersdorf.
“Did this apartment by any chance belong to a prostitute?” I asked with a sweeping gesture at the bed and the other pieces of furniture, which were also all upholstered in various shades of red.
“Probly so,” said Rudi unmoved. “In a big city you never know what people get up to. And Berlin’s a big city!” he added proudly.
I thought for a minute about how to strip the room of its dubious allure. First I tore the bedspread off the bed and rolled it into a ball. “Give me a hand!” I urged the super. Rudi looked at me helplessly for a second, and then gave in. Together we turned the bed and pushed it up against the wall so its function was less obvious. Underneath a swath of shiny purplish-red material we found a small bookcase on which two small flower vases stood. I pulled off the fabric, crumpled it into a heap and pushed the bookcase up against the wall next to the head of the bed so that I had somewhere to put the fake Tiffany lamp. Then I pushed the armchair into the middle of the room, set the little tea table next to it, and the floor lamp behind it.
“Now what?” asked Rudi, puzzled. “It looks a little bare under the window.”
“I need a desk and a chair, and they’ll go under the window so I can work by daylight as much as possible.”
“You don’t look so young, you know, for a university student.” Rudi was evidently not given to empty compliments. I decided to enlighten him as to my new persona. “I work for different newspapers, writing about art exhibits, gallery openings, things that have to do with art,” I explained.
“You understand that stuff?” The skepticism in his voice was unmistakable. “You know, like when they take the rest of some dinner and nail it on the wall?”
“That doesn’t happen so much anymore,” I said cautiously, silently asking the Swiss artist Daniel Spoerri for forgiveness because I wasn’t making any effort to defend his work.
“Now, don’t try that on me! I was walking down the Kurfürstendamm, went by this gallery, there was nothin’ in the window there but pictures of Marilyn, that Marilyn Monroe. Pink pictures, purple pictures. Now I’da hung a pink picture of Marilyn on the wall allright, that was a gal! But ya know what they wanted for ‘em?” Rudi looked at me accusatorily as if I were personally responsible for the pricing policy of Andy Warhol’s prints.
“They’re nuts, those people! I told a pal ‘bout it, and he went over there with me and he saw it all too, from outside. And we were standin’ there on the sidewalk looking in the window, and the hussy that owns the place, she came out and shooed us off. And my pal says, ‘I can get you that. For a lot less money!’”
“A print like the one in that gallery?” I asked, suddenly very interested in his story.
“Sure, he’s got connections, someplace where the stuff’s a lot cheaper.”
I thought quickly. How could I find out who these ‘connections’ were without seeming to be too curious?
“Rudi, could you get me a print like that, but I mean, only if it really is cheap, because I don’t have a lot of money and I don’t make much, either.”
“You wanta Marilyn, too? A pink one?”
“No, I’d rather have the soup can. By the same artist. The can with the Campbell’s Soup. For my kitchen, it’d look great in there.”
“Oh, you’re one of them! Eats stuff out of cans, warmed up. I’ll ask my pal if he’s got any soup cans. He can ask his connections same time as he gets my Marilyn,” he said, and disappeared before I could give him a tip or ask him to help me move more furniture.

The bleakness of my new home depressed me. Had I really made the right decision accepting Tobias Hardcastle’s request to work as an undercover agent for Ars & Vita without even a whimper of protest? I thought of all the times I’d been afraid when James was investigating for the Postal Service. Even so, during all the nights when I’d lain awake worrying that something could happen to him, I never expected to lose my husband to a simple traffic accident. A bus on its way back to the bus depot, which James had presumably even seen as he stepped into the street. But what he hadn’t known was that it would turn there, because it usually didn’t. I thought about the horrible months afterward, alone in New York, surrounded by the understanding of our friends, who didn’t really understand anything. At some point I made the decision to return to Berlin. I quit my part-time job and the same day the CEO of Ars & Vita offered me a full-time job and a princely salary if I would go on working for the company in its Berlin office. In the excitement I hadn’t thought to ask what my job would be.
When the telephone rang, I was afraid it was Herb Angerich, calling to give me instructions in his boorish fashion. But then I remembered that he probably wasn’t allowed to contact me. The caller was my Aunt Marlene. “Thank God it’s you!” I rushed to say. “Where did you get my phone number?”
“Who did you think it would be? You sound as if you expected the devil himself. I never thought you were so timid. I got the phone number from a rude American at your insurance company after I threatened to go to the police and file a missing persons report on my niece. What’s going on here?”
