by Andrew Allen
No one seemed to know exactly who Uncle Auguste was. There certainly hadn’t been any members of the family by that name. Sarah’s grandmother, who’d been less than two years old in 1916 when the portrait had come from France, had always laughed when the younger generations had asked about man in the portrait. She would switch off all the lights, grimace horribly, and say he was an old uncle who had been the black sheep of the family and had been hung for his evil ways.
It had been sent during the Great War to Sarah’s great-grandmother who was a young woman at the time, and not much else was known about it. Succeeding generations of inquisitive children were told, in hushed tones, “That’s Uncle Auguste.” Any further questions were discouraged.
“Leonard thinks it could be a Renoir.” Neil Greig ran his long fingers through his hair and adjusted his spectacles to peer at the painting in the living room of his mother’s house.
“Oh nonsense, Neil! It isn’t a Renoir. It’s Uncle Auguste.” Sarah gave the little portrait on the wall a fond pat as she straightened it.
“No harm in having it checked though, Mother.”
“Lawyers!” She smiled fondly at her son. “It’s been Uncle Auguste to the family for years, and it’ll stay that way no matter who painted it.”
The old portrait was somehow a little out of place in the neat, modern living room with its teak shelf units, television set, audio stack, and Lladro figurines. The picture measured twenty inches by eighteen inches but seemed larger in its heavy gilt frame. It was a full-face portrait of a young man, done in dark oils. In the bottom right-hand corner was the faint signature, “Auguste.”
“Well I’ve asked Leonard to examine it. It’s better to be certain, isn’t it?” Neil said. “He’s coming this afternoon. I hope that’s all right,” he added quickly. A little frown had appeared on Sarah Greig’s mild face at the mention of the art dealer’s name.
“He’ll be wasting his time. Anyway, it’s beyond me how you can remain friends with Leonard Veitch,” she said, unable to keep the irritation from her voice.
“Mother! You’re not still on about that business-”
“I know! Just your silly old mother with a bee in her bonnet . . . That man was the cause-” Her voice broke off.
“It’s in the past, Mother. Let it go.” He spoke gently and patted her hand. “Anyway, you’re not that old . . . and anything but silly.”
“Oh don’t patronise me, Neil. I’m sixty-three! And I’ve aged ten years in the last two.” She fiddled with the little brooch at her neck and moved agitatedly to one of the leather armchairs near the window, crossing her thin legs as she sat down. Her small oval face was remarkably calm under the neat grey hair; only the small red patches on her cheeks betrayed the anger she felt inside.
“I know how difficult it’s been for you since Dad died,” Neil said gently, moving to her chair and putting his arm around her shoulders, “but you mustn’t blame Leonard. It was just sheer bad luck.”
“Sheer bad judgement I would call it. We were left with this house and precious little else. Now I’m having to sell his books while your friend Veitch deals in millions, thank-you.”
“Mother! I’ve told you a dozen times. I’ll provide for you-”
“You will do no such thing! I’m not quite a charity case yet.” She drew herself up to her full five foot two inches and looked indignantly at her son.
“I know you’re not, Mother. But won’t you let me help?”
“If Veitch hadn’t meddled with our affairs-”
“Dad was an accountant, Mother! He knew the risk. He didn’t have to . . . .” Neil’s voice tapered off. They’d had this discussion a number of times. His mother would never be convinced. He pulled off his heavy-framed spectacles and sucked on one of the earpieces as he stared out of the window.
Sarah rose and moved to the bookshelf near the door. She took down one of the leather-bound volumes and clutched it to her chest. “I just know somehow it was his dealings with Veitch that brought on the heart attack that . . . that . . . .” She still couldn’t bring herself to say the word killed.
“I’d no idea you’d become so bitter about all this.” Neil was genuinely surprised. “I only asked Leonard because he’s an art expert and knows about these things.”
“Leonard Veitch isn’t aware that I blame him for anything, and I want it to stay that way, Neil. Since you’ve asked him here to examine Uncle Auguste he will be treated courteously, as any other guest would be. Besides,” she said, glancing at the portrait, “now I am curious about the painting.”
Later that afternoon Leonard Veitch completed his scrutiny of the portrait and returned to the lounge, where Mrs. Greig had prepared coffee.
Neil was leaning against the mantelpiece trying to appear unconcerned, but his whole air was one of anticipation. Then impatience got the better of him. “Well? Don’t keep us in suspense, Leonard. Is it?”
