He is looking directly at her. She can feel him waiting for her to acknowledge him, some sign. Under the desk, she grips her knees, digging her fingernails into the skin to give her something to focus on.
‘Nobody wants to take something that legitimately belongs to someone else. And that is not what we’re about. But the fact exists that, way back during wartime, a wrong was done. A painting, The Girl You Left Behind, by Édouard Lefèvre, owned and loved by his wife, was taken and passed into German possession.’
‘You don’t know that,’ she says.
‘Liv.’ Henry’s voice contains a warning.
‘We have obtained documentary evidence, a diary owned by a neighbour of Madame Lefèvre, that suggests a portrait of the artist’s wife was stolen or obtained coercively by a German Kommandant living in the area at the time. Now, this case is unusual in that most of the work we do is based on losses suffered in the Second World War, and we believe the initial theft took place during the First World War. But the Hague Convention still applies.’
‘So why now?’ she says. ‘Nearly a hundred years after you say it was stolen. Convenient that Monsieur Lefèvre just happens to be worth a whole lot more money now, wouldn’t you say?’
‘The value is immaterial.’
‘Fine. if the value is immaterial, I’ll compensate you. Right now. You want me to give you what we paid for it? Because I still have the receipt. Will you take that amount and leave me alone?’
The room falls silent.
Henry reaches across and touches her arm. Her knuckles are white where they clutch her pen. ‘If I may interject,’ he says smoothly. ‘The purpose of this meeting is to offer a number of solutions to the issue, and see whether any of them may be acceptable.’
Janey Dickinson exchanges a few whispered words with André Lefèvre. She wears the studied calm of the primary-school teacher. ‘I have to say here that as far as the Lefèvre family are concerned, the only thing that would be acceptable is the return of their painting,’ she says.
‘Except it’s not their painting,’ says Liv.
‘Under the Hague Convention it is,’ she says calmly.
‘It’s the law.’
Liv glances up and Paul is staring at her. His expression doesn’t change, but in his eyes there is the hint of an apology. For what? This yelling across a varnished mahogany table? A stolen night? A stolen painting? She is not sure. Don’t look at me, she tells him silently.
‘Perhaps …’ Sean Flaherty says. ‘Perhaps, as Henry says, we could at least outline some of the possible solutions.’
‘Oh, you can outline them,’ says Liv.
‘There are a number of precedents in such cases. One is that Mrs Halston is free to extinguish the claim. This means, Mrs Halston, that you would pay the Lefèvre family the value of the painting and retain it.’
Janey Dickinson doesn’t look up from her pad. ‘As I have already stated, the family is not interested in money. They want the painting.’
‘Oh, right,’ says Liv. ‘You think I’ve never negotiated anything before? That I don’t know an opening salvo?’
‘Liv,’ Henry says again, ‘if we could …’
‘I know what’s going on here. “Oh, no, we don’t want money.” Until we reach a figure that equals a lottery win. Then, somehow, everyone manages to get over their hurt feelings.’
‘Liv …’ Henry says, quietly.
She lets out a breath. Under the table her hands are shaking.
‘There are occasions on which an agreement has been reached to share the painting. In the case of what we call indivisible assets, such as this, it is, admittedly, complicated. But there have been cases where parties have agreed to, if you like, timeshare a work of art, or have agreed that they will own it jointly but allow it to be shown in a major gallery. This would, of course, be accompanied by notices informing visitors both of its looted past and the generosity of its previous owners.’
Liv shakes her head mutely.
‘There is the possibility of sale and division, where we –’
‘No,’ say Liv and Lefèvre in unison.
‘Mrs Halston,’ she says.
‘Mrs Halston.’ Paul’s tone has hardened. ‘I am obliged to inform you that our case is very strong. We have a good deal of evidence supporting restitution, and a body of precedent that lends weight to our cause. In your own interests, I suggest you think quite carefully about the issue of settlement.’
The room falls silent. ‘Is that meant to frighten me?’ Liv asks.
‘No,’ he says slowly. ‘But it is, I would remind you, in everyone’s best interests for this to be settled amicably. It’s not going to go away. I – we are not going to go away.’
She sees him suddenly, his arm slung across her naked waist, his mop of brown hair resting against her left breast. She sees his eyes, smiling, in the half-light.
She lifts her chin a little. ‘She’s not yours to take,’ she says. ‘I’ll see you in court.’
They are in Henry’s office. She has drunk a large whisky. She has never in her life drunk whisky in daytime, but Henry has poured her one, as if it is totally expected. He waits a few minutes as she takes a couple of sips.
‘I should warn you, it will be an expensive case,’ he says, leaning back in his chair.
‘Well, in many cases the artwork has had to be sold after the case simply to pay the legal fees. There was a claimant in Connecticut recently who recovered stolen works worth twenty-two million dollars. But they owed more than ten million in legal fees to one lawyer alone. We will need to pay experts, especially French legal experts, given the painting’s history. And these cases can drag on, Liv.’
‘But they have to pay our costs if we win, yes?’
She digests this. ‘Well, what are we talking – five figures?’
‘I would bank on six. It depends on their firepower. But they do have precedent on their side.’ Henry shrugs. ‘We can prove that you have good title. But there do seem to be gaps in this painting’s history, as it stands, and if they have evidence that it was removed in wartime, then …’
‘Six figures?’ she says, standing and pacing around the room. ‘I can’t believe this. I can’t believe someone can just walk into my life and demand to take something that belongs to me. Something I’ve owned for ever.’
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