Home > The Cellist (Gabriel Allon #21)

The Cellist (Gabriel Allon #21)
Author: Daniel Silva

 

Part One

Moderato

 

 

1

Jermyn Street, St. James’s


Sarah Bancroft envied those fortunate souls who believed they controlled their own destinies. For them, life was no more complicated than riding the Underground. Insert your ticket at the fare gate, get off at the correct stop—Charing Cross rather than Leicester Square. Sarah had never subscribed to such drivel. Yes, one could prepare, one could strive, one could make choices, but ultimately life was an elaborate game of providence and probability. Regrettably, in matters of both work and love, she had displayed an uncanny lack of timing. She was either one step too fast or one too slow. She had missed many trains. Several times she had boarded the wrong one, nearly always with disastrous results.

Her latest career move appeared to fit this star-crossed pattern. Having established herself as one of the most prominent museum curators in New York, she had elected to relocate to London to take over day-to-day management of Isherwood Fine Arts, purveyors of quality Italian and Dutch Old Master paintings since 1968. True to form, her arrival was followed in short order by the outbreak of a deadly pandemic. Even the art world, which catered to the whims of the global superrich, was not immune to the contagion’s ravages. Almost overnight, the gallery’s business slipped into something approximating cardiac arrest. If the phone rang at all, it was usually a buyer or his representative calling to back out of a sale. Not since the West End musical version of Desperately Seeking Susan, declared Sarah’s acerbic mother, had London witnessed a less auspicious debut.

Isherwood Fine Arts had seen troubled times before—wars, terrorist attacks, oil shocks, market meltdowns, disastrous love affairs—and yet somehow it had always managed to weather the storm. Sarah had worked at the gallery briefly fifteen years earlier while serving as a clandestine asset of the Central Intelligence Agency. The operation had been a joint US-Israeli enterprise, run by the legendary Gabriel Allon. With the help of a lost Van Gogh, he had inserted Sarah into the entourage of a Saudi billionaire named Zizi al-Bakari and ordered her to find the terrorist mastermind lurking within it. Her life had never been the same since.

When the operation was over, she spent several months recuperating at an Agency safe house in the horse country of Northern Virginia. Afterward, she worked at the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center at Langley. She also took part in several joint American-Israeli operations, all at Gabriel’s behest. British intelligence was well aware of Sarah’s past, and of her presence in London—hardly surprising, for she was currently sharing a bed with an MI6 officer named Christopher Keller. Ordinarily, a relationship such as theirs was strictly forbidden, but in Sarah’s case an exception had been made. Graham Seymour, the director-general of MI6, was a personal friend, as was Prime Minister Jonathan Lancaster. Indeed, not long after her arrival in London, Sarah and Christopher had dined privately at Number Ten.

With the exception of Julian Isherwood, owner of the enchanted gallery that bore his name, the denizens of London’s art world knew none of this. As far as Sarah’s colleagues and competitors were concerned, she was the beautiful and brilliant American art historian who had briefly brightened their world one dreary winter long ago, only to throw them over for the likes of Zizi al-Bakari, may he rest in peace. And now, after a tumultuous journey through the secret world, she had returned, thus proving her point about providence and probability. At long last, Sarah had caught the right train.

London had welcomed her with open arms and with few questions asked. She scarcely had time to put her affairs in order before the virus invaded. She contracted the bug in early March at the European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht and had promptly infected both Julian and Christopher. Julian spent a dreadful fortnight at University College Hospital. Sarah was spared the worst of the virus’s symptoms but endured a month of fever, fatigue, headache, and shortness of breath that seized her each time she crawled from her bed. Not surprisingly, Christopher escaped unscathed and asymptomatic. Sarah punished him by forcing him to wait on her hand and foot. Somehow their relationship survived.

In June, London awakened from the lockdown. After thrice testing negative for the virus, Christopher returned to duty at Vauxhall Cross, but Sarah and Julian waited until Midsummer Day before reopening the gallery. It was located in a tranquil quadrangle of paving stones and commerce known as Mason’s Yard, between the offices of a minor Greek shipping company and a pub that in the innocent days before the plague had been frequented by pretty office girls who rode motor scooters. On the uppermost floor was a glorious exhibition room modeled on Paul Rosenberg’s famous gallery in Paris, where Julian had spent many happy hours as a child. He and Sarah shared a large office on the second floor with Ella, the attractive but useless receptionist. During their first week back in business, the phone rang just three times. Ella allowed all three calls to go to voice mail. Sarah informed her that her services, such as they were, were no longer necessary.

There was no point in hiring a replacement. The experts were warning of a vicious second wave when the weather turned cold, and London’s shopkeepers had been advised to expect more government-mandated lockdowns. The last thing Sarah needed was another mouth to feed. She resolved not to let the summer go to waste. She would sell a painting, any painting, even if it killed her.

She found one, quite by accident, while taking inventory of the catastrophically large number of unsold works in Julian’s bulging storerooms: The Lute Player, oil on canvas, 152 by 134 centimeters, perhaps early Baroque, quite damaged and dirty. The original receipt and shipping records were still lodged in Julian’s archives, along with a yellowed copy of the provenance. The earliest known owner was a Count So-and-So from Bologna, who in 1698 sold it to Prince Such-and-Such of Liechtenstein, who in turn sold it to Baron What’s-His-Name of Vienna, where it remained until 1962, when it was acquired by a dealer in Rome, who eventually unloaded it onto Julian. The painting had been attributed variously to the Italian School, a follower of Caravaggio, and, more promisingly, to the circle of Orazio Gentileschi. Sarah had a hunch. She showed the work to the learned Niles Dunham of the National Gallery during the three-hour period Julian reserved daily for his luncheon. Niles tentatively accepted Sarah’s attribution, pending additional technical examination utilizing X-radiography and infrared reflectography. He then offered to take the painting off Sarah’s hands for eight hundred thousand pounds.

“It’s worth five million, if not more.”

“Not during the Black Death.”

“We’ll see about that.”

Typically, a newly discovered work by a major artist would be brought to market with great fanfare, especially if the artist had seen a recent surge in popularity owing to her tragic personal story. But given the current volatility of the market—not to mention the fact that the newly discovered painting had been discovered in his own gallery—Julian decided a private sale was in order. He rang several of his most reliable customers and received not so much as a nibble. At which point Sarah quietly contacted a billionaire collector who was a friend of a friend. He expressed interest, and after several socially distant meetings at his London residence they arrived at a satisfactory price. Sarah requested a down payment of one million pounds, in part to cover the cost of the restoration, which would be extensive. The collector asked her to come to his dwelling at eight that evening to take delivery of the check.

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