But he had refused. They had stood there on the pavement, engaged in a bizarre reverse haggling, David insisting on giving her more money than she was comfortable with. Finally, as Liv continued to sort through a rail of clothes, she turned to see them shaking on a price.
‘I would gladly have let you have it,’ she said, as David counted out the notes. ‘To tell you the truth, I never much liked that painting. When I was a kid I used to think she was mocking me. She always seemed a little snooty.’
They had left her at dusk with his mobile number, the pavement clear in front of the empty apartment, Marianne Johnson gathering her belongings to go back to her hotel. They had walked away in the thick heat, him beaming as if he had acquired some great treasure, holding the painting as reverently as he would hold Liv later that evening. ‘This should be your wedding present,’ he had said. ‘Seeing as I never gave you anything.’
‘I thought you didn’t want anything interrupting the clean lines of your walls,’ she had teased.
They had stopped in the busy street, and held it up to view it again. She remembers the taut, sunburned skin at the back of her neck, the fine dusty sheen on her arms. The hot Barcelona streets, the afternoon sun reflected in his eyes. ‘I think we can break the rules for something we love.’
‘So you and David bought that painting in good faith, yes?’ says Kristen. She pauses to swat the hand of a teenager scrabbling among the contents of the fridge. ‘No. No chocolate mousse. You won’t eat supper.’
‘Yes. I even managed to dig out the receipt.’ She had it in her handbag: a piece of tattered paper, torn from the back of a journal. Received with thanks for portrait, poss called The Girl You Left Behind. 300 francs – Marianne Baker (Ms).
‘So it’s yours. You bought it, you have the receipt. Surely that’s the end of it. Tasmin? Will you tell George it’s supper in ten minutes?’
‘You’d think. And the woman we got it from said her mother’d had it for half a century. She wasn’t even going to sell it to us – she was going to give it to us. David insisted on paying her.’
‘Well, the whole thing is frankly ridiculous.’ Kristen stops mixing the salad and throws up her hands. ‘I mean, where does it end? If you bought a house and someone stole the land in the land grabs of the Middle Ages, does that mean some day someone’s going to claim your house back too? Do we have to give back my diamond ring because it might have been taken from the wrong bit of Africa? It was the First World War, for goodness’ sake. Nearly a hundred years ago. The legal system is going too far.’
Liv sits back in her chair. She had called Sven that afternoon, trembling with shock, and he had told her to come over that evening. He had been reassuringly calm when she had told him about the letter, had actually shrugged as he read it. ‘It’s probably a new variation on the ambulance-chasing thing. It all sounds very unlikely. I’ll check it out – but I wouldn’t worry. You’ve got a receipt, you bought it legally, so I’m guessing there’s no way this could stand up in a court of law.’
Kristen deposits the bowl of salad on the table. ‘Who is this artist anyway? Do you like olives?’
‘His name is Édouard Lefèvre, apparently. But it’s not signed. And yes. Thank you.’
‘I meant to tell you … after the last time we spoke.’ Kristen looks up at her daughter, shepherds her towards the door. ‘Go on, Tasmin. I need some mummy time.’
Liv waits as, with a disgruntled backwards look, Tasmin slopes out of the room. ‘It’s Rog.’
‘I have bad news.’ She winces, leans forward over the table. Takes a deep, theatrical breath. ‘I wanted to tell you last week but I couldn’t work out what to say. You see, he did think you were terribly nice, but I’m afraid you’re not … well … he says you’re not his type.’
‘He really wants someone … younger. I’m so sorry. I just thought you should know the truth. I couldn’t bear the idea of you sitting there waiting for him to call.’
Liv is trying to straighten her face when Sven enters the room. He is holding a page of scribbled notes. ‘I just got off the phone with a friend of mine at Sotheby’s. So … the bad news is that TARP is a well-respected organization. They trace works that have been stolen, but increasingly they’re doing the tougher stuff, works that disappeared during wartime. They’ve returned some quite high-profile pieces in the last few years, some from national collections. It appears to be a growth area.’
‘But The Girl isn’t a high-profile work of art. She’s just a little oil painting we picked up on our honeymoon.’
‘Well … that’s true to an extent. Liv, did you look up this Lefèvre chap after you got the letter?’
It was the first thing she had done. A minor member of the Impressionist school at the turn of the last century. There was one sepia-tinted photograph of a big man with dark brown eyes and hair that reached down to his collar. Worked briefly under Matisse.
‘I’m starting to understand why his work – if it is his work – might be the subject of a restitution request.’
‘Go on.’ Liv pops an olive into her mouth. Kristen stands beside her, dishcloth in hand.
‘I didn’t tell him about the claim, obviously, and he can’t value it without seeing it, but on the basis of the last sale they held for Lefèvre, and its provenance, they reckon it could easily be worth between two and three million pounds.’
‘What?’ she says weakly.
‘Yes. David’s little wedding gift has turned out to be a rather good investment. Two million pounds minimum were his exact words. In fact, he recommended you get an insurance valuation done immediately. Apparently our Lefèvre has become quite the man in the art market. The Russians have a thing for him and it’s pushed prices sky high.’
She swallows the olive whole and begins to choke. Kristen thumps her on the back and pours her a glass of water. She sips it, hearing his words going round in her head. They don’t seem to make any sense.
‘So, I suppose it should actually come as no great surprise that there are people suddenly coming out of the woodwork to try to get a piece of the action. I asked Shirley at the office to dig out a few case studies and email them over – these claimants, they dig around a little in the family history, claim the painting, saying it was so precious to their grandparents, how heartbroken they were to lose it … Then they get it back, and what do you know?’
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