“Could you come over? I need to talk to you. I think I’ve gotten myself into a real mess.” I gave her the address, cautioned her that my name was Wolf again and hung up before she could start asking questions. Slowly I went into the kitchen, which should have been relegated to the junk yard ages ago. I looked into the drawers and cupboards, one by one, making a list of everything I would need to buy.
The doorbell tore me from my forced activity, and I opened it to see Marlene standing there. We stared at each other. Marlene, I decided, not Aunt Marlene anymore, because in the last twenty years I’d pretty much grown up myself. She tended to be overweight just like I was – a family trait that wasn’t so easy to overcome. But Marlene looked great. She was as tall as I was and stood up straight. She was older – at least, older than my memories of her – and her hair was streaked with gray. Still long, but she wore it up. She had on a gray suit and looked like a New Yorker who’d just come from an important meeting.
“Welcome to Berlin! I was at the radio station when I called, and it’s not far from here. Just a couple of autobahn exits away! Can I come in?”
I stepped backward in the tiny foyer and let her in. She walked into the apartment. Her eyes swept across the collection of ugly furniture and turned to me. “This requires an explanation, Elisabeth!” she said, and dropped into the only armchair, which let out a loud squeak of protest.
“I need some legal advice,” I started in somewhat clumsily. “I’m still working for Ars & Vita’s New York office, as you know. And this morning I just found out what kind of work it is that they want me to do here in Berlin.”
“If it’s unacceptable, then we’ll find something else for you. But that’s no reason to move into this hole in the wall!” Marlene obviously belonged to the sort of Berliner who makes no secret of her opinions.
“Ars & Vita got me this hole in the wall. It’s part of my cover.”
“And just what is your cover? Cleaning lady?”
“A freelance journalist without much money who writes articles for various art magazines. And on the side I’m supposed to do a big research story on art forgery…”
“Aha, so that’s it. They know you know your stuff, that through James you’ve acquired an intimate familiarity with the work and the politics of the largest art forgery organization ever caught, and now they want to capitalize on that!”
“That’s about the size of it.”
Marlene leaned back in the armchair and inspected me silently for some time. “What exactly is it that James found out? And what did the Postal Service have to do with it? I’ve never really understood. I only know what I learned from a few news reports and the papers.”
“In the mid 1980s, the Postal Service began to receive complaints from customers who claimed they’d been duped by a mail-order art company that shipped modern art prints that were ordered from a catalog. James and three of his colleagues were asked to look into it.”
“But why would the Postal Service care about art forgeries? That’s just what I don’t understand.”
“Because the company used the U.S. Postal Service to ship the prints. So the first question was whether someone at the Postal Service was involved. Once the complaints had reached a certain volume – it was 1985, I think – there was a comprehensive investigation into the business habits of several art dealers and a number of galleries. Completely inofficially, of course. What they all had in common was that they ordered their merchandise from a company in New Jersey and that the items were shipped from there.
“But how could that kind of investigation be kept secret?”
“Maybe it only worked because it was the Postal Service investigating its own delivery channels, and that can be kept pretty quiet. But after many years of investigation they finally found the head of the organization, the man behind a group of galleries, wholesalers, printers and publishers who used the mail to distribute their catalogs and ship the art. And that was Leo Schnyder – and his family and their businesses. Before they could arrest him, he died, but his widow Henny immediately took over the business and carried on.”
“Wasn’t there supposed to be a branch of this business somewhere in northern Europe?”
“In December 1990, the fraud division in Göteborg, Sweden received ten official complaints of suspicion of trafficking in forged Miró prints. At the time, a genuine Miró print was worth about twenty-five thousand Deutschmark. Four of these forged prints could be traced back to a 68-year-old retired man in Göteborg, who made a number of conflicting statements the first time the police questioned him. The second time they went to see him, they found him unconscious in his apartment; he had tried to commit suicide. Later he made a statement, and it came to light that in just two years, 1989 and 1990, this man had bought nearly a hundred Miró prints from a Danish man. By selling them to both art dealers and private buyers, he’d made over a million Krona.”
Marlene stared at me, completely taken aback. “I’m beginning to understand why Ars & Vita wants you to look into this. You know everything there is to know about the problem.”
“That was James. I knew a lot about his work, even if there were things he could only tell me after the fact for reasons of security – my security, I mean.” I thought back with a certain melancholy on a time when we’d worked together intensively. On entire days I’d spent in the library at the Metropolitan Museum of Art finding out how many etchings or lithographs of a particular image had been commissioned from various artists, and when, and where.