“Neil!” his mother interrupted before Veitch could reply. “Let Mr. Veitch have his coffee before you start interrogating him. You’re not in court now, you know.”
Leonard Veitch smiled under his thin moustache and accepted the proffered cup. His reply to the question stopped Sarah in the act of slicing a lemon cake and Neil adding sugar to his coffee.
“There’s no doubt whatsoever. It’s by Pierre Auguste Renoir.” Veitch paused. His eyes flickered towards Neil then back to Sarah. “Congratulations! You have a very valuable painting, Mrs. Greig.”
“Just how valuable are we talking about, Leonard?” Neil asked, voicing the question that Sarah would never have deigned to. She busied herself with the cake, keeping her head bowed low over the coffee table, as she waited for the art dealer’s reply.
“Certainly not less than . . . say . . . four hundred thousand.”
“Four hundred thousand!” Sarah was startled by the enormity of the figure.
Neil clapped his hands with excitement. “Four hundred thousand!”
“Pounds?” Sarah still hadn’t taken it in.
“Guineas,” said her son, rolling his eyes at her.
“It could possibly be worth more,” said Veitch, with another glance at Neil. “As you probably know, Renoir was an Impressionist, but he was known to have done some portrait work as well, most of which has remained undiscovered.”
“Uncle Auguste is worth four hundred thousand pounds? I find it hard to believe.” Sarah rose and crossed to the window. She looked out at the garden, with its neat paths and rose beds, while she collected her thoughts. Four hundred thousand . . . it was simply incredible.
“Just think! He was in the attic for three years when we first moved here.” Neil was jubilant. “We must celebrate this.” He moved to the cabinet. “Knowing you, Mother, there’ll only be sherry.”
Sarah was thinking about her late husband and how untimely his death had been. Partly Veitch’s fault. She fought down the rising anger again. Death was so cruel – so too was life. At that moment, to Sarah, they both seemed particularly so.
She could hear her son and Veitch discussing, in the background, how best to sell the painting. The amounts of money she heard mentioned set her thoughts running along different lines.
This house, for instance, was far too big for her now. Neil had his own flat in town to be near his office; he only came here on the occasional weekend. She could sell the house, buy a smaller one near the seaside, and be financially secure for the rest of her life.
She glanced towards Veitch, who was standing by the drinks cabinet laughing with Neil, and her resentment returned.
There was one detail she had to make sure of. Her small blue-veined hands clenched tightly at the thought. The art expert must be induced to buy the painting himself. He must be the one to pay. She returned to her seat on the sofa and calmly poured more coffee. Veitch was still speaking.
“. . . Sotheby’s would put a reserve of say . . . three hundred and fifty thousand. It would undoubtedly go way beyond that on the day. A Renoir portrait will bring out the really big collectors.and in perfect condition-”
“Mother! Did you hear that? Isn’t it wonderful?” Neil showed his delight by pouring another round of sherry.
“Yes, I heard.” Sarah chose her next words carefully. “But you know dear, I’m not really sure that I . . . well . . . want it to be auctioned.”
There was a long silence. Neil looked at Veitch, then turned to his mother. “Mother! What are you saying?”
“Won’t there be a lot of publicity? What do they say nowadays? Media attention? I wouldn’t like that at all.”
“Yes, there will.” Neil stabbed the air with his finger. “And that’s exactly what will have the big galleries climbing all over one another to get it.”
“Neil is absolutely right, Mrs. Greig,” drawled Veitch. “This is a very desirable work of art. You should take every opportunity to attract attention to it. It will boost the price . . . believe me.”
“Listen to him, Mother. He knows the business.” Neil and Veitch exchanged another quick glance.
“Do you have a collection yourself, Mr. Veitch?” Sarah made eye contact reluctantly.
“Why . . . yes. I do have my own private collection. Most of it is on loan to the gallery-”
Neil cut in on him. “But an auction is by far the best way-”
“Please, Neil!” Sarah interrupted him. “I’d like to ask Mr. Veitch if he’d . . . consider buying Uncle Auguste.”
Veitch looked startled for a moment but quickly regained his composure. “I . . . do you mean you’d be willing to sell the painting privately, Mrs. Greig?”
Sarah caught the note of interest in his voice. It was just what she’d expected, and exactly what she’d hoped for, since she’d mentioned to her son that she thought Uncle Auguste could be valuable and he’d laughed. That was the day after she’d been in the attic, collecting some items for the charity shop, and found the old trunk.
