‘I remember the painting clearly.’ The old man lifts a hand.
‘I know. And you know that the gallery in question was very reluctant to engage with us, despite the holes in their own provenance. This case was complicated by the sharp increase in value of the work in question. And it was particularly hard, given that you had no image we could go on.’
‘How am I meant to describe such a drawing perfectly? I was ten when we were forced from our house – ten years old. Could you tell me what was on your parents’ walls when you were ten?’
‘No, Mr Nowicki, I couldn’t.’
‘Were we meant to know then we would never be allowed to go back to our own home? It is ridiculous, this system. Why should I have to prove that something was stolen from us? After all we have been through …’
‘Dad, we’ve been over this …’ The son, Jason, places a hand on his father’s forearm, and the old man’s lips press together reluctantly, as if he is used to being quelled.
‘This is what I wanted to talk to you about,’ Paul says. ‘I did warn you that we didn’t have the strongest case. When we had our meeting in January, you said something to me about your mother’s friendship with a neighbour, Artur Bohmann, who moved to America.’
‘Yes. They were good neighbours. I know he had seen the painting in our house. He visited us many times. I played ball with his daughter … but he died. I told you he died.’
‘Well, I managed to track down his surviving family, in Des Moines. And his granddaughter, Anne-Marie, went through the family albums and tucked away in one of them she found this.’ Paul pulls a sheet of paper from his folder and slides it across the desk to Mr Nowicki.
It is not a perfect copy, but the black-and-white image is clearly visible. A family sits in the stiff embrace of a tightly upholstered sofa. A woman smiles cautiously, holding a button-eyed baby firmly on her lap. A man with a vast moustache reclines, his arm running along the back. A boy grins broadly, a missing tooth clearly visible. Behind them, on the wall, hangs a painting of a young girl dancing.
‘That’s it,’ Mr Nowicki says quietly, an arthritic hand rising to his mouth. ‘The Degas.’
‘I checked it against the image bank, then with the Edgar Degas Foundation. I sent this picture to their lawyers, along with a statement from Artur Bohmann’s daughter, saying that she, too, remembered seeing this painting in your parents’ house, and hearing your father discuss how he bought it.’
He pauses. ‘But that’s not all Anne-Marie remembers. She says that after your parents fled, Artur Bohmann had gone one night to the apartment to try to collect your family’s remaining valuables. He told his wife, Anne-Marie’s grandmother, that when he arrived he believed he’d got there in time as the apartment seemed undisturbed. It was only as he was leaving that he saw the painting was missing.
‘She says that because nothing else was disturbed he had always assumed your family had taken it with them. And then, of course, because you only corresponded with each other some years later, the matter never arose.’
‘No,’ the old man says, staring at the image. ‘No. We had nothing. Just my mother’s wedding and engagement rings.’ His eyes fill with tears.
‘It is possible that the Nazis had earmarked the painting. There is evidence of systematic removal of important works of art during the Nazi period.’
‘It was Mr Dreschler. He told them. I always knew he told them. And he called my father his friend!’ His hands tremble on his knees. It is not an unusual response, despite the more than sixty years that have elapsed. Many of the claimants Paul sees can recall images and events from the 1940s far more clearly than they can remember how they arrived at his office.
‘Yes, well, we’ve looked into Mr Dreschler’s records, and there are a number of unexplained trades with the Germans – one that refers simply to a Degas. It’s not clear which Degas but the dates and the fact that there can’t have been many in your area at the time does add weight to your argument.’
He turns slowly to face his son. You see? his expression says.
‘Well, Mr Nowicki, last night I had a response from the gallery. Do you want me to read it?’
‘Dear Mr McCafferty,
In light of the new evidence provided, and our own gaps in provenance, as well as our discovery of the extent of the suffering endured by Mr Nowicki’s family, we have decided not to contest the claim for “Femme, dansant” by Degas. The trustees of the gallery have instructed their lawyers not to proceed further, and we await your instructions with regards the transfer of the physical item.’
The old man seems lost in thought. Finally he looks up. ‘They are giving it back?’
He nods. He cannot keep the smile from his face. It has been a long and testing case, and its resolution has been gratifyingly swift.
‘They are really giving it back to us? They agree that it was stolen from us?’
‘You have only to let them know where you want it sent.’
There is a long silence. Jason Nowicki tears his gaze from his father. He lifts the heels of his hands and wipes tears from his eyes.
‘I’m sorry,’ he says. ‘I don’t know why …’
‘It’s not unusual.’ Paul pulls a box of tissues from under his desk and hands it to him. ‘These cases are always emotional. It’s never just a painting.’
‘It’s been such a long time coming. The loss of that Degas has been like a constant reminder of what my father, my grandparents suffered in the war. And I wasn’t sure you …’ He blows out his cheeks. ‘It’s amazing. Tracking down that man’s family. They said you were good, but –’
Paul shakes his head. ‘Just doing my job.’
He and Jason look at the old man, who is still staring at the image of the painting. He seems to have diminished in size, as if the weight of the events of several decades ago have come crushing down on him. The same thought seems to cross both their minds at once.
‘Are you okay, Dad?’
He straightens a little, as if only just remembering that they are there. His hand is resting on the photograph.
Paul sits back in his chair, his pen a bridge between his hands. ‘So. Returning the painting. I can recommend a specialist art-transport company. You need a vehicle that is high security, climate controlled and has air-ride suspension. And I would also suggest you insure it before it comes to you. I don’t need to tell you that a painting such as this is –’
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