“James’s death was less than two years ago. Could it be that this particular task is just too much for you right now?”
I considered the question. If only I knew! “It’s not just about finding out how forged prints get into circulation. When you’ve discovered that, and been able to confiscate the work, the problem just gets bigger: You have to prove they’re forgeries!”
“Can’t an expert see that right away?” In her excitement, Marlene was now perched on the edge of the armchair, staring at me intently.
“That was the thing about the Göteborg case. For example, an auditor was also involved; he had been told that his prints were from Maeght in Paris. Lots of collectors and dealers had their reputations ruined without acting unethically themselves. After all, what’s a forgery? If the print came from the original printing plate or stone, then only the numbering and signature were forged. In May 1990 the case went to court, but the case ended unexpectedly and disappointingly: the con man was released after he’d erased the signatures and numbers. No one was able to prove that the prints themselves were forged.”
“But it’s illegal to defraud a buyer, whether it’s a person or a gallery,” Marlene burst out. She had gotten up out of the armchair and was now pacing in my little apartment. There was so little room that I was in her way, so I took the vacated armchair myself.
“It’s difficult to prove intent to defraud,” I said soothingly. “The problem is bigger than just recognizing that a work is a forgery.”
“I thought that was technically possible these days.” Marlene sounded outraged, as if she were disappointed by the sheer uncertainty of things in the art world. “How could the dealer just slip through the cracks in the law?” It was clearly going to take more than one soothing remark to calm her down.
“ The problem is that these prints were presumably made from genuine printing plates. On the other hand, it’s also possible to reproduce a plate so well that you can’t tell the difference between it and a genuine plate. The court first has to determine whether a forgery in the legal sense has taken place. Lots of times, the question of whether a printing plate is genuine can’t even be answered.”
“I have the feeling that in a case like that, nearly any court would regard the question as unanswerable, just to be on the safe side!” Marlene commented dryly.
This made me laugh. “Well, the story wasn’t invented, but even so things turned out okay for the police. But first the court fell for an expert opinion that the defendant submitted. A well-known scientist attested that the prints were genuine.”
“Had the defendant bought the expert?” Marlene’s indignation was evident. She tugged at the hem of her suit jacket and began to strut around the few feet of floor in my apartment as if she were the district attorney presenting arguments in court.
“No, not the expert, but he’d bought the police officer who commissioned the opinion. The poor expert thought he was working for the police, not the forgers. And the court found itself dealing with a defendant who’d merely sold prints made from the original plates.”
“But with a forged signature and forged numbering…. And then the intent to defraud is clear and can be proven!” my aunt said conclusively.
“Signatures and numbers that the dealer then erased, don’t forget.”
“Unbelievable! What happened then?” Marlene stopped pacing and stared at me.
“The police officer from the fraud division who’d cashed in on the expert opinion was convicted. The police in Göteborg and Denmark started to keep an eye on the transports to and from an art gallery in Denmark and noticed that there was genuine art for sale in the gallery, but that other prints were stored in an empty factory and packed for shipping there. The police raided the place the next day. There is a work by Miró, for example, that had just one original edition of twenty-five numbered and signed prints. Of that work alone they confiscated 210 prints in Denmark. And what’s more – and here’s where it got interesting for us – the police discovered all of the correspondence between the Danish gallery and a company in New Jersey called MoArt Work, a company now run by one Henny Schnyder, the widow of Leo Schnyder.”
“And that’s when James went undercover?”
“Yes. The point was to use Postal Service investigators to infiltrate the company itself. There were so many open questions, the fraud network was such a labyrinth, and there were so many victims who had no idea they’d been defrauded.”
“But you got all the forgers, right?” Marlene wasn’t a very patient listener.
“For three days in 1991, the investigators simultaneously searched all the premises of all the companies and all the private residences of the Schnyder family.”
“And did James and the others find anything?”
“Oh, it was more than just the Postal Services by then. The whole thing had gotten too big for them to keep it to themselves. Besides, it was important to move quickly. The investigators confiscated 40,000 signed and unsigned Dalí prints, 20,000 Miró and 15,000 Chagall. Of just one Miró lithograph with 52 genuine prints – it was called ‘Aienle des 10000 Ages,’ – they found 586 forged prints. And there were 2000 Picasso prints from the original plates, signed in pencil.”
