As her foot meets the pavement, the air is filled with blinding flashes. She is briefly paralysed. Then Henry’s arm is propelling her forward, past the jostling men’s elbows, her own name shouted in her ear. Someone thrusts a piece of paper into her free hand and she can hear Henry’s voice, the faint tone of panic as the crowd seems to close around her. She is surrounded by a jumble of jackets, and the dark, fathomless reflection of huge lenses. ‘Stand back, everybody, please. Stand back.’ She glimpses the flash of brass on a policeman’s uniform, shuts her eyes and feels herself shoved sideways, Henry’s grip tightening on her arm.
Then they are in the silent courts, heading through Security, and she is on the other side, blinking at him in shock.
‘What the hell was that?’ She is breathing hard.
Henry smoothes his hair, and turns to peer out through the doors. ‘The newspapers. I’m afraid the case seems to have attracted an awful lot of attention.’
She straightens her jacket, then looks round, just in time to see Paul striding in through the Security. He is wearing a pale blue shirt and dark trousers and looks utterly unruffled. Nobody has bothered him. As their eyes meet she gives him a look of mute fury. His stride slows, just a fraction, but his expression does not alter. He glances behind him, his papers tucked under his arm, and continues in the direction of Court Two.
It is then that she sees the piece of paper in her hand. She unfolds it carefully.
The possession of that which the Germans took is a CRIME. End the suffering of the Jewish people. Return what is rightfully theirs. Bring justice before it is TOO LATE.
‘What’s that?’ Henry peers over her shoulder.
‘Why did they give me this? The claimants aren’t even Jewish!’ she exclaims.
‘I did warn you that wartime looting is a very inflammatory subject. I’m afraid you may find all sorts of interest groups latching on to it, whether they’re directly affected or not.’
‘But this is ridiculous. We didn’t steal the damn painting. It’s been ours for over a decade!’
‘Come on, Liv. Let’s head over to Court Two. I’ll get someone to fetch you some water.’
The press area is packed. She sees the reporters, wedged in beside each other, muttering and joking, flipping through the day’s newspapers before the judge arrives; a herd of predators, relaxed but intent, watching for their prey. She scans the benches for anybody she recognizes from the scrum. She wants to stand up and shout at them. This is a game to you, isn’t it? Just tomorrow’s fish-and-chip paper. Her heart is racing.
The judge, Henry says, settling into his seat, has experience in such cases and is scrupulously fair. He is uncharacteristically vague when she asks him how many times he has ruled in favour of the current owners.
Each side is weighed down with fat files of documentation, lists of expert witnesses, statements on obscure legal points of French law. Henry, jokingly, has said that Liv now knows so much about specialist litigation that he might offer her a job afterwards. ‘I may need it,’ she says grimly.
‘Here we go.’ Henry touches her elbow, gives her a reassuring smile.
The Lefèvres, two elderly men, are already seated along the bench with Sean Flaherty, watching the proceedings in silence as their barrister, Christopher Jenks, outlines their case. She stares at them, taking in their dour expressions, the way they cross their arms over their chests, as if predisposed to dissatisfaction. Maurice and André Lefèvre are the trustees of the remaining works and legacy of Édouard Lefèvre, he explains to the court. Their interest, he says, is in safeguarding his work, and protecting his legacy for the future.
‘And lining their pockets,’ she mutters. Henry shakes his head.
Jenks strolls up and down the courtroom, only occasionally referring to notes, his comments directed at the judge. As Lefèvre’s popularity had increased in recent years, his descendants had conducted an audit of his remaining works, which uncovered references to a portrait entitled The Girl You Left Behind, which had once been in the possession of the artist’s wife, Sophie Lefèvre.
A photograph and some written journals have turned up the fact that the painting hung in full view in the hotel known as Le Coq Rouge in St Péronne, a town occupied by the Germans during the First World War.
The Kommandant in charge of the town, one Friedrich Hencken, is recorded as having admired the work on several occasions. Le Coq Rouge was requisitioned by the Germans for their personal use. Sophie Lefèvre had been vocal in her resistance to their occupation.
Sophie Lefèvre had been arrested and removed from St Péronne in early 1917. At around the same time, the painting had disappeared.
These, Jenks claims, are suggestive enough of coercion, of a ‘tainted’ acquisition of a much-loved painting. But this, he says emphatically, is not the only suggestion that the painting was obtained illegally.
Evidence just obtained records its appearance during the Second World War in Germany, at Berchtesgaden, at a storage facility known as the Collection Point, used for stolen and looted works of art that had fallen into German possession. He says the words ‘stolen and looted works of art’ twice, as if to emphasize his point. Here, Jenks says, the painting mysteriously arrived in the possession of an American journalist, Louanne Baker, who spent a day at the Collection Point and wrote about it for an American newspaper. Her reports of the time mention that she received a ‘gift’ or ‘memento’ from the event. She kept the painting at her home, a fact confirmed by her family, until it was sold ten years ago to David Halston, who, in turn, gave it as a wedding present to his wife.
This is not new to Liv, who has seen all of the evidence under full disclosure. But she listens to the history of her painting read aloud in court and finds it hard to associate her portrait, the little painting that has hung serenely on her bedroom wall, with such trauma, such globally significant events.
She glances at the press bench. The reporters appear rapt, as does the judge. She thinks, absently, that if her whole future did not depend on this, she would probably be rapt too. Along the bench, Paul is leaning back, his arms crossed combatively.
Liv lets her gaze travel sideways, and he looks straight back at her. She flushes slightly, turns away. She wonders if he will be here for every day of the case, and if it is possible to kill a man in a packed courtroom.
Christopher Jenks is standing before them. ‘Your Honour, it is deeply unfortunate that Mrs Halston has unwittingly been drawn into a series of historic wrongs, but wrongs they are. It is our contention that this painting has been stolen twice: once from the home of Sophie Lefèvre, and then, during the Second World War, from her descendants by its illegal gifting from the Collection Point, during a period in Europe so chaotic that the misdemeanour went unrecorded, and, until now, undiscovered.
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