She fought down a feeling of triumph and tried to keep her voice steady although she was shaking.
“I would if I could do it anonymously. I don’t want a lot of fuss.” She appeared to take a great interest in the pattern on her coffee cup.
“Well, I would certainly consider it. Of course I couldn’t offer as much as you’d make at auction.”
Couldn’t you? I’ll bet you could, Sarah thought, and let the silence linger. Neil stood at the mantelpiece, staring down at the empty grate and looking worried but saying nothing. Sarah wondered what he was thinking, then put him out of her mind. She would see this through on her own.
“I have no experience with this kind of thing, of course, but you spoke about a reserve price of three hundred and fifty thousand, I think it was.” She was pleased with that little hint of naiveté. Let him think he was dealing with a foolish old woman. “I would be willing to accept . . . four hundred thousand . . . guineas.”
Leonard Veitch smiled politely and glanced towards Neil, who had his back to him. He’s wondering if Neil will think that’s too low, thought Sarah. She continued speaking. “Provided I am not identified as the owner, and Neil takes care of the legal matters.” She waited for the art dealer’s response.
Neil had turned around and was also waiting for the reply. Sarah couldn’t discern what her son was thinking from his face, and she found herself holding her breath.
Veitch seemed to make up his mind quickly. “Very well, Mrs. Greig. I agree.”
Sarah gave him a tight smile and shook his hand briefly. She’d been certain he’d jump at the chance to auction it himself at a profit. Life did have some moments to savour, she thought, feeling surprisingly relaxed. She hoped he wouldn’t be too disappointed when the time came.
The whole story was in the letters she’d come across in an old trunk in the attic weeks before, letters that had belonged to her great-grandmother Helen.
Uncle Auguste was a self-portrait by Auguste Plesset, a young artist who’d been a pupil of the great Renoir in 1911. Plesset had written, in one of the letters, that Renoir had told him he showed great promise. In another letter he wrote that Renoir himself said he could barely distinguish between his own work and that of his pupil. Just a young man boasting to his sweetheart? Perhaps, but it had given Sarah an idea. Why not put his claim to the test? Veitch’s visit had conveniently provided her the opportunity to do just that, and it now appeared that the young artist had been as good as he had said he was.
Auguste had met Helen when he had come to Edinburgh to study. They had both been nineteen at the time. They’d fallen in love and had a romance until Auguste had returned to France when war broke out in 1914.
The following spring Helen had had a baby girl – Sarah’s grandmother. Auguste couldn’t get back to Edinburgh because of the war, but he knew about the baby and told Helen they would be married as soon as the war was over. The letters stopped in 1916 when Auguste was killed in France.
Great-grandmother Helen had kept his letters, and the portrait, which had been sent to her along with his other belongings after he had been killed. If any of the previous generation had read Auguste’s letters, they’d kept the skeleton in the cupboard where it belonged.
Neil and Leonard concluded the agreement, and the expert left with the portrait after handing over a cheque for the agreed amount. And looking very pleased with himself, Sarah thought triumphantly.
Neil walked Leonard to his car, leaving his mother looking at the cheque with a satisfied smile on her face. She regarded the money as just compensation for what her husband had lost, fittingly paid by the man who’d caused him to lose it.
Leonard opened the door of his car and laid the flat parcel on the passenger seat, then turned to Neil. “Did I seem too eager?”
“Not a bit. You handled her perfectly. Thanks, Leonard.” The two men shook hands.
“No need for thanks, Neil. I was the one who convinced your father that putting money into the gallery would be profitable. I wasn’t aware that he’d put in everything. Nevertheless, he acted on my advice and I feel responsible for what happened.”
“If only he’d lived a few more years . . . he’d have known you were right . . . and so would Mother.”
“I advised him badly . . . and I needed to help somehow. This was the only way I could do it. I admit I was worried. What if she’d decided to have it auctioned?” The art dealer heaved a long sigh.
“I knew Mother wouldn’t want any newspaper or television reporters chasing her. She would have hated being in the spotlight.”
“I wasn’t so confident. Fortunately you were right.”
“What will you do with your Renoir?”
“Keep him, I think.” They both laughed. “I like the look of him. Even if he is only worth about say . . . one hundred and fifty-”
“Guineas?” Neil asked with a smile, as he turned and walked back to the house.
“Guineas.” Leonard laughed as he drove off.