“What would that look like in terms of market value, I mean if all of those prints were sold?” Marlene looked flabbergasted, and I suspected that didn’t happen often.
“Oh, the list could be extended ad infinitum. 5000 Chagall bibles in addition to the 3000 Verve original editions…”
“Stop, stop! I can’t take it all in that fast. Just tell me how much money that would bring on the world market!” Marlene persisted.
“For the 75,000 prints that were confiscated, we’re talking about an estimated revenue of about 1.8 billion dollars.”
“Incredible,” said Marlene, speechless with astonishment. She pulled herself together visibly, and went on. “That’s an enormous market, the art market.”
“The market for forged and fraudulent art is enormous,” I corrected her.
“If I’ve understood you, then the fraud doesn’t really have to do with the authenticity of the prints themselves, but with the signatures.” Marlene had begun to pace again, but just having her here made the apartment seem a little less bleak. “That means that the forgers in New Jersey must have gotten hold of the original printing plates from Paris.”
“Yes, the experts can’t completely rule out the possibility that the plates found their way to the United States through underground channels instead of being destroyed in Paris after the original edition was complete.”
“But nobody knows for sure… Wasn’t anything found during those searches?”
“They only found the warehouse where the prints, more than 75,000 of them, were stored. They didn’t find anything at the printer’s.”
Marlene stood still and looked at me. “More than 75,000 prints from artists who are numbered among the world’s foremost representatives of Classic Modernism. Do you have any idea what that means? Does anyone know how many of these unauthorized prints have actually made it onto the international art market all these years without anybody noticing?”
She’d succeeded in making me nervous too, and I couldn’t sit still any longer. I started pacing myself. “Nope, no one has any idea of the amount of damage done to date. And that means, dear Marlene, that the entire legal market for graphic art is reeling, and doesn’t know what to think or do, or whom to trust. Some of that market was even destroyed. It means that there are more than a hundred times as many prints in circulation from artists like Picasso, Chagall and Miró than were originally commissioned. Even the most established and well-known dealers have had to go through their entire inventories and have the authenticity of all the signatures checked and throw everything away that the auditors rejected.”
“That’s madness!” Marlene shook her head and sank down into the armchair, now that I had vacated it. It gave another indignant squeak. “You need a new armchair,” she said, lost in thought.
“The customers who’d been defrauded by those dealers had another problem to deal with beyond the loss of their money.” I went over to my one large window and looked out over the allotment gardens to the part of town where I’d grown up: Wilmersdorf.
“You mean the scorn of all their rivals in the art collecting community?” said Marlene quietly, as if considering every word.
“That too. But I was thinking of the investigation by the tax authorities who’d confiscated the lists of buyers. Because they assumed that a lot of the wealthy people who’d invested in these art works had only bought them to make sure the money was hanging on their walls at tax time and not sitting in their bank accounts.”
“But that’s…” Marlene’s supply of expressions of outrage had run dry. “I’d never have thought of that. But how do you build up that kind of supply network? First you’d have to know whom you could trust when you’re doing business on that scale!”
I turned away from the window. “If it weren’t so pathetic, I’d even have to laugh…” My voice must have sounded bitter, because Marlene looked up at me, surprised. “Two or three of the leaders of the group that took over the distribution of the forgeries in northern Europe belonged to the same Mormon congregation.”
Marlene burst out laughing. It took a while before she stopped, and then she said, “That’s so good you could have made it up!” Then her face became serious. “Do you even feel up to the job? Will it be too much for you?”
“Maybe so. I haven’t even had a chance to think about it. I’m more worried at the moment about how I’ll be able to stand this hole in the wall. You never saw our apartment in New York. It was wonderful. It even had a rooftop terrace!”
“Don’t worry, this is one problem we can fix.” Marlene stood up and looked around for a measuring tape. When she couldn’t find one, she took a piece of twine, made two knots at a distance of about two meters, and began to wander through the room, calling out the number of two-meter lengths of various items. I took her newspaper and started scribbling numbers in the margins at her direction. Curtains? One and a quarter. Bedspread? One and a half by three quarters. We kept at it until the margin of the newspaper was full. “Lisa Wolf… you’re using your maiden name. And that means you can be with your family. Come to Potsdam with me. You can have dinner with us, and then we’ll take a look in the garage and see what’s left from the curtains and sheets and furniture from our house in Freiburg that you can use here.”
The opportunity to get out of that apartment was too tempting to pass up. Since rush-hour was well underway, Marlene parked her Volkswagen Polo in my space in the apartment building’s garage and we set off for the Halensee commuter train station on foot.
It was a wonderful evening. “Well, I have to make sure my niece is settling in nicely,” commented Marlene smugly. And if her husband Andreas found it strange that I was using my maiden name again, he didn’t ask any dumb questions. Even Wolfgang, one of their sons, promised to help: “I’ve got an old laptop and printer you can have.” And their youngest, Jonas, who I didn’t even know existed until that day, had lots of questions for me about life in New York.
After dinner we went out to the garage and poked around. We found a desk, two chairs, an armchair, various curtains in an eggshell color that might or might not work, and a light-colored patchwork bedspread. Wolfgang offered to organize a pick-up and transport all of it to my apartment.
Since it had grown late, Marlene suggested I spend the night there. Gerhard, their oldest, was in Freiburg at the university and I could have his room. Andreas seconded the invitation and commented that my presence offered him the opportunity of finally learning something about Marlene’s horrible past.
“I’m afraid I was too small then,” I said regretfully, “and by the time I went to high school, Marlene was already in Freiburg.” But I was allowed to stay anyway, and we spent that cold, snowy February evening sitting in front of their tiled wood stove, playing cards. Gradually the knot of tension inside me began to loosen. Marlene’s family gave me the feeling that I wasn’t quite as alone as I felt.
Much later that evening, I asked about my father.
“The police took him into custody last night. It had gotten too dangerous for him,” said Jonas with a satisfied tone in his voice, as if it was one of the privileges of a good family to have at least one of its members incarcerated.
“What do you mean, dangerous?” My father had a nightmarish way of tying my soul in knots. I had a constantly guilty conscience because I had never spent much time looking after him.
“It had snowed and the temperature was below freezing and your father insisted on painting a side street over in Prenzlauer Berg. He needed water for the paint. But for reasons of safety it is forbidden in February to hose down the roadway.” Marlene had said all this with such a serious expression that I looked at her closely. What was it like to be the sister of such a man?
“Did the police call you?”
“I’ve got good connections to some of the officers over in the precinct where Friedrich lives. They called me and we agreed it’d be enough to escort him home and confiscate his paints for a couple of days. I don’t want the thing blown all out of proportion and I don’t want Friedrich sent for psychiatric evaluation. He’s right to want to draw attention to our misuse of the environment.”
“It’s just that his approach bothers some people,” said Andreas. “Society isn’t willing anymore to put up with a lot of eccentrics in its midst.”
A wave of guilt washed over me again, and I decided immediately to go see my father the next day.
It was almost midnight by the time I was alone in the living room with Marlene. “There was something else bothering you when I called,” she said. “On the phone you said you wanted to ask me something.”
“Yes. You studied law. You can tell me: First of all, how does German law regard undercover work? Will I liable to prosecution if it comes out that I did undercover research for Ars & Vita? At what point would something I did or said land me in jail?”
Marlene thought a minute, her gaze resting critically on my face as if she were asking herself how much of the truth I could take. “Evidence would certainly be examined to see whether it constituted an element of an offense. If you have to commit a punishable offense in the course of any investigations for Ars & Vita, the law would first of all clarify the question of guilt. And then it would deal with the issue of whether self-defense or other reasons could be brought to bear on your actions. If that’s the case, those reasons would have an effect on your sentence or even result in the charges being dismissed altogether.”
“That sounds horribly complicated.” I leaned back in the chair, worn out from trying to follow her explanation. “So I’m about to let myself in for a situation in which I might be punishable by law.”
“Germany’s system is criminal law based on personal guilt,” Marlene continued. “It’s highly likely that you’ll find yourself in situations now and then in which you have no choice but to go along with things that could be legally precarious. You have to get your employer to cover you – that is, Ars & Vita should pay for the costs of defending you if you maneuver yourself into a delicate corner.”
“Could I retain you as legal advisor for the moment?” Inwardly I steeled myself, expecting her to turn me down, this upright wife and mother of four sons. What I hadn’t counted on was her enthusiastic answer: “Of course you can, Elisabeth! There’s no question about it. I’d be so happy to help!” And then she responded to my startled look by laughing, and said she’d tell me some other time about her adventures. I breathed a sigh of relief and we spend the next half hour making plans that would help me turn my studio apartment into something remotely livable and deciding what I still needed to buy.

I made myself comfortable in Gerhard’s room, wearing a spare nightgown of Marlene’s, my hair still wet from the shower. I lay on the bed and played with the remote control belonging to Gerhard’s TV. There was no television in the living room in this house, but the children’s bedrooms all held small sets; apparently everyone here got to watch the programs he or she wanted to see without disturbing the rest of the family in the process.
While I toyed with the remote, I considered the pros and cons of an undercover assignment. Con: it could be dangerous. Even if I used my maiden name, I wouldn’t be able to eliminate the risk of encountering old friends or acquaintances from New York at various art events. No one would suspect anything with regard to my work as an art critic, although my maiden name might encounter some skepticism, since I was widowed and not divorced. But would they believe my alleged lack of money? I thought of James’s parents, who lived in Charlottesville, Virginia. Without batting an eye, after his death they named me in their will as the heir of all the assets that would have been his, had he survived them. I thought of those first weeks after I’d taken his body back to Charlottesville to be buried, when I’d lived with them, going for long walks with my old dog during the day and talking to my mother-in-law well into the night.
Con: I’d probably have to do something illegal. I wouldn’t be able to pursue this investigation very far without having to buy something I believed was forged or fraudulently represented. There were probably worse things I’d have to do, but I didn’t have the energy right now to imagine what they would be.
There was only one pro so far, only one reason to take this assignment: I wanted to. I didn’t feel flattered because Ars & Vita thought I could handle it, or proud that I was the one they had approached, and I wasn’t even after the bonus they’d offered me. I knew that in addition to my academic knowledge of art history I also had a pretty fair understanding of the art business. I knew the people in it, their neuroses, their weaknesses, their vanity. And that’s why I trusted myself to tackle the job, to dive back into the art world here, in Berlin, my hometown. At least I thought I had to try.
My ruminations were interrupted by a loud lustful groan, and I looked, startled, at the television screen. My fingers had been busy with the remote without my paying attention to the channels they’d tuned in. What I saw here, at two in the morning, would have cost most television stations in the U.S. their broadcasting licenses! With a detached sort of interest I watched the two bodies engage in supposedly passionate copulation. Then the man turned to face the camera, it zoomed in close-up on the part of him that appeared to matter most, anatomically speaking, and a very explicit maneuver finished off the scene. It looked fake to me, and made me wonder whether we weren’t increasingly living in a society in which mere watching, keyhole-peeping, was replacing authentic experience. I was neither particularly sheltered from the world nor moralistically inclined, but what I’d just seen on TV – and not even a pay channel – was something I would only have expected to encounter in the peep shows littering the red light district.
I crawled into bed. How much had this city changed in the more than twenty years I’d been gone? What other signs of mental poverty could I expect to encounter? Or did I just see it all more clearly now?

At the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church I got into a number 100 bus headed downtown. I even found an empty seat, because it was noon and all the tourists who usually frequented this bus route, which ran past many of Berlin’s most famous sights, were probably at lunch. I got out at the Alexanderplatz, the heart of the former East Berlin, and walked slowly in the direction of the Nicolai Church. Everything had changed so much! I’d been here once in 1975, before the wall came down, at the invitation of my father. He’d taken me to dinner at a very exclusive restaurant in the Alexanderplatz television tower.
That was a very bad time for him, I recalled. As an artist he had refused to play the role that the government expected of him, and had lost his job as an art teacher at the Gymnasium, the college-prep high school. He had been sent to work in a factory somewhere. He never told me what he did there.
To him I must have represented the incarnation of a decadent capitalist system. I was a student at the American School in West Berlin’s Zehlendorf district, an institution populated by the offspring of diplomats and the children of American citizens. I’d been admitted because my mother had taught me English secretly when I was small. Even so, it wasn’t my skills in English that had gotten me in, it was literally the luck of the draw – a lottery intended to fill the remaining empty seats.
For a long time, I felt bound to the school and its dress code. I arrived for that visit with my father dressed in jeans, a plaid shirt and new suede Clarks. Thrown over my shoulders was a sweatshirt, carefully draped so that the words New York University were legible. I was so proud of those clothes! I had put them on to look especially nice for the visit. My best friend Ann had given me the sweatshirt for my birthday.
My father came in one of those badly cut gray suits of East German vintage. In contrast to his usual style, he had on a white shirt and tie. Today it’s clear to me that he must have been horrified – or at least very disconcerted – by my clothes. “Don’t you have a white blouse?” he had asked. “Should I go buy you one in that store over there?”
I had reacted very strongly. I didn’t want a white blouse from East Germany, one made of that horrible synthetic fabric we’d heard about in the West. “I have lots of white blouses, all of them pure cotton,” I answered abruptly. He nodded sadly, and then we’d gone to the revolving restaurant high atop the television tower and “stuffed ourselves.”
Unfortunately, after that opulent meal he couldn’t even show me the things I wanted to see most. We could visit neither Schinkel’s Friederichswerder Church nor the Nicolai Church, because they were closed when we got around to sightseeing. The cathedral was fenced off with a board fence and the French Church at the Gendarmenmarkt was no better; I could tell from several hundred yards away that there was no point in trying to take a closer look. Disappointed, I had turned around and headed toward the Friedrichstrasse train station and its border crossing back into West Berlin.
My father had trotted alongside me, holding my hand. In a very sad voice, he’d said, “I had no idea you were so religious.”
“Religious? I’m not religious!”
“Well then, why do you want to see all these churches?”
We’d stared at each other, desperately trying to understand one another, at least for this one afternoon, and then I burst out laughing. “I want to be an architect or maybe study art history,” I said. “Buildings interest me. A church or an autobahn bridge, or a really great skyscraper like the television tower at the Alexanderplatz today. A synagogue, too, when a well-known architect built it. Or a vaulted Roman cellar, anything…”
My father roared with laughter until he had to hold his sides. “You gotta tell your old dad that! I can’t read your mind!” he said, and we were still laughing when we said goodbye. As I hugged him, relieved that the misunderstanding hadn’t ruined our afternoon, he whispered in my ear, “I’m glad you’re ‘over there’! Your mother did the right thing back then, the two of you got out through Hungary just in time!”
Two weeks later, he sent me a coffee-table book with photos of the architectural masterworks of East Germany, and I thanked him for it in a long and tender letter. For me it was a sign that my father understood me. For a long time, I sent him newspaper clippings and articles on ‘western’ art, but only a few of them made it past the censors, and my mother finally forbid it because she was worried that my letters could get him into trouble with the authorities.
Today the Nicolai Church was open. I made a mental note to take a Sunday morning and visit all the churches in the Berlin Mitte district, and walked quickly onward toward the Nicolai Quarter, where I was due to meet Professor Johann Jakob Severn at 1:00. I found him in a little café on the Landwehr canal. The few steps up to the entrance took the visitor into another world. The building was a villa built in the style of Classicism, almost a palace, now made into a coffeehouse with vintage furniture. The individual rooms were small and could hold only three or four tables each. Professor Severn had chosen our meeting place not just with impeccable taste, but also foresight: evidently very few residents of Berlin and even fewer tourists knew of it, because it was nearly empty. An elderly white-haired man in a dark gray flannel suit sat in a window embrasure in one of the rooms. He was all by himself, and the waitress nearly tried to stop my approaching him.
The man had risen and was on the verge of coming toward me, but he stopped and waited. When I said “Professor Severn, I assume?” he came toward me. The waitress vanished wordlessly. He shook my hand and guided me to the table. “Lisa Wolf, I assume?” His eyes were old and tired, but he smiled at me, and I was charmed by this elderly man, by the old-fashioned way he helped me out of my lambskin coat and hung it over the back of a chair at a neighboring table. He remained standing behind my chair until I was seated, and only then sat down across from me. The waitress reappeared, and he asked me what I would like. I, a mature, emancipated and self-assured American from New York, was being asked by a man what she would like to drink so that he could order it for her! I wouldn’t have let any other man get away with that, but I looked steadily back at Professor Severn and answered, “A small pot of coffee with warm milk rather than cream, please!”
The professor repeated my order and the young woman with the little lace apron disappeared. “And so we meet in the wilderness of Berlin,” he said. “You’re investigating a nasty fraud, and I’m only too happy to help. I hope you don’t expect too much of me, however. I’m an old man, and in many respects a very disappointed one.”
“But you’ve done something remarkable and rare for a man in your position as an art collector. You have let it be known that many of the works of graphic art in your collection are forged. You haven’t simply tried to get rid of them by quietly selling them off individually through small galleries and doubtful dealers.”
“That would have been dishonest! Thanks to Ars & Vita’s expertise I knew they were forgeries. Under the circumstances I couldn’t simply behave as if…” His voice had grown louder with indignation.

Sample II, p. 45-46 (the next morning, Elisabeth’s apartment)
The telephone rang. I picked up the receiver and said dutifully “Hello. This is Lisa Wolf,” even if it took some doing after twenty years to announce myself with my maiden name.
“Wolfi, you sweet and delicious little Wolfi, oh talk dirty to me, why don’t you, I’ve just gotta get my rocks off!”
I stood there speechless with the phone in my hand. I must have waited a second too long, because the man’s voice went on, whispering urgently, greedily, “My darling little wolf, tell me, what would it be like if you threw yourself on me and bit me in the balls?”
“What do I care how it’d be? If you want to know, you’ll just have to do it yourself!” I said, outraged, and banged down the receiver. Clearly I had succeeded in getting rid of the previous tenant’s bordello trappings and turning the place into a ‘student dive’, as my cousin called it, but the phone was somehow still connected with whatever ‘190’ switchboard routed calls from the world’s telephone sex customers.
I found the telephone company’s number and called their customer service office. These people had doubtless heard some curious stories in their time. The phone was answered by a friendly voice who asked me what my problem was in a tone that suggested she actually wanted to hear the answer. I explained the situation to her, and in a cool and businesslike voice she asked me for my telephone number even though she must have had it on her display. Then she repeated everything I’d told her as if she was making sure that this really was the case, confirmed the record of my complaint, and promised to be in touch.
I sat down and began to plan my investigation. The first thing was to arrange a meeting with the man who’d been responsible back then for acquiring the prints in the West on behalf of Professor Severn and had brought them into East Germany. I had the name and address of one Hans Sauer, also known under the pseudonym Bodo Scheußlich. ‘Scheußlich’ meant ‘disgusting’; that intrigued me. I had never heard of him, even if Professor Severn assured me that the man was one of the greatest recognized artists of East Germany. He’d known how to exploit his fame, and that had included acquiring art in the West for East Germany and its bigwigs.
“Despised, decadent western art?” I’d asked.
“Think of Picasso, his art, his personal biography,” Professor Severn had replied. “Think of Guernica, which is hanging in Madrid. Think of the Dove of Peace. Picasso was always persona grata for East Germany’s national art and its representatives.”
I’d never considered Picasso’s flirt with communism. As an art historian, I had looked at a lot of things from the vantage point of style – probably one-sidely so. The professor was right.
“So if I wrote on my request that I needed this print or that one by Picasso because, let’s say, the tortured minotaur symbolized for me the suffering of the Spanish population during the Spanish Civil War, then it was like taking candy from a baby to get it approved,” he’d said, and we’d laughed at the many small tricks used by the people of East Germany to outwit its government. “And then this request was forwarded to Hans Sauer,” he went on, “who tried to find the print during one of his jaunts to the West.”
And that’s where I needed to start. It seemed likely that one or the other of the galleries or art dealers still had forged or fraudulent prints from Classic Modernism in their inventories.
I dialed Hans Sauer’s number. After two rings, a deep, attractive male voice answered: “You’ve reached Bodo Scheußlich’s art studio. I’m not home right now. Leave a message or go take a flying leap.” I left my name, telephone number, and the name of the newspaper that had ‘commissioned’ the story. No more than that. I found it remarkable that he’d only answered using his pseudonym. Maybe because I’d called his studio. Did he live somewhere else using his real name?
I had barely hung up when the phone rang again. It was the friendly person from the telephone company, letting me know that she had checked the connection. There was no evidence that a number with the ‘190’ prefix for telephone sex was connected to my telephone. Presumably it was an isolated incident, and one for which she greatly apologized. Her apology actually sounded sincere, and I thanked her and hung up.
Promptly the phone rang again. “Oh my sweet, darling wolf, you know very well I can’t bite myself in the balls. Oh please, please tell me a story, a wonderful, disgusting story. You can do anything with me, anything, I’m already so incredibly horny…” came the voice through the receiver. I hung up the phone immediately; I was afraid if I said something nasty into the mouthpiece I would only encourage the erotomaniac on the other end to keep calling. An isolated incident? How do you get rid of an isolated incident? But when the telephone rang a third time, I couldn’t help myself. I picked up the receiver and yelled my latest suggestion: “Go fuck yourself in the knee!” And before I could hang up, the deep and attractive voice I had just heard on Bodo Scheußlich’s answering machine replied: “Well I’ve often tried, but I’ve never managed it. My dick’s just too short!”

© Jutta Motz

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